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Integrating Africa: Panelists demand ‘political will’

BY: Isaac Yeboah
Madam Janet Heckman, Managing Director, Southern and Mediterranean Region of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
Madam Janet Heckman, Managing Director, Southern and Mediterranean Region of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

The applause has been loud from Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, where the African Development Bank (AfDB) Group is holding its 54th Annual Meetings on the refined theme of Regional Integration for Africa’s Economic Prosperity.

Speaker after speaker at a luncheon on “African Economic Outlook” rationalised why achieving that elusive dream of economic incorporation remains highly possible and desirable, except that they also diagnosed the same age-old challenge of why Africa has failed so far – political will, and the lack of it.

Madam Janet Heckman, Managing Director, Southern and Mediterranean Region of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said integration underlines the aspirations of many millions of the continent’s people and who demand it.

It is possible

“I think it’s absolutely critical,” she told Graphic Online in an exclusive interview after sharing the spotlight to dissect the challenge, adding that “It’s important to have the needs and the demands of the people of the region in order to be successful in opening up the barriers that exist to free trade. So if you take the example of the European Union, you have the downfall of the socialist regimes in the former Eastern Europe and it is part of the requirements for being part of the European Union – they needed to make certain economic and political reforms and the desire to become part of the European Union was so strong that it resulted in those reforms being carried out.

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“Across Africa really we’ve seen several free trade agreements before, but now that we see the type of economic growth that’s necessary to sustain the growing populations in the region, I think that people will demand the types of reforms that are necessary and start to break down the borders.”

According to Madam Janet Heckman, bringing people from all over Africa to Equatorial Guinea, it is extremely appropriate that the topic of the conference is African Regional Integration. “It’s really what’s needed for growth and stimulation of the economy,” she stressed, virtually echoing the words of AfDB's President Akinwumi Adesina, who had told journalists at a press conference to herald the annual meetings that should Africa get integration right, it could develop with dignity and confidence.

PHOTO: Prof. Mthuli Ncube, Zimbabwe's Minister of Finance and past Vice President & Chief Economist at the AfDB Group

We are on track

For Prof. Mthuli Ncube, Zimbabwe's Minister of Finance and past Vice President & Chief Economist at the AfDB Group, integrating Africa should not be a reinventing of the wheel, as Africa can and should learn from those who have blazed the trail.

He believes Africa is on the right path to integration and even though it may still cost time, there should be no going back.

The continent last March agreed to an African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) pact due to be launched next month in furtherance of regional integration, and with it, the promised reality of emerging the world’s largest free trade bloc.

This promise notwithstanding, Prof. Ncube thinks the Free Trade Area should be seen as the beginning of the move to integrate, because “It is also the beginning of trying to eliminate the overlapping regional economic barriers and organisations and political organisations in the various parts of Africa. So the Free Trade Area is really to eliminate that, but also the beginning of eliminating the political hurdle. It takes time, you know, also in this global milieu of de-globalisation where every country is now beginning to focus on itself, which is resulting in trade losses, we know them.

Free borders

“It’s not easy for countries to really open up, be welcoming, be part of the greater Africa but the direction of travel is certainly the right one”, he said, explaining that with all of Africa ratifying and committing to the Free Trade Area, being ready for integration means taking the necessary steps.

“I think one key area is that of movement of people and allowing Africans to come in and out of Zimbabwe in terms of visas, or indeed into Ghana, or Nigeria or wherever. But this shouldn’t be difficult, we can learn from other regions, ECOWAS, for example, has done very well in terms of eliminating visas for travel so movement of people to me is low hanging fruit that I think we can fix very easily. Even just in terms of issuing visas on arrival, or visa online, just make it easy, then eventually, hopefully, eliminate visas,” he pointed out.

Integrate Africa is one of five development priorities for the AfDB Group aimed at transforming the lives of Africans in consonance with the United Nations agenda on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The full complement of the development priorities, commonly called The High 5s are;

  • The Integrate Africa
  • Light up and Power Africa
  • Feed Africa
  • Industrialize Africa
  • Integrate Africa
  • Improve the quality of life of people of Africa