Addressing the two-day Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Conference, which convened in Cairo last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, spared few superlatives. The free trade agreement (FTA), he said, which was concluded in October 2000, was a milestone in a journey that eventually will result in the economic integration of all of Africa.
But Mubarak, who during the course of the summit was elected as president of COMESA’s sixth session, may have been overstating the case somewhat. At the very least, his enthusiasm was not shared by all those present. Of the 22 COMESA members, only nine countries signed the FTA, and Tanzania withdrew from the organization because it said that changes in the internal tariff arrangements would harm its industrial sector.
Tanzania was not the only nation expressing concern. A majority of the COMESA members fretted that the FTA was designed to benefit those members with countries with larger, more developed economies, such as Egypt.
Egypt, interestingly, is the most recent country to have joined COMESA, signing up in 1999. Other than Egypt, the organization groups Angola, Burundi, the Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, the Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The countries that signed the FTA agreement include Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
One of the primary goals of the Cairo conference had been to urge the hesitant COMESA partners into signing the FTA. The general tone of the meeting was set during a preparatory meeting, when Egypt's Economics Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali reported that Egyptian-Kenyan trade had increased four-fold since the two states eliminated tariffs.
But, as things were to turn out, the conference ended with another general that the non-FTA member states sign onto a process as it moves forward, without any firm commitments being made.
There are deep-seated grievances within the organization. The non-FTA members have claimed that those members which did sign the agreement, despite having their tariffs scrapped, introduced non-tariff barriers that pose an equal threat to free trade in the area as the tariff barriers themselves.
Earlier, COMESA’s deputy secretary-general, Sindiso Ngwenya, had reiterated such criticism, noting that certain member states enforced non-tariff barriers in the form of sanitary standards. Speaking the Al-Ahram, he said that a denial of market access is a violation of the FTA’s provisions. Such practices must be discontinued, he stated.
In his address to the conference, Mubarak discounted concerns that by joining the FTA, a country would jeopardize its trading revenue. On the contrary, he stated, membership of the COMESA FTA was a necessary means to cope with the demands of the global economy. By belonging to a formidable trading block member countries would be able to enhanced development efforts, open new markets increase their production levels. Furthermore, he noted, the improved economic activity would help cut Africa’s scourge of unemployment.
But, stressed Mubarak, for COMESA to deliver what it potentially is capable of, it has to move forward along its planned pathway. “We should proceed with determination toward realizing a customs union and agreeing on uniform external tariffs by 2004," he stated during opening speech. By 2025, the organization foresees a single currency and a COMESA central bank.
Mubarak noted that COMESA’s economic integration efforts ultimately would be worthless if they were carried out separately from other African regional economic groupings. The organization currently is considering a merger with the 14-nation South African Development Community, which includes two of the continents most powerful economies--South Africa and Botswana—as well as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The SADC secretary-general was at the Cairo conference to discuss the possibility of linking both groups.
Furthermore Mubarak said that COMESA must coordinate its efforts with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Central African states (ECAS), the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU).
Since Egypt joined COMESA in 1999, the combined population of the member states is 380 million or about half of Africa's population. Trade among member states currently stands at about $2.4 billion. – (MENA Report)
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)
© 2000 - 2019 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)