At a meeting on Deepening Regional Integration in Southern Africa held in Zimbabwe last week, Weekly caught up with Professor Said Adejumobi, director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Southern Africa Office, to ask how realistic the idea of a common African market is.
At the meeting on Deepening Regional Integration in Southern Africa, there was a lot of talk about free trade within the region. Just how much of what we heard is realistic and how much of it is wishful thinking?
I do feel that all that is being discussed is realistic and doable. The beauty of the discourse is that we are engaging in an ongoing process. The Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) is an ongoing agenda; the negotiations are still on by member states and as such, the recommendations from the meeting can feed into how they craft and roll-out the agenda. The presence of different stakeholders at the meeting, including some representatives of member states participating in the negotiation processes, suggests that informed policy recommendations will be made.
You said yourself that “trade liberalisation without enhanced production is a recipe for disaster”. Many countries in Africa are far from the level of expected production. How can disaster be avoided?
The leaders of the TFTA themselves realised this and that is why they have prioritised the issue of industrial development as a component part or one of the three pillars of the TFTA. If there is little or no production, an expanded market will be captured by outside forces and what we are likely to see will be the circulation of rebranded but dumped goods from other parts of the world in that market. This will neither create jobs, grow scale industries nor our economies. Production is central to realising the goals and benefits of expanded market and regional integration.
Countries in Africa are in very different levels of industrialisation. How can a country like Mauritius benefit from trade liberalisation concretely?
Mauritius is doing fairly well in the industrialisation agenda. While a lot of African countries are shedding industrial capacity, Mauritius is gaining it. The textile industry in Mauritius is still alive while it has virtually collapsed in many African countries. I think there is a lot to learn from Mauritius by other African countries. What Mauritius needs to do is to tap more into the opportunities offered by other African countries. There is a lot that Mauritius can trade with other African countries on.
You talked about closing borders to Africans while opening them to citizens of countries we are not allowed into. Isn’t that bound to continue precisely because some countries in the continent are more developed than others?
Borders have nothing to do with levels and pace of development. In Europe, the countries of the EU are not at the same level of development, yet borders are opened. In the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region, borders are open across the region to all ECOWAS citizens. Why close them in other regions? This, in my view, is inexcusable. In the days of the liberation struggle, we shared the little that we had. Small and big countries stood to support and fight along those who were in need. Passages and spaces were created for the liberation fighters; we collectively liberated all our countries. Why is it difficult to create those passages and spaces now that we are independent? The opportunities now are more present than ever before.
The perception that immigrants engage in crime, are a threat to security and ‘snatch’ away the jobs of locals seems to be an additional impediment. How can that be addressed?
These issues can be dealt with independently. Are there no crimes in countries that do not allow migrants? Are there statistics to suggest that it is the African immigrants who are “criminals” in other African countries? Have countries like Rwanda and Mauritius, who have granted visa on arrival status to other Africans, been swamped by migrants? Closing borders is more about perceptions and phobias that we need to deconstruct.
Though we have opened our borders to Africans, apart from South Africa, there are few visitors from the other African countries. Is the continent not interested in visiting the rest of Africa or is the product we are offering not adapted to their needs?
We do not showcase the tourism potentials that we have to other African countries. We advertise only on CNN and the BBC and other western media our tourism opportunities and leave the local media stations in other countries out. Our appeal of tourism is only to people of the west. This approach must change. There is a growing middle class in Africa that has disposable income to spend on leisure. We need to engage and invite them.
You are encouraging African countries to particularly tap into technology that is ‘jealously guarded’ by some countries and used as a source of power. Just how can that be done?
History does not suggest that technologically-advanced countries and multinational companies share or transfer technology to other countries. If they do transfer their technology, it is probably already obsolete and they are discarding it. The reason is very simple. Technology is the source of power and control in the global economy. If you have it, you will remain on top. So, what logic does it make for those who have it to transfer it? Experience suggests that developing countries acquire technology mostly through two methods: by imitation or huge investments in research and development and high-skilled capacity training in order to achieve technological breakthroughs. Africa must choose either one or both paths to achieve technological development.
In spite of all the nice talk and ambition about a common African market, there is still very little exchange of goods and services between the various countries of the continent. Just what would it take for Africa to trade with Africa?
It would take the development of productive capacity, regional value chains, huge incentives for small and medium scale enterprises and the informal sector, deconstructing cross-border trade barriers, creating expanded markets and improving national and cross-border infrastructure. We are not there yet but we are getting there. It is important to reflect on the progress made, the risks, challenges and opportunities of the TFTA if the project is to have optimal benefits not only for our countries but ultimately for our people in the regions concerned.
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