COMESA Customs Union Good for Africa But...
"Which African will pay for an anti-malaria spraying service?" an official from a Western foundation asked. "You know what - Africans are used to free things. Set up an NGO and we can help subsidize your activities," he went on. This conversation took place following an accidental meeting in a Western Kenya cyber café, where a hawk eyed mzungu peeped into one computer screen and could not hold back his surprise that some black fellow was dreaming to turn the anti - malaria war into a business opportunity.
The launching of the customs union for The Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) is good news only if the policy makers behind it propose a new economic model. If the plan is to simply transform tiny markets of economic spectators into a giant 400 million strong prison of poverty; then Africans ought to be very cautious. The current economic model supervised by international finance institutions has turned the majority of Africans to squatters in their own land; illegal traders in their own city streets and "enemies" of the market.
The customs union will only be of benefit to Africans if governments of the 19 member states proactively seek to increase the productivity of their populations by eradicating archaic policies. For instance, the union will not add value if the school systems in the region still churn out graduates whose key dream is to go and fix problems in the west! The union will make little sense to Africans if as noted by the mzungu above, the current economic model that specializes in breeding begging Africans is not overhauled. The upcoming expanded market will only serve to destroy indigenous foods, brews, sports, art and medicine among others. The point is, we must have a conscious effort to facilitate and enable indigenous industries to become globally competitive by seeking to differentiate the value we offer to the global economy as opposed to simply seeking to mirror it.
Western experts do not expect Africans to be productive enough to pay for a life saving service against malaria. Who is paying for the over 200 million pre paid mobile phone subscribers in Africa? Is it not double standards to discuss the ability of Africans to acquire and use cell phone technology, consume 3 million barrels of petroleum per day; consume Coca Cola, and other alcoholic beverages among other products and at the same time position people on the continent as beggars? The mzungu is keen to push the continent to "the hand that taketh economics." This type of economic model is the biggest threat to COMESA dreams of a self reliant Africa.
Obviously, the new customs union will face challenges ranging from harmonizing policy frameworks of 19 members states; dealing with members who belong to multiple regional groups; conflict in individual member countries; bad politics in some and overall lack of people preparedness for the union among others. To enable the union to take off quickly, the member states ought to make it easier for individual travel within the region and establish businesses. For instance, I was so impressed with how easy it was for one to set up shop in Kampala Uganda in comparison to Kenya. Changing the mindset of bureaucrats to start viewing indigenous investors as part of the key to economic prosperity ought to be the focus.
It is also important that policy makers take President Museveni's observation that "... a cow with a swollen mouth does not stop others from eating." Representing the East African market of around 150 million people, Mr.Museveni pointed out that East Africa was not yet ready for the union and needed more time. The new COMESA chair Robert Mugabe took the cue to go ahead and launch the customs union having noted reservations of East Africans. For the union to work, reasons behind cows with "swollen mouths" must be identified and be resolved otherwise the herd risks loosing some of its members.
Will the current crop of leaders deliver the dream COMESA that will serve the interests of 400 million Africans? The citizenry in the region ought not to peg their hopes on the freedom fighter generation that rides on entitlement. The regional bloc risks being slowed down by the very same culture of entitlement that has chained millions to poverty because the power elites believe that they are the only ones to manage the national pie.
The citizenry should take advantage of the customs union to travel and take a break from the political and economic suffocation they have in their individual countries. Whether the travel is by donkey, or by bus, it is important that budding entrepreneurs take advantage of this initiative. The customs union will turn the citizenry into street hawkers and slum dwellers if policy makers do not urgently address reasons why Africans have remained spectators in the global economy.
COMESA should help implement a new economic model that avoids reliance on the World Bank and IMF prescriptions. Africans freed from suffocation of those who have predetermined notions about people on the continent will surely be in a position to utilize her natural wealth to pay for all services they find of value to them.
By James Shikwati
Mr. Shikwati is the Director of Inter Region Economic Network
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