Wednesday, October 7, 2009

African Leaders Address U.S.-Africa Business Summit

Improving the living standards of their people should be the only justification for any political leader in Africa to stay in power, Ghanaian President John Evans Atta Mills told the Seventh Biennial U.S.-Africa Business Summit September 30. He also stressed the important role regional integration plays in promoting economic development.

Appearing as part of a presidential plenary session at the summit, Mills said "nothing else matters" but creating the "necessary environment to promote business, either locally or to attract foreign direct investment," which, he said, "has no fixed allegiance or nationality, but goes where it is most welcome."

Mills, a law professor and former Fulbright scholar, appeared at the plenary along with three other African heads of state: President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, President Fradique Bandeira Melo de Menezes of Sao Tome and Principe and President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo. They were joined by Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission and a former foreign minister of Gabon. All echoed the need for greater regional integration across Africa.

Mills said Ghanaians have realized one thing: "We cannot go it alone. The days of xenophobia are over. Now there is interdependence among states and we believe that charity begins at home." For that reason, he said, "the issue of regional integration is very important."

There are many reasons why people want to invest in Africa, he told his audience of business executives, entrepreneurs and government officials attending three-day Washington event.

People want markets for their products, Mills said, and they want to invest where they find political stability and "an ease of doing business" in a low-cost environment. Thus, he said, regional integration in Africa is needed now more than ever.

"The people who voted us into power don't owe us anything," Mills said. "They only want us to improve their standard of living. ... What do our people have but hope for a better future? And we cannot disappoint them."

Echoing that point, Rwandan President Paul Kagame - whose government has been voted the top world reformer in the recently published World Bank report Doing Business 2010 - said his government and citizens are working to be the "best we can be" in their quest for prosperity.

"What we have done is what other people can do. It is not magic," he said. "We have focused on stabilizing our country, making sure there is peace and security ... [and] institutions of governance that deliver the public good as required."

Kagame said his government is interacting globally, while working within a regional setting. He said his government has tried to make it easy to do business in Rwanda by working with international partners to help streamline the process, eliminate obstacles and make sure the process works. "You can have good laws, you can have good regulations, you can have all kinds of things very well written on the paper and very impressive, but if you don't follow through ... things will go wrong."

Infrastructure is crucial to facilitate business, he said. "You cannot talk about an increased volume of trade when there are no roads, there are no rails, and there are problems of air transport. ... At the same time, you cannot talk about increased investments unless you can show that you can provide electricity for industry. You cannot talk about communication and all that comes with it ... unless you are able to put in place the Internet" and make it accessible and linked to international networks.

"The best way to fight poverty is through business," Kagame said.

President Fradique Bandeira Melo de Menezes of the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe also talked about regional integration and its importance to Africa's development process. Sao Tome and Principe operates a joint development zone with Nigeria, has linked its currency to the euro through Portugal and established an investment code to aid foreign investors. "We believe that we cannot develop as a country without regional integration," he told his audience.

While the country is primarily agricultural, with large cocoa exports, he said, its oil revenues are deposited into a transparent account with the U.S. Treasury to protect the revenues for future generations.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo also urged regional integration. More than 100 million consumers can be found in the Congo Basin and surrounding region, with 10 countries and a huge potential new market. What is needed, he said, is coordinated economic development in infrastructure, roads, railways, airports and electricity.

Jean Ping, representing the African Union, said building infrastructure and improving regional integration will bolster intra-African trade. Africa today is divided by 165 borders, among 53 countries. "So you can see the necessity for us to combine our efforts," he told his audience.

The African continent has 1 billion inhabitants, according to the United Nations, Ping said, and is forecast to have 1.4 billion inhabitants in 2020. "We live in a world which is characterized by globalization ... and regional integration," he said, noting that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are two African organizations working toward greater regional integration.

"Africa simply wants to be a continent like others ... free from need ... free from fear - the fear of tyranny ... violence and ... war," Ping said. "We want to live in peace."

(Published by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State).