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COMESA resurgent

By Marwa Tawfik
The Community of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) was founded in Malawi on 8 December 2004. During his visit to Egypt the new secretary-general of COMESA, Sindiso Ngwenya, gave an exclusive interview to Al-Ahram Weekly. While in Cairo he met several government ministers and ended his visit by signing the Regional Investment Agency (RIA) agreement for COMESA. RIA will have its headquarters in Egypt. The next COMESA summit is scheduled to take place 7-8 December in Zimbabwe at which time a customs union will be launched.
What are the obstacles hindering the customs union?
COMESA countries have different levels of development; some of them are pursuing programmes of trade liberalisation sponsored by the World Bank, etc, and you have got other countries that have developed industrial infrastructure. Egypt for instance has a very strong industrial sector and I think what is important is that those countries that have the experience in development should also work with the other countries to inform them what will be good for them. The COMESA customs union is very important because we expect that three years after the launching of the free trade area we shall then have free circulation of goods. This will test the political commitment of our countries just like the situation of the European states because when countries agree to put their resources together that is the ultimate of political commitment. Africa must be united, dynamic and sustainable.
Some members in the COMESA don't agree with the idea of a customs union.
At the last summit in Nairobi, the heads of states said that we should launch the customs union and those who are not ready will come on board later because COMESA allows for this. We will launch the free trade area in nine countries.
But some of those countries are members of more than one organisation. How are you going to deal with this issue?
That's why we will have a summit between the Southern African Development Community (SADEC) and COMESA in Kampala next month to address this issue. All those countries are members of the African Union and should be able to work together. We say we want to create an African common market but then we begin to have trade rules procedures and documentation that are linked to other organisations. We need one common document, one set of rules of origin. The purpose of this summit is to agree on establishing one pan-African free trade area for the entire region. What are the issues, the rules of origin of COMESA and SADEC? Are they the same? If not, then how can we harmonise them?
How do you see the failure of the WTO meeting in Geneva?
The WTO collapsed because the big countries did not agree on the removal of their subsidies, they agreed on principles only.
And how did this affect COMESA?
What we need to do is to begin to think more about how we integrate among ourselves because for too long, what our countries intend to do is to look outside Africa for development instead of looking at Africa, and yet everybody else is looking at Africa -- India, China, Europe... But the real development opportunity is in Africa where we have a young population and lots of resources.
What are the most important issues the COMESA summit will deal with in Victoria Falls?
It will focus on the launching of the customs union and also will discuss how the countries can have a common budget for addressing infrastructure and strategic technical development. Then we have the COMESA fund and the regional payment and settlement system which we are launching.
Why did you visit the Egyptian minister of communications?
I wanted to discuss how we can use radio now to spread information about COMESA to the people. It's common market for the people of eastern and southern African countries.
How do you evaluate the participation of Egypt in COMESA?
Egypt is a founding member of the free trade area and the largest economy among COMESA countries. It plays an important role in COMESA integration, but what I discussed with the government here is for Egypt to take the lead in several areas, including transportation. I spoke with the minister of transpiration. I would like to thank Heba Salama, the general manager of RIA, for the excellent job that she is doing.
What is the amount of trade exchange between Egypt and COMESA?
Well, the amount of trade between Egypt and COMESA is in region of $800 million per year and it will exceed $1 billion within the next two years. It started at $32 million in 2000, so to those who are saying that the COMESA free trade area is not working, I answer that intra- COMESA trade was $3.2 billion before it was set up and it is now $9 billion. We need to deal with the supply side by getting companies to invest in creating jobs and wealth. We can't reduce and eliminate poverty just by trading but we can help countries to exploit their natural resources better. That's why I want to commend Egypt for its economic reforms.
Why have you chosen Egypt to be the headquarters for RIA?
Egypt stands at a strategic place. First of all if you are talking about the Gulf, if you look at the investments of Egypt, the companies in the Gulf are investing in Egypt and vise versa. If you look at Japan, it is investing in Egypt, so consequently Japanese investors see Egypt as a gateway, and will also invest in COMESA. But most importantly Egypt is also the largest economy in COMESA and has strong sectors in chemicals, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. Egypt plays the role of a bridge between Europe on one hand and the Gulf, Asia and even America on the other. Egypt also has a very important role as she has lots of skilled technical workers and businessmen who have lots of investments in Africa.
Interview by Marwa Tawfik

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