FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka
WHAT should the new Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) secretary general expect as she takes up office as chief executive officer of the continent’s largest economic bloc?
Chileshe Mpundu Kapwepwe, the new COMESA Secretary General, becomes the first female and only the sixth person to occupy that office since 1994 when the regional body was transformed from the Preferential Trade Area (PTA) to COMESA.
She is a Zambian chartered accountant, corporate executive and former deputy minister of finance who took office effective July 18, 2018 during the 20th COMESA Heads of State and Government Summit in Lusaka.
Ms Kapwepwe has vast experience in the areas of governance, public policy and financial management.
Her career extends over a quarter century in local and international organisations in both public and private sectors.
Her past assignments include that of executive director for the International Monetary Fund for the Africa Group One Constituency, based in Washington DC, United States of America.
Ms Kapwepwe also served, in the past, as the managing director of the Zambia National Airports Corporation and has chaired a number of important boards such as that of the Zambia Revenue Authority, among others.
She was also the contracts manager of Société Générale de Surveillance, based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Ms Kapwepwe took over from Sindiso Ndema Ngwenya, of Zimbabwe, who served the organisation for 34 years in different capacities with diligence and dedication and occupied the office of COMESA secretary general from May 2008 to July 2018.
Mr Ngwenya replaced Mr Erastus J.O. Mwencha, of Kenya, who was COMESA secretary general from 1998 to 2008.
The position of COMESA secretary general has a two term tenure of office segmented in five-year terms.
COMESA was initially established in 1981 as the Preferential Trade Area for eastern and southern Africa, within the framework of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)’s Lagos Plan of Action and the Final Act of Lagos before transforming the PTA into COMESA in 1994.
The COMESA Treaty recognises under Article 163, that peace and security are fundamental prerequisites to social and economic development and also vital to the achievement of regional economic integration objectives of the common market.
COMESA comprises 19 African member states that came together with the aim of promoting regional integration through trade and the development of natural and human resources for the mutual benefit of all people in the region.
The member states have agreed on the need to create and maintain a full free trade area guaranteeing the free movement of goods and services produced within COMESA and the removal of all tariffs and non-tariff barriers.
The regional body also agreed that a customs union under which goods and services imported from non-COMESA countries will attract an agreed single tariff in all COMESA member states.
Free movement of capital and investment, supported by the adoption of a common investment area so as to create a more favourable investment climate for the COMESA region, is one of the agreed terms by member states.
The regional economic bloc also wants gradual establishment of a payment union based on the COMESA Clearing House and the eventual establishment of a common monetary union with a common currency; and the adoption of common visa arrangements, including the right of establishment leading eventually to the free movement of bona fide persons.
Now, what does the job of COMESA secretary general entail and what should Ms Kapwepwe expect as she occupies that office at COMESA headquarters in Lusaka on Ben Bella Road?
To start with, COMESA has 19 member states with a geographical size of 11.6 million square kilometres, a combined GDP of US$755 billion and a population of 520 million. The regional body makes up a third of the entire African continent.
Furthermore, COMESA has enormous potential, for instance the US$82.4 billion in unutilised intra-COMESA trade opportunities.
According to COMESA director of trade, customs and monetary affairs Francis Mangeni, the new secretary general will find an organisation that has robust trade framework that promotes transparency, predictability and planning.
In his in-depth analysis of what kind of a regional body the new secretary general was taking over, Dr Mangeni said COMESA has strong policy and regulatory frameworks in areas of industrialisation, surface and air transport, energy, agriculture, information, and communications technology.
Naturally, though, as with many institutions, Ms Kapwepwe will find challenges to mop up, especially low ownership by the countries, personnel and recruitment management, financial stewardship and resource mobilisation, according to Dr Mangeni.
Depending on the new secretary General’s level of ambition, she might wish to position COMESA as a base in a technology and finance-driven global economy, he says.
Dr Mangeni says gravitas and political influence across the region, sound analytics, courage, fair play, prudence, and complex problem-solving skills will therefore be handy for Ms Kapwepwe.
“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,” he says about the credentials needed for a person to hold the office of the secretary general of COMESA, the lineup of which Ms Kapwepwe matches perfectly well.
Focusing on trade and investment, the new secretary general will have to appreciate that COMESA established the first free trade area in Africa on October 31, 2000 and has pioneered a number of trade facilitation instruments which include regional road standards for vehicle dimensions and axle loads, road user charges, carriers’ licence and transit freedom that create a regional transportation market.
Moving in tandem with technological advancement, Dr Mangeni indicates that the new secretary general will have to know that COMESA has an 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,” he says, meaning Ms Kapwepwe will not have to worry about this aspect.
COMESA also has a regional Court of Justice, which has produced important jurisprudence on regional trade in a free trade area, clarifying the rules.
A number of COMESA’s 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.
The economic body also has a regional competition commission (being only the second in the world after the European Competition Commission) and a business council, which entails that Ms Kapwepwe is in a firm driver’s seat to stir COMESA to even further investment growth.
Dr Mangeni says the COMESA Treaty gives the secretary general enormous powers, which can be put to good use as the office- bearer has powers to convene high-level and technical meetings of the 19 countries, and is chief executive of the organisation.
“Development thinking has gone through seismic changes since the 1990s when the organisation 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,”he says.
Nonetheless, Ms Kapwepwe will have to realise that lack of sustainable adequate resources has hobbled the organisation as contributions from member states under a formula have not yielded enough, leaving a huge gap for donor dependence.
In an effort to avert the resource mobilisation challenge, COMESA has lined up an array of innovative sources of revenue that includes establishing a regional e-market with a small charge on transactions, and an equivalent of a COMESA e-bay or Amazon or Alibaba would revolutionise trade and resource mobilisation in the region, while also greatly supporting SMEs to reach a global market, Dr Mangeni says.
He sums it up by saying: “COMESA needs good leaders to step forward. Above all, and building on the milestones achieved so far, the new chief executive…should have clout and skills to reposition this important organisation so it can be a force for good in the world, creating peace and prosperity. On the basis of the principle of sublimity, best practices at national level should inform regional level processes and outcomes.”
Ms Kapwepwe is viewed by many across the spectrum of both political and economic divide as a woman equal to the task.
Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu was the first to confidently indicate that COMESA had made a right choice in Ms Kapwepwe and messages of congratulations have continued to pour in from across the African continent and beyond.
In Zambia, the women movement is excited and expects more from one of their own. Organisations championing for more women in leadership such as Panos Institute Southern Africa Non-Government Organisations Coordinating Council and Zambia National Women’s Lobby have all expressed happiness at the elevation of Ms Kapwepwe to head the largest regional body in Africa.
FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka