The Twentieth Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), held on 18-19July 2018 in Lusaka, Zambia, will be remembered as a landmark. Its communique, now a public document, reads like a blockbuster.
Tunisia and Somalia were admitted, increasing the membership of COMESA to 21 countries, the combined GDP of COMESA by 6.6 percent to US $ 768,505 billion, its population by 4.4 percent to 559 million, and its landmass by 7 percent to 11.95 million square kilometers making up 39 percent of Africa.
Spanning the eastern half of Africa from Egypt and Libya in the North, through central to Southern Africa, COMESA has global strategic importance relating to peace, sea routes, natural resources, agriculture, and inland connectivity as well as sustainable human development.
A new Secretary General was appointed; Ms. Chileshe Mpundu Kapwepwe, the first woman to head the organization in its 36 year history.
A former Assistant Minister of Finance in Zambia and IMF Executive Director, a professional accountant armed with a Master’s Degree in Business Administration and a good reputation and having served as chief executive officer of a repertoire of institutions, she is cut out for the task of cleaning up the finances and administration of COMESA, and systematizing program operations.
Two key positions which had been vacant for up to four years were filled, namely Assistant Secretary General for Administration and Finance, and Director of Human Resources and Administration. This further strengthens the Secretariat team.
Eritrea announced to a standing ovation that its long war with Ethiopia had ended, a Declaration of Friendship and Peace adopted, and the two presidents already visited each other.
Zimbabwe has a new leadership after the long reign of Robert Mugabe. Successful elections were held elsewhere, and countries such as Malawi are back to their feet as President Arthur Peter Mutharika explained in a professorial statistics-studded statement.
He offered to host a ministerial meeting on COMESA and the Youth to foster the ideals of cooperation and integration.
A number of COMESA institutions outperformed their wildest expectations. The Trade and Development Bank made a net profit of US $ 120 million and enjoys highest ratings on the African continent with countries like Botswana and Mauritius.
The Africa Leather and Leather Products Institute is now continental beyond COMESA and has carried out capacity building and national strategy development activities into West Africa.
The COMESA Re-insurance Company has compensated more than a million farmers for weather-related losses. The COMESA Competition Commission, the second regional competition authority in the world after the EU’s, has handled 175 mergers valued at US $ 93 billion. And the litany continued.
However, there is some disconnect between COMESA institutions and the Secretariat, in terms of limited interaction particularly at the technical level.
The COMESA Competition Commission has partly addressed this through its annual Diplomatic Conference and workshops for the media.
Held under the theme of Towards Digital Economic Integration, the Summit agreed on a number of programs which are already lined up for implementation or underway.
The Digital Free Trade Area, for example, is set to change COMESA beyond recognition. It will have an online market with a payment facility, as well as e-logistics through re-engineered and digitized trade facilitation and customs instruments and procedures, and an e-legislation program that underpins it.
This will give especially small-to-medium enterprises better access to larger markets and simplify the life of shoppers.
As the Fourth Industrial Revolution has caught on in earnest, holistic programs for beneficial participation in the modern data and new technology-driven economies will deserve due prioritization.
But all is not rosy in COMESA, as one would expect with many organizations if not all, and there is plenty of room for improvement.
Low ownership of COMESA is manifested through unsatisfactory implementation of programs, estimated in some Member States at only 10 percent though others score more than 90 percent, irregular contributions to the budget, absence of even a mention of COMESA in national programs or public speeches or national budgets, and low esteem in which some important partners hold COMESA.
This is a critical priority to address, as it poses an existential problem, in terms of relevance and sustainable continuity into the medium and long-term.
High level engagement can assist address this, as well as cases of out rightly disaffected Member States such as Burundi.
While a large number of meetings are held every year in Member States, there is limited interaction between the Secretariat and the various public and private sector stakeholders.
A standing arrangement should be put in place requiring stakeholder engagement in Member States where and whenever the Secretariat holds meetings or undertakes any missions.
This will promote accountability and disseminate information about the opportunities and facilities COMESA provides. The impact of the numerous meeting is ascertainable, and can be improved.
The approval of the COMESA Corporate Communications Strategy by the Council presents another opportunity to reboot our engagement with stakeholders across our Members States.
The main thrust of the strategy is to demonstrate the value and impact of regional integration through direct stakeholders’ outreach activities to enhance access to information. To implement this strategy effectively require reviewing the capacity and budget allocated for Corporate Communications Unit.
It needs to become a machinery that proactively shapes public opinion in favour of COMESA on the basis of true facts and figures, given the critical role COMESA can play in achieving public policy objectives of jobs and wealth creation, and social economic structural transformation.
Scaling up is required of publicity of COMESA as a force for good and an influential outfit that political leaders could use to improve living standards.
A range of game-changing COMESA programs are not well known in the region, such as the agriculture programs providing inputs and markets to small scale farmers to support better livelihoods and food security, the health standards programs supporting mutual recognition of regulatory requirements and providing laboratory equipment in order to facilitate trade and improve safety, and the services liberalization program under which supply of infrastructure services (transport, communication, and finance, to be followed by energy and construction) has been opened up to increase competitiveness and industrialization.
Consistency and impetus in program implementation will be key, for a start-stop approach has derailed some critical programs that have shut down.
The essence of COMESA has been its trail-blazing programs especially the trade-related. But for some defining initiatives, such as the electronic certificate of origin, COMESA dragged on them. After giving out 17 Innovation Awards in various categories including youth and gender, COMESA abandoned this pioneer program.
Though COMESA has a large number of critically supportive partners particularly the European Union, the organization still has funding challenges for some important programs, and it must have sustainable ownership of its integration agenda.
New initiatives could include requesting COMESA institutions to contribute towards financing the regional integration programs overseen by the Secretariat.
This will require that the constitutive charters of the institutions be modified to contain this requirement or standing board resolutions be adopted to appropriate a reasonable amount of funds to the Secretariat for duly implementing specific programs in a transparent and accountable manner.
There is a chance to position COMESA as a technology and finance hub. Without harnessing innovations from around the world and quickly developing internal capacity to turn ideas into applicable inventions or works and into successful businesses, the much-desired social economic structural transformation will be hard to come by.
In conclusion, the COMESA region is delighted, from the warm welcome to the incoming Secretary General and a sense of the end of an epoch and the beginning of a new era that prevailed at the summit. There is hope and expectation for change to address some persistent and some emerging challenges especially in the areas of ownership, funding, and program implementation in the context of quickly achieving structural transformation.
Written by Francis Mangeni, Phd
Director – Trade, Customs and Monetary Affairs