Africa free trade chief kicks off global engagement with Washington visit

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 17 December 2021 19:07

African Union "Women and young Africans are at the heart of the implementation of #AfCFTA - H.E @MeneWamkele Statement by AfCFTA SG delivered at the handover ceremony of the AfCFTA Secretariat to African Union ( © AfricanUnion/twitter

The head of Africa’s fledgling free trade area stopped by Washington this week for his first official visit outside the continent, the latest sign of high hopes for improved US business ties under the Joe Biden administration.

Almost two years since his selection as secretary general of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Wamkele Mene met with senior US diplomats and trade officials as well as diaspora business leaders and other potential investors. Over the course of several public appearances, he repeatedly praised the new tone in Washington since the change of administration and made the case for US public and private investment in Africa.

“This is the first government I am meeting with outside of Africa,” Mene tells The Africa Report in a brief interview at a diaspora roundtable organised by the African Union Mission to the US and the US government’s multi-agency Prosper Africa initiative. “I wanted to make sure that first, we consolidate relations with countries that are state parties to the agreement and now we can start talking to everybody else.”

“We appreciate the difference in […] diplomacy, the positive diplomacy,” Mene says. “But we want to make sure that we build on a strong, mutually respectful partnership and I hope that that will be taken on board – that we move away from the type of relationship that we had with the US in the past, particularly in the last four years (under President Donald Trump), that we have more respect, more understanding that Africa has a lot to offer to the United States.”

A new Africa seeks new partnerships

During a busy week of meetings at government offices alongside Washington think tanks, the South African diplomat patiently and repeatedly explained the backstory of the history trade pact, seeking to dispel enduring misconceptions about the continent.

Signed by every African country, save for Eritrea, and ratified by 39 (Tanzania was the latest to join, in September), the AfCFTA came into force on 1 January. It is one of 15 flagship projects of Agenda 2063, which the African Union adopted in 2013.

Mene was elected in February by African Union heads of state and sworn in a month later. At a speech at the Wilson Center earlier this week, he described Africa as market – of 1.3 billion people with a GDP of $3.4trn – that is eager to move beyond the trade model inherited from colonial times, of commodity exports and imports of high-value manufactured goods, in favor of home-grown industrialisation.

“We want a mutually respectful partnership,” he said. “The days when we could be told what to do, how to do it, are gone and those were not happy days to begin with.”

He insisted those days are “long gone” and pointed out that pre-Covid-19, the continent was growing at 3.5% per year, with six of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies. US investors, he said, should get in on the ground floor of a trade pact that could boost regional income by $450bn and lift 30 million people out of poverty by 2035, according to the World Bank.

“This agreement, in my view, provides an opportunity for US businesses and investors to invest in Africa,” he said during his Wilson Center lecture that was sponsored by Brown Capital Management. “And for those who are already in the market, to expand their investments in line with the market access opportunities that this agreement provides.”

Africa is not about what one human being described as ‘shithole countries’… There certainly is a great deal more to our continent than the perceptions that we sometimes see on mainstream media – with a child who is hungry and has flies around her face.

Mene also detailed a private-sector investment strategy focusing in the immediate future on priority value chains, including pharmaceuticals, automotive and financial technologies. On that note, he said the AfCFTA is developing an intellectual property rights regime that will balance patent rights with affordable access to life-saving drugs.

“It is more important to save lives than to make money when you’re faced with a global pandemic,” he said. “And the intellectual property rights regime of the AfCFTA will actually reflect that very, very important endeavor.”

Those early investment priorities notably came up on Monday during Mene’s meeting with US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and her deputies, as did the AfCFTA’s development of a protocol to address issues of women and young people in the implementation of the agreement. He also met during his US trip with Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, who traveled to Africa this summer.

The two parties “shared their visions for further engagement and discussed ways to support regional integration, promote collaboration in support of regional value chains across Africa, attract positive investment on the continent, and improve African workers’ livelihoods and opportunities,” according to a readout of the meeting by the Office of the US Trade Representative. US officials “also expressed their enthusiasm for the AfCFTA initiative to negotiate a protocol for women and youth.”

Frank words

Throughout his visit, Mene did not hold back on criticism of US policies and media depictions of Africa, which continue to hurt investor confidence in the continent. In 2019, Africa accounted for just 1.4% of US trade and 0.7% of US foreign direct investment, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“Africa is not about what one human being described as ‘shithole countries’,” he said, in reference to Trump’s widely reported dismissal of the continent. “There certainly is a great deal more to our continent than the perceptions that we sometimes see on mainstream media – with a child who is hungry and has flies around her face.”

At the diaspora roundtable, he again castigated Trump’s approach to the continent, in particular, its focus on combatting Chinese influence rather than treating Africa as a partner for its sake. In contrast, during a visit last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he wanted to offer Africa “choices”.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration did not escape criticism.

In his opening remarks at the Wilson Center, Mene said he almost didn’t come at all, but planned to address the forum virtually from AfCFTA headquarters in Ghana, in “protest” of the Biden administration’s travel ban on Southern African states. He credited the persuasiveness of Africa program director Monde Muyangwa, who also happens to be Biden’s nominee for assistant administrator for Africa at the USAID, for changing his mind.

Mene then denounced the ongoing “uninformed, ignorant and quite frankly astoundingly stupid stereotypes about the African continent” – including the idea that the Omicron variant emerged in South Africa and Botswana, when it was in fact first detected there after making the rounds in Europe for weeks prior.

“I certainly expected something like that from those who called us shithole countries. I didn’t expect it from our friends today,” he said, adding that the travel ban has disrupted access to global supply chains and imports of life-saving drugs.

“From a trade point of view I’m very, very concerned about the impact of these restrictions,” he said. “I’m very concerned about the right of these countries to engage in international trade and also to engage in global supply chains.”

Dana Banks, the senior director for Africa at the White House National Security Council, was in the audience and told Mene she had heard his concerns loud and clear.

Now or never

While bullish on Africa, Mene made it clear that the continent lags far behind other regions on a range of indicators. Africa has 17% of the world population, but only 2% of global trade.

He described the AfCFTA as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to integrate African economies.

If you have a trade agreement that lacks inclusivity, it’s not going to succeed, particularly in the context of Africa, where almost 60% of GDP is derived from small and medium enterprises, creating over 450 million jobs.

“I don’t see this unprecedented political will, I don’t see it coming back again,” he said at the Wilson Center forum. “I certainly do not see the coming generations forgiving us for squandering an opportunity to improve the conditions of millions and millions of Africans and to place our continent on a path for global competitiveness in decades to come.”

He also warned about a successful trade pact that only benefits the wealthy few – something he reluctantly acknowledged Trump had successfully tapped into for political gain with his rhetoric about China and Mexico stealing American jobs.

“If you have a trade agreement that lacks inclusivity, it’s not going to succeed, particularly in the context of Africa, where almost 60% of GDP is derived from small and medium enterprises, creating over 450 million jobs,” he said. “If it benefits only the large corporations, it’s not going to succeed.”

As for Covid-19, he tells The Africa Report that it has made implementation of the free trade agreement more difficult, but also given it a boost by shining a harsh light on how far the continent lags the rest of the world, notably on access to vaccines.

“The biggest positive to come out of that is that we have realised that we must accelerate Africa’s industrialisation if we want to succeed and we want to be more self-reliant,” he said. “That’s really the biggest and the best take-away in my opinion and we have an opportunity because of Covid-19 to look at and prioritise sectors of Africa’s economy that will drive that industrialisation and that will drive that self-sufficiency that we want to see.”

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