Written by Moses Talemwa - Wednesday, 22 October 2008
A meet of heads of state of Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa , Southern Africa Development Community and East African Community that opened over the weekend was called to among other issues to discuss creation of a visa-free regime across the 26 countries in the three economic blocs.
The move, if implemented, is likely to spur trade across the region. Local traders plying the region have welcomed the discussions.
The traders argue that the discussions could end complaints of the long process of acquiring a visa. Visa fees to a country like South Africa go anywhere between $60 and above.
If passed, the resolution could strengthen the COMESA market’s top position as Uganda’s main export destination. The region accounted for exports worth $506 million in 2007.
Prior to the opening of the summit, Minister for East African affairs, Eriya Kategaya, told journalists at the Media Centre that Uganda had to open up its borders to boost its comparative advantage. “You open up consciously or risk being shut out of business,” he said.
However skeptics are calling for caution over the negotiations. “If we haven’t succeeded in the EAC region of just five nations, it may take us even longer in 26 countries,” said Issa Sekitto, Kampala City Traders Association spokesman.
He complained that traders still have trouble with the East Africa Customs Union, with countries changing goal posts over the rules. “Some countries banned the importation of certain goods like rice from outside the region then turned around and changed.”
But while easing movement between these countries is likely to widen the market for Uganda’s exports, the elimination of visa fees could open more floodgates for cheap imports and cheap labour – which could be a recipe for disaster.
Early this year, violent skirmishes broke out in South Africa, when the locals there targeted foreigners, accusing them of taking all the jobs.
On the other hand, Ugandan companies have suffered silently at the hands of cheap imports. KenGroup, the manufacturers of paper, early this year laid off all their casual and part time staff totaling about 300 due to high operational costs and the competition from books from South Africa and China.
The meeting brought together 26 heads of State from the countries of the East African Community (EAC), Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Among other matters, the tripartite summit looked at trade arrangements and infrastructural development aimed at harmonising commerce in the region and providing a solution for the region’s underdevelopment.
The Tripartite framework, which was planned through the secretariats of COMESA, EAC and SADC, was born out of the need to harmonize the overlapping membership in the three trading blocs.