Former Nigerian foreign and finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on July 15, 2020, in Geneva, after her hearing before World Trade Organization member states' representatives, as part of the application process to head the WTO as director general. Photo: AFP / Fabrice Coffrini

As the first round of the selection process to find a new director general of the World Trade Organization kicks off in Geneva, the campaign of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala appears to be in trouble.

The high-profile Nigerian candidate has revealed that she obtained US citizenship in 2019, thereby becoming a dual citizen of Nigeria and the United States. While she has not necessarily broken any rules, some of the 164 member states of the WTO are bound to be unsettled by not only the lack of honesty and transparency, but also the fear that she will favor her new country in future talks.

There are eight candidates striving to take the reins at the Geneva-based body, including widely tipped frontrunner Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s former trade minister, and Jesús Seade Kuri, Mexico’s chief negotiator of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and a former WTO deputy director general.

Founded in 1995 to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade among nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.

But the selection process to elect its new head looks anything but smooth or predictable. According to Article VI of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization, the director general heads up the organization’s Secretariat. The role is an important one for the WTO.

Although the director general has in essence an administrative role, the incumbent is able to set agendas and have oversight of the organization’s permanent staff. The procedures for the appointment of a director general were adopted by the WTO General Council in December 2002 (Document WT/L/509 of January 20, 2003) and allow member states to nominate persons for the role.

The process is explicit that: “Nominations shall be submitted by Members only, and in respect of their own nationals” (Procedures, paragraph 8). Accordingly, nationality/citizenship is important at the point of nomination.

When appointed, the director general of the WTO, and his or her staff, are required to work “internationally.” In the words of the Marrakesh Agreement, they shall “be exclusively international in character.”

Specifically, the agreement states: “In the discharge of their duties, the director general and the staff of the Secretariat shall not seek or accept instructions from any government or any other authority external to the WTO.” Member states are charged not to try to influence these international officials in the exercise of their duties.

As a former managing director of the World Bank with 25 years’ experience in that organization, Okonjo-Iweala has significant experience as an international official and there is no question of her having failed to fulfill her duties in that regard. Nevertheless, there are a few issues with her current nomination that give rise to concern.

The first is that her second citizenship is in the United States. Given the current attitude of the US government to the WTO and its current difficult relations with China, another major player in the organization, Okonjo-Iweala may find it difficult to fulfill the role. A decision that favors, or at the very least, could be portrayed as favoring, one or other of these states is likely to lead to criticism.

This criticism is likely to be unfounded, but the likelihood of it coming up exists. In July, China vetoed an American nominee to serve as the interim director general, and as a result the organization is now leaderless. The matter of dual citizenship may also become a factor in a race where national allegiances are questioned.

Second, it is concerning that the adoption by Okonjo-Iweala of US citizenship has been so recent – only occurring in 2019.

Although she was not required to renounce her Nigerian citizenship, in adopting US citizenship she was required to swear an oath that she “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which [she had] heretofore been a subject or citizen; that [she would] support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.”

She is unlikely to have already forgotten something that was so recent and so strongly worded.

Finally, and arguably most problematically, 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 her candidacy but that does somewhat beg the question.

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, it may be the most important issue yet.

Craig Barker is professor of international law at London South Bank University.