The Race to Appoint the Successor to WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo: Is it the turn of Africa?

There is no need to rush the selection process as the WTO needs to get an effective leader who will restore the organization’s shattered credibility.

At a hastily convened virtual meeting of World Trade Organization’s Members at the level of Heads of Delegations on 14 May 2020, the WTO Director-General informed Members of his decision to retire on 31 August 2020 instead of 31 August 2021.

He cited personal reasons for this unexpected decision and also to allow his successor ample time to adequately prepare for the next WTO Ministerial Conference, which is expected to take place either in June 2021 or December 2021. As was expected, WTO members were dumbfounded by this decision, especially considering the serious challenges currently facing the multilateral trading system which have been compounded by COVID-19. According to the WTO Secretariat, world trade will shrink by between 13 and 32 per cent underlying the devastating effects of the Coronavirus on trade and other economic activities. 

As shocking as the news were, WTO Members have begun the process of selecting a new Director-General to replace Roberto Azevedo. At a virtual meeting of the WTO General Council on 15 May 2020, its Chairman Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, informed members that he would be carrying out consultations on the Director-General selection process in the coming days.

He informed them on 18 May that unless he received any objection to his proposal by noon on 20 May, he intended to send a communication later that day announcing the commencement of the selection process on 25 May with Members having up until 26 June to nominate candidates. Apparently, some Members have indicated that the proposed timeframe is too short and that they need to consult their capitals before putting forward candidates.

As shocking as the news were, WTO Members have begun the process of selecting a new Director-General to replace Roberto Azevedo. At a virtual meeting of the WTO General Council on 15 May 2020, its Chairman Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, informed members that he would be carrying out consultations on the Director-General selection process in the coming days.


There is no need to rush the selection process as the WTO needs to get an effective leader who will restore the organization’s shattered credibility.

Even before the selection process formally gets underway, countries and regions have begun sparring about which region the candidate should come from and what should be his or her credentials. There appears to be consensus among WTO members that their next leader should be a political heavyweight who could easily mingle with his or her counterparts from the United States, China, European Union, India, Brazil and other countries.

It has always been the case that since its establishment in 1995, the WTO has always been led by a politician except the last appointment. The first WTO Director-General, Peter Sutherland was the Attorney-General of Ireland and later became the EU’s Competition Commissioner.

He was followed by Renato Ruggiero, who was Italy’s Foreign Minister. He was then followed by Mike Moore of New Zealand, who held several Ministerial posts and became Prime Minister. After him was Supachai Panitchpakdi who was once the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand. Following him was Pascal Lamy France, who worked closely with the famed Jacques Delors eventually becoming EU’s Commissioner for Trade. With the stalemate in the Doha negotiations, the members decided to give a career diplomat with an engineering background the nod to lead the organization.

While Roberto Azevedo of Brazil is reportedly competent, his lack of political skills prevented him from uniting the membership to pursue long overdue reforms of the organization. As noted by Prof. Simon Evenett of University of St Gallen, Switzerland, “the next leader of the WTO must command respect in the corridors of power of the major players. This is not the time to promote another ambassador. Someone with very senior government experience or global status is needed.’ It appears that most WTO agree with this view.

When it comes to which region the next Director-General should come from, the membership is divided. Some developed countries believe that it is their turn simply because the last four appointments have rotated among developed and developing country candidates.

After Mike Moore of New Zealand was Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand who was succeeded by Pascal Lamy who, in turn, was succeeded by Roberto Azevedo of Brazil. African countries strongly disagree with this logic and insist that every continent has had its turn except them and that it is long overdue to have an African at the helm of the organization, especially considering that the first three Directors-General of the GATT came from Europe (Eric Wyndham White of the UK, Olivier Long and Arthur Dunkel of Switzerland. This view has a lot of sympathy among several developing and developed countries.

Furthermore, there is a view that an African is likely to be a more neutral arbiter considering the intense rivalry between the United States and China. Africa has been marginalized in the multilateral trading system, so it does have a strong interest in reforming the organization to have a levelling playing field so as to able compete.

 While it would be easy for China to reject demands by a developed country Director-General, it is more likely to cave in to demands by an African Director-General. 

Africa’s insistence to provide the next WTO Director-General will be accepted by reluctant developed WTO Members if they provide the right candidate – someone with liberal instincts and deep political experience who has demonstrated his or her commitment to the multilateral trading system.

Currently, the three declared candidates from Africa fall far short of the expectations of WTO members. The candidate from Egypt, Abdelhamid Mamdouh, was a diplomat and spent most of career at the WTO as the Director of the Trade in Services Division. Clearly, he does not have the political skills needed to unite the WTO membership.  Apparently, some African countries are also not keen on him as he also has Swiss nationality.

The other candidates are Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria and Eloi Laourou of Benin. Until his appointment as Deputy Director-General of the WTO, Mr Agah was Nigeria’s Ambassador to the WTO. He also does not have any political experience and is unlikely to attract consensus among the WTO membership. Mr Laourou is currently Benin’s Ambassador to the WTO. He has never held political office, so he also does not meet the expectations of WTO membership.

It is therefore not surprising that attention has turned to Amina Mohamed of Kenya who until recently was her country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. As Ambassador of Kenya, she chaired all the important WTO bodies – the Trade Policy Review Body, the Dispute Settlement Body and the General Council.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, she chaired the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference and against all odds, she managed to get the WTO Members to agree on the Decision to eliminate all forms of export subsidies in agriculture and also the Expanded Information Technology Agreement. She has been battle-tested and WTO Members believe that she is capable of uniting the membership. An added bonus is that none of the previous nine Director-Generals has been a woman. As noted by the Guardian Newspaper if Africa unites behind her, “she has a chance of becoming the first African to run the WTO. She would be a good choice.” 

Africa should not undermine itself by putting up a candidate who does not have the required credentials WTO Members are seeking in their next Director-General to lead the organization out of the abyss into a promising future.

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