MULTILATERAL TRADE

Foreign Affairs ministry should rally behind Amina in WTO race

In Summary

• I had the chance to watch Amina perform at Unep at various conferences and meetings and I have no doubt that she is the perfect fit for this job.

• She brings with her a wealth of experience in international organisations as well as national government.

Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed and WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo during the opening of the WTO Summit in Nairobi on December 15, 2015
Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed and WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo during the opening of the WTO Summit in Nairobi on December 15, 2015
Image: REUTERS

Against expectations of many — a good number of Kenyans included — Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed has emerged as the leading candidate in the race for the next WTO Director General.

According to the news site Bloomberg, Amina had charmed her way into the hearts of trade delegates meeting in Geneva to assess what the candidates have to offer. It was certainly good news for those of us who have been rooting for the former Assistant UN Secretary General and Unep Deputy Executive Director to take up the more prestigious job.

 This is how Bloomberg reported the story: "At the close of the week there was a general perception that Kenya’s nominee, Amina Mohamed, is the early front-runner.

She’s fluent in the WTO’s procedures and legal texts and she personally helped negotiate the WTO’s most recent package of multilateral agreements. She also hails from sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest economy, from a continent that’s pursuing more free trade with the world.”

Amina is not a stranger to WTO. In fact, information on the Ministry of Sports says that from 1990-93, she acted as a legal adviser to Kenya’s mission at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland. There, she worked alongside officials from the International Labour Organization, World Health Organization and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade/WTO.

I had the chance to watch Amina perform at Unep at various conferences and meetings and I have no doubt that she is the perfect fit for this job. She brings with her a wealth of experience in international organisations as well as national government having served as a permanent secretary as well as holding the ministerial flag at Foreign Affairs, Education and now sports.

Probably, her proudest moment — to her admirers and a blot to those who opposed the mission — was the shuttle diplomacy she undertook to drum up support for Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, on their cases at the International Criminal Court.

To her credit, she achieved what her bosses wanted. Her tenure at education was low profile but she has been quite visible at the Sports docket. Perhaps the most notable has been the verve with which she has pursued the renovation of sports stadiums across the country.

Back to WTO and Amina — indeed Kenya as a whole — should not lose focus on the fact that being a front runner in the race could possibly be the easiest of the hurdles the minister faces.

As the Bloomberg story warns, perhaps ominously: "But the first phase of the WTO’s selection process isn’t about deciding who has what it takes — it’s more about deciding who doesn’t. And the inside track might not be the best position to win a job that some capitals believe is better suited for a politically connected outsider.”

On the continental stage, Amina comes with the added advantage that the whole world is agreed that the time is ripe for a candidate from Africa to pick the diadem of WTO boss.

On paper this favours the girl who was born in Kakamega’s Amalemba Estate. But in practice, it also places her right on the path of another formidable candidate, Nigeria’s Dr Ngozi Okonji-Iweala, a career diplomat and technocrat, whose long tours of duty has seen her serve as her country’s Finance and Foreign Minister at different times. She has also served impeccably at the World Bank, rising to the Managing Director in charge of operations.

Seeing as it is that Nigeria considers itself the Big Brother in Africa, Kenya should brace for a tough fight in the WTO race. After bagging the Security Council seat, Nigeria will most certainly milk for all it is worth the fact that Kenya is now being too greedy with the international jobs.

The downside of this is that in the midst of the sibling squabbling likely to arise from a Kenya-Nigeria tiff, Africa might end up losing altogether if the candidates from the other continents decide to capitalise on that.

The mandarins at the Foreign Affairs ministry have their job cut out for them. They now need to put in place Kenya’s famed charm offensive to ensure Amina bags the seat. It is common knowledge that being the boss in any organisation comes with the chance of having made some enemies.

It would be naïve of me to contemplate that Amina’s relationships with some of the ministry’s top officials was lovey-dovey. I am, however, comforted by the prophetic words of the late Prof. George Saitoti that "there comes a time when the nation is much more important than an individual".

For the ministry officials — and indeed the entire government machinery and Kenyans in general — that time is now. We all applauded the ministry when, despite the difficult operating environment occasioned by the raging Covid-19 pandemic, they successfully delivered the UNSC non-permanent seat. 

As PS Macharia Kamau was later to state, "it was a battle fought at close quarters since our erstwhile opponent Djibouti was not going down without a vicious fight.

A series of visits by the President, Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary and Chief Administrative Secretary, Special Envoy, ambassadors in New York and in Addis Ababa and myself ensued, often capitalising on regional and multilateral gatherings.”

We are expecting the same machinery to be put in place to see Amina sail through. Let us remember it is not just a job for Amina and her immediate family but the whole country’s pride and interests are at play here.