Last month, Kenya beat Djibouti to clinch the previous African seat at the United Nations Security Council, further bolstering the country’s position as East Africa’s diplomacy and development hub. This is one of the various international assignments that Kenya has taken up, which sets it apart as a severe global partner for development.
Now, Kenya, through Amb. Amina Mohamed is vying for the post of director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Amina, who is the Sports Cabinet Secretary, is one of the eight individuals proposed for the WTO top job, to replace the incumbent, Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, who earlier this year announced his intention to step down on August 31.
To appreciate why Amina’s candidacy is such a big deal, it is important to highlight what the WTO is all about briefly. Formed in 1995 to succeed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO guides international trade and arbitrates arising disputes between its members. Its establishment would later be considered the most dramatic advance in multilateralism since the inspired period of institution building in the late 1940s. The trade agency prides itself on being the global system of trade rules and for acting as a forum for negotiating trade agreements.
The organization is headed by a director-general and is structured around the WTO agreements that are negotiated and signed by the 164 member states and ratified in their parliaments. The main goal of such agreements is to ensure international trade flows as smoothly, predictably, and freely as possible. Member states enjoy the privileges that other member-countries give to them and the security the trading rules provide. In return, they commit to open their markets and to abide by the rules.
Kenya joined the WTO in January 1995 and is one of the most active members. Amina is eyeing the Director-General position alongside seven other contenders, who have made it to the second phase of the selection process. They include Dr. Jesús Seade Kuri from Mexico, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria), Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt), Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova), Yoo Myung-hee (Republic of Korea), Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia), and Dr. Liam Fox (United Kingdom). All the contenders are immensely experienced for the task, but no candidate fits the DG bill better than Amina.
Yet, it will not be smooth sailing for Amina, as WTO member states are expected to engage in hard bargaining and lobbying for their preferred candidates. The next director-general will have to prove the ability to steer the organization through the various challenges, including arbitrating the current trade row between the United States and China, both of which have renewed their rivalry over the coronavirus pandemic. This calls for delicate balance and diplomacy as Amina pitches her bid to member states, given that both the US and China are Kenya’s allies. The two powerhouses bring a lot of support to the table as far as the selection of the next DG is concerned.
Resolving the US-China trade fallout over China’s 5G technology developed by Huawei may be Amina’s first significant assignment if she clinches the job, a task that she has promised to take up by offering the two a platform to settle the dispute.
Granted, experts argue that this time around, WTO members may prefer a different type of leader—more technocrat than ideologue; and one who looks to smoothen, rather than deepen trading relationships. This is because the organization has, in the recent past, been in the eye of a storm, with claims of a flawed dispute settlement mechanism, with some members such as the US accusing it of bias. The Covid-19 pandemic has not helped the matter, exposing the weak international supply chain system and trade system as each country rushed to secure medical supplies to handle the deadly disease.
Having launched its 2020-2024 strategy centered around the need for safe and inclusive trade, WTO needs a leader who will be able to build on its track record and support small-scale farmers and micro, small, and mid-sized businesses in developing countries to help them benefit more from trade.
The DG job requires a visionary with a rich skillset, but CS Amina is all that, and much more. The former Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary is a distinguished African diplomat, with an illustrious career in diplomacy spanning decades. She is no stranger in the international stage, has served in several global organizations in various capacities since 1986. Indeed, Amina has a history with WTO, which she has worked for in the past. In 2005, she was Chairperson of the WTO General Council. She also served as head of the Dispute Settlement Body and Trade Policy Review Body, both of which offered extremely relevant experience.
The CS easily passes as arguably one of Kenya’s most accomplished women leaders. She is the embodiment of women empowerment and progressive women leadership. Besides serving in high-level strategic positions in successive governments, she has worked in crucial international areas, with brilliant international relations experience. Amina rose through the ranks in Kenya’s diplomatic service to the highest level of Ambassador/Permanent Representative with the Kenya Mission to the UN in Geneva from 2000-2006. She also served as Director, Europe, and the Commonwealth and Director Diaspora between mid-2006 and 2007 and was Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs in 2008.
In 2011, she also served as United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at Nairobi. A trained lawyer, she is an excellent strategist and visionary leader able to anticipate the management needs of every organization she has been involved with. Her strong interpersonal skills in negotiations developed during her career in the multilateral fora, during which she participated in the drafting and interpretation of key International Trade Treaties and will stand her in good stead in the DG position.
Her contribution to Kenya’s public sector cannot go unnoticed. The CS was instrumental in restructuring, reforming and rationalizing Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Missions abroad. She chaired the team that drafted Kenya’s foreign trade policy, focusing on economic and commercial diplomacy.
When she served as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs, Ambassador Amina Mohamed supervised the drafting, negotiation, the national referendum and eventual promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, including institutional reforms on elections, ethics and integrity, access to justice, and the development of national cohesion policy.
At UNEP, Amb Amina spearheaded institutional reforms and played a crucial role in the implementation of UNEP’s Medium-Term Strategy and Programmes as well as ongoing changes. She was also actively engaged with intergovernmental processes in implementing the RIO+20 outcomes and support efforts to enhance the funding base of the organization.
A distinguished legal practitioner, she guided the negotiations and preparation for the 2005 Hong Kong Ministerial Conference where substantial progress was made on Doha Development Agenda; where the LDC’s waiver on market access was successfully concluded, and members agreed to amend the TRIPS agreement to legally allow WTO members without the capacity to produce pharmaceutical products to import drugs and address public health concerns.
Amina’s wealth of experience positions her adequately for the position of WTO director-general. Her candidature has been endorsed by many states and organizations, including regional trading blocks and the international media. Hers is proven leadership that can take WTO to greater heights.
Written by: Wagunya Mūrīu
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