Disunity threatens Africas shot at the worlds top trade job

Africa is well-positioned to land the worlds leading trade job — but only if its politicians can rally behind a unifying candidate.

At the close of nominations at 6 p.m. in Geneva on Wednesday, three out of the eight candidates to head the World Trade Organization are African, but this three-way split poses immediate hurdles for Africas prospects.

The African candidates are boosted by a growing consensus in Geneva that its time for an African trade chief as the continent has never held the post, while other regions such as Europe have held it several times. Africa has also become far more ambitious when it comes to trade, with plans to launch the African Continental Free Trade Area well underway.

The problem is that the WTO director general is chosen through grueling rounds of haggling to build consensus among some 160 WTO members, in which it helps to have a major regional block supporting a unified candidate. Both African representatives in Geneva and officials of the African Union have failed to back a single candidate.

That could still change. There is a possibility that only one African candidate survives the first round of consultations, after which the continent can rally behind him or her. That process starts mid-July, when the WTOs highest body, the General Council, will meet the candidates for the first time, according to a document distributed to delegations and seen by POLITICO.

Naturally, much will depend on which candidates are supported by the U.S., the EU and China, the key trade players. The vacancy comes at a crucial time for the organization, with global trade collapsing because of the coronavirus pandemic and the WTOs highest court in paralysis because of U.S. criticism of the organization.

Here is POLITICOs look at the runners for the job, and their chances of ultimate success.

Who? Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala | Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images

What should I know? A Harvard-educated former finance minister, World Bank No. 2 and corruption-buster who now sits on the board of Twitter, Okonjo-Iweala is a political heavy-hitter.

Chances of success? (8/10)

Her political pedigree, World Bank stint and ties to the U.S. make Okonjo-Iweala the current favorite. She has the backing of the Economic Community of West African States, but is not the official candidate of the African Union. Her critics say that her experience lies more in finance than in trade.

Who? Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt)

Hamid Mamdouh | Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

What should I know? A former trade diplomat and a former WTO director who now works for law firm King & Spalding, Mamdouh is a technocrat who knows the ins and outs in Geneva.

Chances of success? (6/10)

Mamdouh might be an all-out trade expert and Egypt sees him as the bona fide African Union candidate, but he faces fierce competition from high-profile female candidates from Nigeria and Kenya. There is a sense in Geneva that the WTO would benefit from having its first female boss, and that the organization needs a more political leader to guide it out of its current paralysis.

Who? Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova)

Tudor Ulianovschi | Flickr via Creative Commons

What should I know? Ulianovschi is a former foreign affairs minister and a former ambassador to Switzerland, where he was in charge of all things WTO.

Chances of success? (3/10)

Although Ulianovschi has the trade experience, it will be a very steep climb for Moldova to muster enough international support for its little-known candidate.

Who? Yoo Myung-hee (South Korea)

Yoo Myung-hee | Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

What should I know? South Koreas trade minister was only recently appointed, becoming the first woman to hold the position. Before that, she was a deputy minister for trade negotiations and a trade diplomat.

Chances of success? (6/10)

As a medium-sized economy known for its global trade outlook and a political ally of both the U.S. and the EU, any Korean candidate has a decent chance of winning the race as the consensus candidate. The Koreans also made a smart move by nominating a woman. However, it remains to be seen whether China will block a Korean nominee. Diplomatic tussles about whether Asia will be able to have both a director general and a deputy director general will play into this. China will not want a Korean chief weakening Beijings own standing.

Who? Liam Fox (U.K.)

Liam Fox | Leon Neal/Getty Images

What should I know? The former international trade secretary is an ardent supporter of Britains departure from the EU, pumping out the “global Britain” message. He had little to do at the Department for International Trade before he was dropped by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson — because he was banned from launching trade negotiations while Britain was still an EU member. He did manage some humble side-deals in areas like seed potato exports.

Chances of success? (2/10)

The Conservative member of parliament — who was also caught up in an access scandal in 2011 — is not expected to win the job. Its hard to imagine the EU would want to reward a Brexiteer by backing him for an international top job. One senior U.K. government figure conceded the prime minister had just backed Fox as a favor.

Who? Amina Mohamed (Kenya)

Amina Mohamed | Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images

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