The World Trade Organization is at a crossroads and may be facing its most difficult test in its twenty-five-year history after the sudden resignation of its Brazilian Director- General, Mr. Roberto Azevedo. His decision to resign a year before the end of his mandate in August 2021 could not have come at a more difficult time for the organization.
According to the IMF, global growth will shrink by at least 3 per cent this year due to the novel coronavirus. The frequent spats between the United States and China over tariffs, subsidies, dumping, protection of intellectual property rights, forced transfer of technology and other trade and investment restrictions have contributed to significant tensions and near animosity in global trade. The two leading trading nations have made no secret of their open fight for world supremacy post Covid-19.
Global trade has taken two heavy body blows one from the trade war between the two leading trading nations, and the other from the response to the Covid-19 crisis which has seen many countries adopt export restrictions on a range of products, including personal protection equipment, food and farm products. The closure of borders coupled with lock-downs and social distancing rules implemented by many countries have impacted negatively on trade and other economic activities.
With the uncertainties surrounding Brexit which is also likely to dampen global growth, the sudden departure of Mr. Azevedo could not have come at a worse time. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Josh Lipsky, Director of the Global Business and Economics Program at the Atlantic Council stated that:
"To lose the leader of the WTO is a serious blow … There is a broken global trading system, and it needs leadership to fix it."
The 164-member body is now faced with fixing that leadership gap as promptly as possible. At a General Council meeting on 15 May, Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand announced that he was going to begin consultations with WTO Members over an expedited selection process for the appointment of a new Director-General. This will come with its own drama as countries and regions will be jostling intensely for the coveted post. Mr. Azevedo has four deputies-Fredrick Agah of Nigeria, Karl Brauner of Germany, Alan Wolff of the United States and Yi Xiaozhun of China and one of them could possibly be named as interim Director-General while the search for a substantive Director-General is underway.
There is no guarantee that the replacement for Mr. Azevedo can be appointed within the short time frame envisaged by the General Council Chair, as decisions have to be taken by positive consensus meaning that no WTO Member should object to the appointment of a candidate even if favoured by the majority of Members. There is a general feeling, however, that it is the turn of Africa to lead the organization, especially considering that all the Directors-General of the GATT came from Europe, while the WTO since its creation in 1995 has been led successively by Peter Sutherland of Ireland, Renato Ruggiero of Italy, Mike Moore of New Zealand, Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand, Pascal Lamy of France and Roberto Azevedo of Brazil. All the continents have had their turn except Africa.
A slew of names from Africa have been floated but the one gaining broad acceptance among WTO Members is Ambassador Amina Mohamed of Kenya. She was until recently Kenya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. As Kenya’s Ambassador to the WTO, she chaired all WTO’s important bodies, namely the Trade Policies Review Body, the Dispute Settlement Body and the General Council. She also successfully chaired the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, Kenya in her capacity as Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Ambassador Mohamed has also chaired several committees of the United Nations and other international organizations and was Deputy Executive Director at the United Nations Environment Programme.
Never in the history of the multilateral trading system has the world needed urgently a combination of sheer efficiency and calm composure to navigate the slippery slopes of international trade diplomacy. Amina Mohamed appears to have both enduring qualities.
What Kofi Annan did for the United Nations was extraordinary in restructuring a near-dysfunctional institution, using a combination of deep institutional knowledge and personal gravitas. While the WTO may not present the same challenges as the United Nations, but if history is to repeat itself, the world may once again have to turn to Africa to provide the leadership to reform the WTO to enable it to address effectively the challenges facing the multilateral trading system in the 21st century.