Free trade, crises in spotlight as AU leaders meet

NOUAKCHOTT, June 29: African leaders meet in Mauritania from Sunday for a two-day summit focusing on free trade, funding, corruption and the continent’s many security crises.

More than 40 heads of state or government are expected in the capital Nouakchott, joined on Monday by French President Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to make a push for a security initiative in the Sahel.

Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, who holds the presidency of the 55-nation African Union (AU), will make a call to promote free trade.

Currently, African countries only conduct about 16 percent of their business with each other, the smallest amount of intra-regional trade compared to Latin America, Asia, North America and Europe.

But change is in the air.

In March, 44 nations signed a pact in March to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) — billed as the world’s largest in terms of participating countries.

The fruit of two years of negotiations, the CFTA is one of the AU’s flagship projects for greater African integration.

If all 55 African Union members eventually sign up, it will create a bloc with a cumulative GDP of USD 2.5 trillion (two trillion euros) and cover a market of 1.2 billion people.

But two of the continent’s economic heavyweights, South Africa and Nigeria — whose president, Muhammadu Buhari, is expected at the meeting — are notable CFTA absentees.

Kagame will also press ahead with two-year-old proposals aimed at boosting funds and easing the AU’s dependence on foreign donors — a point often raised by critics who see the organisation as bigger on words than actions.

The idea is for a 0.2-per cent tax on some imports to boost a “Peace Fund” for financing peace and security missions.

Of the AU’s USD 769-million (664-million-euro) budget, USD 451 million comes from foreign donors, who also stump up for 97 per cent of its programmes.

Fighting corruption is one of the official objectives of the summit — graft-busters will look closely at what Africa intends to do to ease its reputation as the world’s most tarnished place to do business.

Transparency International, in its latest Corruption Perceptions Index published in February, said corruption was entrenched in South Sudan and Somalia, among other places.

But it also says the overall picture in Africa is mixed, and a leadership group is emerging in the fight against graft.

“Botswana, Seychelles, Cape Verde, Rwanda and Namibia all score better on the index compared to some OECD countries like Italy, Greece and Hungary,” it noted.

“The key ingredient that the top performing African countries have in common is political leadership that is consistently committed to anti-corruption,” the report said.

“While the majority of countries already have anti-corruption laws and institutions in place, these leading countries go an extra step to ensure implementation.” The many crises besetting Africa will be high on the leaders’ agenda.

Macron, due to join the talks on Monday, will focus on the progress made by the G5 Sahel force, tasked with fighting jihadist groups and lawlessness in the vast region.

The force, scheduled to pool 5,000 troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, was supposed to be fully up and running in March, but has been delayed and faces funding worries — a major concern to Macron, who has thrown his weight behind the project.

On the positive side, leaders will look closely at a planned ceasefire in South Sudan’s civil war and at the detente between Ethiopia and Eritrea, whose relations have been poisoned for decades.

However, DR Congo President Joseph Kabila — whose volatile country faces elections in December that some fear could spur conflict — is not scheduled to attend.

Kagame has also made clear he would seek support at the summit for his foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, in her bid to become the next leader of the International Organisation of La Francophonie, the French-speaking equivalent of the Commonwealth.

Education and government business in Rwanda are conducted in English, which was made an official language in 2008, but French is still spoken. (AGENCIES)


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