Alfred Wandera, Joseph Olanyo and Grace Matsiko Munyonyo
The Monitor (Kampala) - 23 October 2008
The first Tripartite Summit ended in Kampala yesterday with leaders from 26 African countries belonging to the three regional economic blocs in East and southern Africa resolving to merge the blocs into a single regional market.
The merger will lead to the creation of the largest free trade area in Africa, with a population of over 527 million people and a combined GDP of $624 billion.
The African leaders, who directed the tripartite task force to develop a roadmap for the implementation of this merger within six months, noted that the union is yet another step towards the attainment of the African Economic Community.
The summit, bringing together leaders of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), the East African Community (EAC), and the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), also resolved to work towards the establishment of a single customs union.
Speaking at the summit, new South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, also chairman of Sadc, said, "The process we have embarked on today marks an important step towards the realisation of building an economic bloc in today's challenging world that will increase the levels of intra-Africa trade. By coming together, the member states will have a strong voice in advancing our interests on the international scene."
The leaders, who attended the summit, include Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, the current chairman of Comesa; Rwanda's Paul Kagame, chairman of the EAC; Tanzania's Jakaya Kikwete, African Union chairman; and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
Mr Kikwete described the summit as "a historic meeting that we see as long over due". "It is my hope that the summit will come to a decision where we have a strong and united bloc," he said. Mr Kibaki said the summit heralded the start of "an unprecedented process of great significance for both our region and the entire African continent".
The Kenyan president said the summit provides the three economic blocs with an opportunity to establish a cooperation framework and create an environment in which millions of people can be lifted out of poverty.
"Let this summit be the first step in an unstoppable march towards an integrated Africa. Our nation's founding fathers realised a dream of regional economic integration," Mr Kibaki added. "We must move their dream a level higher by looking beyond our regions and realising that this tripartite summit can lay the most formidable foundation in our long cherished dream of an African Economic Community."
The formation of the free trade area by the three blocs will, however, have to overcome a number of hurdles, especially the multiple memberships of some countries to various trade blocs and fear by the weaker economies of being flooded by goods from their stronger counterparts like South Africa and Egypt.
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni told the summit that regional integration is a strategic tool for the group since it can use the huge market to ensure the future prosperity of its people.
Mr Museveni added that the member countries should also look beyond having an economic bloc. "Apart from the economic injustice by the developed world, their overwhelming military superiority is a threat to the future of Africa."
"Some people are saying they want to build their superiority on water, air and land. Where does this leave us?" he asked the participants. "Why should Africans insure cars and bicycles but do not insure Africa?
"Economic integration is not enough. There is need for political integration which will bring about a common army to protect the interests of Africa," Mr Museveni added. The summit also addressed the current global financial crisis undermining economic stability across the world, saying it is posing a serious threat to the growth of the African economies particularly in terms of demand for African exports.
"While Africa and other developing countries had marginal influence over the decisions that have brought the international finance systems to the brink of collapse, unjustifiably African countries will bear the brunt," Mr Motlanthe told the summit. "Developing countries must be included in the governance of all international financing institutions to mitigate adverse effects on them," he added.
In a communiqué read by the EAC Secretary General, Ambassador Juma Mwapachu, at the end of the summit, the Recs called for collective action to help African developing and least developing countries to address the adverse impact of the financial crisis and the global economic melt down.