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Opportunities and challenges for the next COMESA chief executive


Depending on his or her level of ambition, the news Secretary General of COMESA might wish to position COMESA as a base in a technology and finance driven global economy. Gravitas and political influence across the region, sound analytics, courage, fair play, prudence, and complex problem solving skills will therefore be handy, writes Francis Mangeni.

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) will appoint a new Secretary General next year 2018, through a competitive process. This is after the expiry of the tenure of the current chief executive. With 19 countries, a geographical size of 11.6 million square kilometers, a combined GDP of USD 755 billion and a population of 520 million, COMESA makes up a third of Africa. It is the largest regional economic body in Africa. What is more is that it has enormous potential, for instance USD 82.4 billion in unutilized intra-COMESA trade opportunities. 

The new Secretary General will find an organization that has robust trade framework that promotes transparency, predictability and planning; as well as policy and regulatory frameworks in areas of industrialization, surface and air transport, energy, agriculture, information technology, and communication technology. Naturally though, as with many institutions, he or she will find challenges to mop up, especially low ownership by the countries, personnel and recruitment management, financial stewardship and resource mobilization. Depending on his or her level of ambition, he or she might wish to position COMESA as a base in a technology and finance driven global economy. Gravitas and political influence across the region, sound analytics, courage, fair play, prudence, and complex problem solving skills will therefore be handy. A person possessing this sort of capital is usually a former Head of Government, Minister or CEO who is savvy in intergovernmental evidence-based policy making and demonstrable development practice. 

Focusing on trade and investment, COMESA established the first free trade area in Africa on October 13, 2000 and has pioneered several trade facilitation instruments. These include regional road standards for vehicle dimensions and axle loads, road user charges, carriers' license and transit freedom that create a regional transportation market. Others include the automated system for customs data, the single administrative customs documentation, regional transit bond system, regional third party motor insurance, and flexible rules of origin, which have facilitated trade and reduced the cost of doing business. Its system of resolving trade disputes is very successful. The 204 trade disputes reported since 2008 have been resolved except five currently outstanding. 

A number of its trade and investment institutions have performed beyond expectation, becoming continental or global, such as its Trade and Development Bank, the African Trade Insurance Agency, the Reinsurance Company, and the Leather Institute; as well as a regional competition Commission (being only the second in the world after the European Competition Commission) and a business council. COMESA also has a regional court of justice, which has produced important jurisprudence on regional trade in a free trade area, clarifying the rules.

The COMESA Treaty gives the Secretary General enormous powers, which can be put to good use. He or she has powers to convene high level and technical meetings of the 19 countries, and is chief executive of the organization. The next chief executive has an opportunity to put COMESA on a new footing. Development thinking has gone through seismic changes since the 1990s when the organization was formed. "Minds not mines" sums up these changes. It will be appropriate to vision COMESA as a technology and financial base in a single market, and align this goal with the global sustainable development goals to be achieved over the next 12 or so years by 2030. Global knowledge doubles every 12 months. A mechanism for systematically harnessing, localizing and commercializing skills and innovation from around the world, as well as patient capital, could assist achievement of this vision.

Lack of sustainable adequate resources has hobbled the organization. Contributions from member states under a formula have not yielded enough, leaving a huge gap for donor dependence. At the same time, COMESA institutions have been financially successful and could be given the opportunity to chip in through contributing a percentage of their revenues. This will require mobilizing these institutions to this effort. Other innovative sources of revenue could include establishing a regional e-market with a small charge on transactions. An equivalent of a COMESA e-bay or Amazon or Alibaba would revolutionize trade and resource mobilization in the region, while also greatly supporting SMEs to reach a global market. 

Fortunately, President Paul Kagame has proposed some reforms for the African Union, now being implemented. He has called for a lean and efficient secretariat, focusing on a few clear priorities and eliminating much bureaucracy, as well as resources mobilization through contribution of a small percentage charged on trade taxes. These proposals form a template for Africa's regional organizations, which should now work more coherently with the African Union. 

Business processes to achieve the vision and utilize resources will be required. Staff for the secretariat should be individuals who love their job "so they never have to work another day" as Confucius advised. A premium should be put on complex problem solving and analytics. Apart from professionalism, and while having clear reporting structures and responsibilities, a culture of team work and psychological safety should mould the whole secretariat into a joyful service provided by passionate, smart and energetic individuals. 

The new Secretary General will need to decisively address perennial challenges that choke the organization, arising from waning ownership by member states that explains low implementation of key programs and donor dependence, as well as acrimonious recruitment and financial management squabbles that have characterized a number of high level meetings.

In conclusion, COMESA needs good leaders to step forward. Above all, and building on the milestones achieved so far, the new chief executive to be recruited next year should have clout and skills to reposition this important organization so it can be a force for good in the world, creating peace and prosperity. Based on the principle of sublimity, best practices at national level should inform regional level processes and outcomes. 

Ed.’s Note: Francis Mangeni is the Director of Trade and Customs at the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.