Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 June 2009
Issue No. 951
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Best show in Old Vic

The 13th COMESA summit in Zimbabwe is aimed at establishing a customs union and facilitating African economic integration, writes Gamal Nkrumah

The 13th summit of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) took place earlier this week. In a hastily refurbished conference venue, the Victoria Falls resort, situated at the very edge of one of Africa's and the world's most dramatic panoramic settings three times as large as Niagara Falls, attracted little attention in the international media. The irony is that some of the member states of COMESA are among the most notorious countries that have hit the headlines in the past decade, among them the host nation Zimbabwe and its argumentative President Robert Mugabe.

The African leaders congregating in Victoria Falls are trying desperately to reduce tensions in a volatile region that includes intractable trouble spots such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Horn of Africa. However, the region has also known great success stories such as Angola, which was barely a decade ago in the throes of one of Africa's most brutish civil wars and is now enjoying unprecedented prosperity as one of the continent's largest oil and gas exporters. It is hoped that Angola's newfound wealth will become the driving force for economic growth in the COMESA region.

It is against this background that the African leaders assembled in Victoria Falls put economic questions atop their agenda. The main goal of the 13th COMESA summit is the establishment of a customs union that would incorporate the entire continent from Cairo to Cape Town. Speeding up regional integration will turn Africa into a giant economic power of considerable international standing. Raw materials and capital goods will travel freely across the vast region without tariffs.

Many COMESA member states have pledged to lift visa restrictions on travel within the huge bloc, Africa's largest. Egypt, represented by Minister of State for International Cooperation Faiza Abul-Naga, is among the African nations in the frontline of accelerating the pace of economic cooperation.

African countries, whose relative economic resilience in the face of the global financial crisis was in part meant to be guaranteed by booming regional trade, are currently confronting growing signs that such trade remains much more dependent on Western demand than previously hoped.

"No country can develop in isolation," Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe told delegates at the COMESA summit Victoria Falls resort in northwestern Zimbabwe. Mugabe takes over as chairman of COMESA from the outgoing chairman President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya.

The star of the Victoria Falls summit was Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, who in spite of the International Criminal Court indictment against him for crimes against humanity, was warmly received by his Zimbabwean hosts and fellow African leaders. Sudan, another COMESA member- state with much economic promise, is a country whose prosperity is contingent on its capacity for realising political stability, democratisation, national unity and peace.

However, many of these countries are in the throes of the most deplorable economic collapse. They are among the world's poorest nations and suffer from periodic droughts and attendant famines.

More bad news is expected to pour in as the international situation continues to fester. With global economic turmoil, the countries of COMESA face unprecedented challenges in their goal to improve the standards of living of their people despite the international economic meltdown.

COMESA's aim is to catch up with such regional economic groupings as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). COMESA's collective gross domestic product is $360 billion, a paltry sum when compared with ASEAN's $2 trillion.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was accompanied by a large governmental delegation including his trade and industry minister, the politically influential Major General Kahinda Otafiire. Uganda is also a member of the East African Community, a rival economic grouping.

This epitomises the problem of COMESA insofar as many of its member states are simultaneously members of rival economic groupings. This complicates customs management regulations between member states. The overlap with the East African Community, for example, whose members have their own customs union, requires complex negotiations to bring the competing but potentially complementary organisations into sync.

COMESA comprises 19 fully-fledged member states -- Burundi, the Comoros, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and the host nation for the Victoria Falls summit Zimbabwe.

"The customs union will therefore enable us to grow beyond the free movement of goods to establish the foundations of a single market," Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai told reporters in the Zimbabwean capital Harare on the eve of the Victoria Falls summit. "It will offer a more predictable economic environment for both investors and traders across the COMESA region," Tsvangirai added.

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