Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi assumed the chairmanship of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Heads of State and Authority on 23 November at the 21st Summit of the COMESA Authority, the organisation’s supreme policy-making body.
In his address to the summit, Al-Sisi called for concerted regional efforts to deepen integration in Africa. He said that during Egypt’s tenure of the chairmanship there would be a focus on eliminating barriers to regional trade, industrial integration, and infrastructure development and moves would be made to promote regional integration in the healthcare sector and create a conducive business environment.
Chileshe Kapwepwe has served as secretary-general of COMESA since July 2018 when she was elected at the 20th Heads of State COMESA Summit in Lusaka. She spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about her aspirations for the largest market for trade and investment in Africa.
COMESA’s strategy can be summed up in the phrase “economic prosperity through regional integration,” and it is one of the building blocks of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). How would you describe cooperation between COMESA and the other regional economic blocs to achieve continental economic integration?
Cooperation between COMESA and the other regional economic blocs is excellent. We do not just cooperate; we are interdependent owing to the overlap of membership in the regional blocs. COMESA was part and parcel in the conception and eventual establishment and launch of the AfCFTA. Indeed, AfCFTA benefited greatly from the work already done under the tripartite group of the regional economic communities, i.e., COMESA, the East African Community (EAC), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Currently, 14 COMESA member states have ratified the AfCFTA agreement, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. AfCFTA complements COMESA’s work in expanding markets and providing more trade opportunities. It has adopted various COMESA trade programmes and instruments, making COMESA a key pillar in the implementation of AfCFTA.
Building resilience through strategic digital economic integration is inevitable in deepening African integration. Digital technology has many benefits, but there are also challenges. What is your view?
Our region has done well on information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure development, but a lot more is needed to enhance connectivity and access. COMESA has begun implementing an €8 million project funded by the European Union to enhance governance and an enabling environment in the ICT sector in the Eastern and Southern Africa and Indian Ocean regions. It has developed a model cybersecurity bill and policy guidelines. It is encouraging member states to adopt this bill and to establish national institutions to deal with cybersecurity matters. Cybersecurity is a major concern that calls for adequate preparedness to counter any emerging threats.
Libya has called for COMESA’s cooperation in confronting illegal immigration. How can COMESA contribute to mitigating this crisis?
The migrant problem is mainly caused by a lack of opportunities, especially for young Africans who constitute almost 70 per cent of the population of the continent. If Africa can generate enough jobs to provide our people with reliable livelihoods, migration will not be so much of a problem. Indeed, the creation of regional economic communities like COMESA was inspired by the need to economically empower Africans through trade and the development of natural and human resources for the mutual benefit of all peoples in the region. If everyone remains focused on this goal, and works towards its realisation, the problem of migration will be addressed.
To what extent has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the COMESA region and intra-African trade?
Cross-border trade was severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic due to the closure of borders, curfews, and delays caused by additional measures including testing and quarantines. Supply chains and education and training were disrupted. Exports, imports, business services, transport and tourism were also affected. Member states that heavily rely on the service sector like Comoros, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt and Madagascar were the most affected. Health services were stretched. On the positive side, financial services were less affected due to the digitisation that has taken place.
Only six per cent of the population of Africa has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, and there is a need to manufacture vaccines locally. How is COMESA helping with this?
COMESA is strongly advocating the manufacture of vaccines in our region due to the difficulties that our countries and the continent at large have been facing in accessing vaccines. Already member states such as Egypt have taken the lead in this direction, and we are looking forward to more countries starting to manufacture vaccines.
What are the lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic? Is there a need to rethink African development?
There is a need to build resilient economies that can withstand shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic that disrupted the global economy. The situation requires a rapid shift towards a development approach to Africa’s integration with a focus on digital transformation. As a region, we are interdependent; hence, there is a need to deepen cooperation in solving the challenges we collectively face. We need to trade more with each other and to strengthen our supply chains. The pandemic has demonstrated that no one country or region is safe unless everyone across the globe is safe. We need to upscale the production of essential commodities such as medicines to avoid being vulnerable to the discriminatory actions of some major source markets, such as what we have seen with vaccine nationalism.
COMESA has been observing elections held in its member states since 2006. It observed Egypt’s presidential elections in 2018. Why does COMESA, a regional economic community, carry out election observation?
Election observation is part of the COMESA Governance, Peace, and Security (GPS) Programme. It serves to entrench transparency in the conduct of elections. This ensures that the outcomes of elections are credible and acceptable, thus preventing electoral disputes that can lead to conflict and possible violence. The initiative aims at ensuring that peace and security prevail by addressing one of the triggers of conflict. A peaceful and politically stable economy is also a key ingredient in creating a conducive environment in which business and trade can thrive. This is critical in promoting COMESA’s integration agenda.
How would you sum up Egypt’s participation in COMESA’s programmes thus far?
Egypt is one of the most active COMESA members in the implementation of the organisation’s programmes. A review of intra-COMESA trade shows that Egypt, as a member of the COMESA Free Trade Area since 31 October 2000, has continued to be a top performing economy in the region. For example, the value of Egypt’s exports accounted for 20.1 per cent of the total value of intra-COMESA exports in 2020. On the import side, Egypt accounted for 8.1 per cent of the intra-COMESA import market share. Egypt has also been strong on infrastructure projects, such as the proposed Lake Victoria-Mediterranean Sea (VICMED) navigational route through the Nile River. The country hosts the COMESA Regional Investment Agency (RIA), and the 21st COMESA Summit hosted by Egypt on 23 November 2021 was very successful given the extraordinary circumstances we are operating in. These are just a few examples of Egypt’s role.
President Al-Sisi has emphasised the importance of having products labelled “Made in COMESA”. What are the challenges of this and when do you think it will be achieved?
This initiative is critical in promoting authentic African products by supporting their origination in COMESA countries. The challenges may include ensuring the protection of intellectual property, and countries should establish instruments that protect the intellectual property of authentic African products and innovations. There is also the challenge of changing mindsets from their affinity with imported products from the developed countries. Another challenge is how fast countries will buy into the idea and put in place policies to promote locally produced products. Egypt together with the COMESA Business Council (CBC) could champion the adoption of a “Made in COMESA” label at the COMESA Council of Ministers meeting in 2022. The CBC is the recognised voice of the private sector in the region, bringing together a diverse group of businesses within a common platform to influence the regional business agenda.
What is expected from Egypt’s chairmanship of the COMESA and what are the highlights of the 2022 COMESA work programme?
President Al-Sisi’s vision is aligned with the COMESA strategy for 2021-25 on deepening regional integration across various sectors. These include the elimination of barriers to trade, industrialisation, infrastructure development, greater investments in health, and promoting the private sector. This harmony of President Al-Sisi’s focus with the COMESA strategy will contribute immensely to the achievement of the socio-economic development of our region. COMESA’s 2022 programme focuses on four critical pillars of our Medium-Term Strategic Plan (MTSP) for 2021-2025: market integration, physical integration/connectivity, productive integration, and gender and social integration.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.