Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s two-time minister of finance would finally be resuming in Geneva this March as the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation.
In the course of her campaign for the coveted position, a lot of calculations were made and diverse steps taken. Some were aimed at boosting her chances for the position, while others were meant to neutralise the advantages of her opponents.
Among all those steps taken, none has been more controversial than her taking the US citizenship, after more than 40 years stay in the country. According to Bloomberg, Okonjo-Iweala took US citizenship in 2019.
This should not really be a big issue as many other candidates that ran against her had dual citizenship. Many analysts even feel dual citizenship can boost a candidate’s chance of getting the plum job.
Among those that contested for the WTO top post, Jesús Seade Kuri is Mexican and Lebanese; while Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh is both Swiss and Egyptian.
However, the timing barely a year to the contest was the focus of many analysts. Okonjo-Iweala arrived in the US 47 years ago and worked there for more than 25 years without taking up the country’s citizenship. What must have prompted her to do so in 2019?
Although she was not required to renounce her Nigerian citizenship, in adopting US citizenship, she was required to swear to an oath many Nigerians and other non-Americans find quite disturbing. It is the naturalisation oath of allegiance to the USA reproduced below:
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform non-combatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
Obviously, a naturalised American citizen is compelled to renounce his or her country and attend an oath-swearing ceremony to plead absolute allegiance to the United States of America.
Many find it an unacceptable irony, that despite using Nigeria to push her candidacy for the position of Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, former Minister of Finance in the country, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, still went ahead to take up American citizenship.
One commentator lamented: “She was nominated by Nigeria but decided to ditch the country for the US. That’s bad, why not wait till after the election. That’s unpatriotic on her side. This is someone who was minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria twice.”
Many analysts feel with her recent allegiance pledged to the US, the expected passion and capacity to protect the interest of Nigeria and other members of the organisation are questionable.
Besides, the attitude of the Trump government to the WTO and its difficult relations with China, Okonjo-Iweala as a US citizen may find it difficult to fulfil the mediatory role expected of her as the head of WTO. Even sincere decisions that might seem to favour the US could be projected as acts of favouritism, which can lead to distractions and criticism. All these can create instability during her tenure.
Another issue of concern is that Okonjo-Iweala chose not to reveal her dual nationality in her application for the role. It may be that she was concerned about what that revelation would do to Nigeria’s support for her candidacy. Citizenship should not be an issue in the process to become the director-general of the WTO or any other international organization for that matter. However, in this case, given the citizenship that she has chosen to adopt, the oath she has made, and the failure to declare that citizenship at the appropriate stage, have all contributed to make it a front-burner issue.
Probably, Okonjo-Iweala must have pushed for American citizenship to prevent the reoccurrence of her 2012 experience. She ran for the presidency of the World Bank in 2012 and lost to a Korean-American, Jim Yong Kim. This, she must have believed, happened because she did not get the backing of the United States. This time she did not want to leave anything to chance.
If gaining the support of the US was the main goal of Okonjo-Iweala’s US citizenship, then she made a serious miscalculation. It was the US that led the opposition against Ngozi’s candidature. Her candidature was hanging by the thread until good fortune smiled on her when Donald Trump lost the US presidency and the new administration overwhelmingly endorsed her candidature.
Okonjo-Iweala spoke recently on the emotional trauma she experienced when the USA administration of ex-President Donald Trump, sought aggressively to block her appointment despite the clear mandate she enjoyed from the majority of members.
Her words: “I was quite surprised when the US did that because there was no indication previously that I had any problem with the US. I had two very good interviews with top personnel of that administration, so it was a big surprise. But you know that is the way life works and when things happen, you take them in your stride and you move on. So it was absolutely wonderful when the Biden- Harris administration came in and broke that logjam by joining the consensus that gave such a strong endorsement to my candidacy, I think it’s wonderful”.
Can Okonjo- Iweala ignore that “wonderful” favour of the Biden administration if the WTO finds itself caught in the middle of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing?
The United States, under Trump, has threatened to leave the WTO. The country has blocked the organisation’s dispute settlement appeal system since December and had insisted that China should move up from the developing economies category.
The US-China trade war started in 2018 when US President Donald Trump began setting tariffs and other trade barriers on China with the goal of forcing it to make changes to what the US described as “unfair trade practices”. The Biden administration might want to retain some of these pressures.
Commenting on the possibility of being caught in any web of intrigues or crossfire between large interest groups in WTO, Okonjo- Iweala said, “Trade is very important, and it makes up 60 per cent of the world’s GDP. It has grown by thousands of percentage points over time, and it’s very important if we are also to come out of the current pandemic. Everybody must be carried along. We will be mindful that whatever we do, will benefit all members, not just big members or middle-sized ones, but also the small ones, even small island economies”.
Will Okonjo-Iweala’s actions match her rhetoric? Pundits are watching as she begins her four-year tenure this month.