Kenya’s Amina Mohamed promises to deliver if elected director-general of WTO

The Kenyan diplomat says she has the skills and experience to carry the mantle of the global trade system.


As eight candidates vie to become the next director-general of World Trade Organization in November (WTO), Amina Mohamed says she is the right candidate for the job following a successful career as a Kenyan diplomat and minister. 

While some commentators are worried about whether the World Trade Organization (WTO) will survive a move towards protectionism in more developed markets, Kenya’s former minister of foreign affairs and international trade remains upbeat about the uses and benefits of multilateralism.

Having chaired the WTO’s 2015 ministerial conference in Nairobi where six “historic” decisions on agriculture were made, Amina Mohamed has seen first-hand how all members of the Geneva-based organisation can work together to produce results.

The savvy negotiator is credited with helping to abolish export subsidies for agricultural exports, an agreement which the outgoing director-general Robert Azevêdo named as the “most significant outcome on agriculture” in the WTO’s history.

While annual gatherings often yield minimal results due to difficulties associated with building consensus among all members, Mohamed believes that under her stewardship the WTO can deliver.

Prior to the conference in Kenya, the WTO had not seen a significant move forward on trade agreements in years.

Mohamed believes she can replicate the success at the upcoming 2021 meetings in Kazakhstan.

“For Kazakhstan I hope we can complete the fisheries negotiations,” she tells African Business.

It will be only the third agreement since 1995. The first on was trade facilitation, the second was export subsidies prohibition agreement and the third is going to be the fisheries agreement; that has to be done.”

Rather than believing the WTO is losing its significance, the fact that nine African countries are lining up to join the organisation is evidence that the appetite for trade liberalisation remains strong, she says.

As the first woman to chair the WTO’s general council, Mohamed is also hoping to become the first African director-general.

In the era of ‘great power competition’, an African director-general who sits between trade foes China and the US could be precisely what the organisation needs.

The fact that African countries have created the largest multilateral trade area in the form of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) since the creation of the WTO in 1995 – while other blocs are showing signs of disintegration – is presented as evidence that the mantle for multilateralism may have passed to the continent. 

Mohamed said: “I definitely think that an African director-general would be a good arbiter of any tensions within the multilateral system.”

Running against a former Nigerian minister and an Egyptian diplomat, Africa has so far failed to unite around a single African candidate – potentially damaging its chances of success.

Egypt’s former WTO executive Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh claimed to be endorsed by the African Union’s executive council during an interview at Chatham House, though the latest statement from the AU denied that a candidate had been chosen and no further clarification has been given.

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has recently come under scrutiny for assuming US citizenship. 

Mohamed believes that her previous work as chair of several WTO bodies and her ministerial experiences gives her the edge over continental counterparts.

“I think that all of us are good candidates. The only difference is that I have chaired a very successful ministerial meeting in Nairobi. I also chaired the dispute settlement body, so I understand the concerns that are being raised, and I also chaired the trade policy review body that was put in place to drive trade.”

Mohamed’s solution to revive a dispute settlement body that has been rendered impotent is to push for a second tier dispute mechanism that allows members to appeal if they are not satisfied by the original decision made by the seven judges.

“I am not just passionate about the system, I have actually delivered for it and I know it is possible work on the system and make sure it delivers for all countries. I am willing to put in the time, energy and passion that is required but also use the experience I have acquired and the political skills I own to support the system.”

The WTO’s next director-general will take office in November this year.


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