Amina Mohamed. Picture: JEWEL SAMAD / AFP
Amina Mohamed. Picture: JEWEL SAMAD / AFP

Geneva — Three last-minute contenders on Wednesday joined the race to become the next head of the beleaguered World Trade Organisation (WTO), meaning eight candidates in total are vying for the position.

Britain's first post-Brexit international trade secretary Liam Fox, former Saudi economy minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri and Kenya's former WTO general council chair Amina Mohamed all threw their hats in the ring in the final 24 hours before Wednesday's deadline.

They join candidates from Egypt, Mexico, Moldova, Nigeria and South Korea, a WTO official confirmed after the close of nominations.

The WTO General Council will meet from July 15-17 to hear their presentations and question them on their plans for the global trade body, which was beset with challenges even before the pandemic-driven global economic crisis struck.

“As the world seeks to recover from the shared challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of free and fair trade has never been more crucial,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his letter to the WTO, nominating Fox.

He said the former defence minister, 58, could implement the necessary reforms “to ensure the global trading system truly delivers for all WTO members.”

Pile of problems

The new chief must revive stalled trade talks, lay the ground for the 2021 ministerial conference — one of the WTO's major events — and thaw relations with the US.

The WTO finds itself caught in the middle of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The US, which has threatened to leave the WTO, has blocked the organisation's dispute settlement appeal system since December, and wants China moved up from the developing economies category.

The Geneva-based organisation is staging a swift contest to replace outgoing director-general Roberto Azevedo.

In a surprise move in mid-May, the Brazilian career diplomat announced he was stepping down one year early at the end of August.

Azevedo said he was ending his second four-year term early for personal reasons, forcing the WTO's 164 member states to come up with a successor in just three months instead of the usual nine.

Rather than an election, the selection procedure relies on finding consensus, with candidates gradually being eliminated in turn.

Besides the three late entrants, the other candidates are South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee; Mexico's former WTO deputy director-general Jesus Seade Kuri; former Nigerian foreign and finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Egyptian former diplomat Hamid Mamdouh; and former Moldovan foreign minister Tudor Ulianovschi.

 First African WTO boss? 

Since the WTO was created in 1995, three of its directors-general were from Europe, while one each came from Oceania, Asia and South America.

Africa likes its chances this time, even though there is no regional rotation principle at the global trade body.

However, African nations have so far failed to rally around a single candidate.

Mamdouh, a veteran former senior WTO official who is also a Swiss national, is the only contender from the continent with any express backing from the AU.

Nigeria's decision to stand Okonjo-Iweala against him has triggered a legal dispute with the AU.

Nevertheless, Okonjo-Iweala “is gaining ground within Africa”, a diplomatic source said.

The former World Bank number two insisted that the WTO — which has never had a female leader — must choose is next chief “on merit”.

“And then, if it happens to be a woman or an African, that is also good,” she said in Geneva at a virtual press conference in late June.

Kenya's sports minister Mohamed first ran for the post in 2013. Her candidacy this time means there are three Africans and three women in the contest. Yoo is the other female candidate.

The youngest contender is 37-year-old Ulianovschi, while Seade, at 73, is the oldest. The Mexican has held posts at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

AFP

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