Thursday, February 21, 2008



By Jerry Okungu

The mere fact that I was setting foot on Burundian soil for the first time last Wednesday told the obvious story; that we in Africa have a disconnect with our immediate environment. That as a Kenyan I would rather travel North or South but never East or West.

Because of our historical colonial and cultural background, we find it easier to flock to the British and American embassies begging for the elusive visas rather than travel to Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC to help develop these young democracies that are emerging from long years of civil strife.

Never mind that there have and continue to be numerous regional and international conferences and workshops whose tired themes have continued to deal with intra- Africa trade, intra Africa regional cooperation, integration, free movement of goods and services, common border posts, infrastructure networks and a common trading currency.

Listening to speakers from diverse parts of the Eastern African region talk at the latest Economic Commission for Africa’s Experts meeting on Trade, Infrastructure, Statistics and Gender – Mainstreaming, I was amazed at the amount of knowledge that this continent has accumulated over the years but left to rot for lack of what a Djibouti delegate termed the political will to implement obvious and easy programmes.

I was particularly impressed by the Kenyan women delegates, who despite having been accompanied by their male counterparts from different ministries, dominated the talks with clinical analysis of the continents weaknesses at international economic forums.
Thanks to their frank and honest contributions, they confirmed my long standing misgivings about the kind of delegations Africa has sent to international negotiation platforms in the last several decades.

You and I have always suspected that this continent has had a raw deal in every economic forum, whether it was at the G8 meeting, the World Trade Organization, the ITU conventions or at the World Bank and IMF Debt Relief and Restructuring meetings.

Our weakness has been in the composition of our negotiating teams. We have always religiously attended these forums in the most unprepared manner. In more cases than one, our delegations have been composed of politicians, career civil servants, their personal assistants, hair dressers and where possible, they would throw in their body-guards, girl friends, mistresses, friends and relatives. For lack of a better word, these delegations have been shopping trips at the tax payer’s money; a drain that this continent has continued to shoulder with rare passivism.

The Bujumbura meeting threw some light in this African accountability problem. One Ghanaian presenter painted the picture in an even more shameful way; whereas his Kenyan counterparts were content to talk of lack of negotiating skills, he gave statistics of the imbalances at the WTO, ITU and other forums. That when American delegations to such forums consisted of up to 300 delegates with experts in every imaginable sector, an African delegation would consist of a minister, a permanent secretary and a junior officer at the very best. Half of the time, the minister and his PS would not necessarily be qualified, having been appointed to such positions on the basis of political, regional, ethnic and friendship considerations.

It was obvious from the contributions of African experts gathered in Bujumbura that there was need for African countries to change tact. It was important that African countries started treating such crucial international forums with the seriousness they deserved. It was time Africa sent its experts schooled in the art of negotiating and bargaining to put its case on the table with the candidness required at such forums.

It was during this meeting that many voices were heard raising concerns about NEPAD’s achievements since its inception nearly five years down the line. Having been to nearly six such forums in the last five months since the beginning of this year, I understood their anxiety and concerns, most of which were based on misconceptions and misinterpretations of NEPAD goals, mission and objectives.

For some reasons, a lot more people in this continent, even the most educated, believe that NEPAD was created to work miracles and get the continent out of the abyss of poverty, civil strife and move the continent into the first world in a record five years!

A lot more people think NEPAD as an African initiative has been around for longer than five years. They believe that NEPAD was created to provide every imaginable solution to every African problem. And curiously some of the loudest critics seem to come from old guards who have sat on the Regional Economic Blocks and Commissions for donkey years with nothing to show for it.

There are two ways of explaining this misconception or outright undercurrent discomfort with NEPAD and APRM initiatives. It may stem from too much attention the African Union leadership has given it. It has been so hyped that NEPAD and the APRM today eclipse other African initiatives at every international forum despite their low level of awareness within the continent.

Part of this problem has to do with the way African leaders and NEPAD secretariat staff have gone about selling the initiative internationally. There has been too much emphasis on getting the EU, the G8, the donor community, the Americans and international investors to buy into the initiative before selling it to its own people in the continent.

But perhaps the starting point should be to state why NEPAD was created by Heads of State of the African Union five years ago despite the fact that the knew there already existed several Regional Economic Blocks and a number of Economic Commissions to deal with Africa’s economic and development agenda..

On its launch, so much was expected of NEPAD to deliver in the shortest time possible. African Heads of State, tired of endless criticism from their traditional partners, wanted to break away from the norm of complacency and waiting to be threatened, warned and ridiculed from time to time by the rich donor nations of the North

They came out to redefine a new relationship with the rest of the world, more so with the rich nations of the West. This redefinition implied renegotiated partnerships with dignity where the recipient and giver felt equal, in place of the beggar- giver scenario.

The starting point was to be Africa’s weakest point. Governments in Africa had forever been accused of corruption, mismanagement of their economies, authoritarianism and general abuse of human rights. In this regard, far reaching social reforms were at the heart of the NEPAD initiative.

To get reforms under way, there was need for African governments to institute a peer review mechanism where fellow African states would have a chance to examine the records of neighbour governments with a view to evaluating, monitoring and encouraging positive social, political and economic reforms.

To realize this goal, member states of the African Union introduced the African Peer Review Mechanism as a programme of NEPAD to help states with self assessment and Peer Review processes as a way of making African governments more accountable and listen more to their citizens as well as to fellow African leaders with a view to correcting mistakes in governance processes.

To date 26 African governments have signed up for the APRM process since it was launched in 2003. Of the four states that volunteered Peer Review, Ghana has completed the process with Rwanda, Kenya and Mauritius in their final stages.

As it is, the whole NEPAD agenda is still undergoing institutional and capacity building processes while at the same time trying to find its niche among a myriad of other competing institutions. It has to find a formula for working with other REC blocks and national governments without appearing to duplicate the same. It has to be seen as an energizer playing a complimentary role rather than a parallel initiatitive.
The more reason NEPAD programmes must be embedded into the RECs, ECA and National Programmes of Action.

As a regional initiative, NEPAD has become attractive to investors for the simple reason that investors can today negotiate development projects at a regional level without having to open multiple channels of negotiations with individual countries.

Investors also see economic sense in getting involved in infrastructure programmes for expanded markets in anticipation of regional integrations through intra- country infrastructure networks like railway lines, water ways, roads, oil pipelines, open skies, free airwaves, common electricity grids, ICT networks and rural water networks.

More importantly, the APRM arm of NEPAD acts as a buffer against government excesses in corrupt deals. Investors see a fresh breath of air breezing across the continent. In a nutshell, reforms being championed by NEPAD through APRM will mean cheaper and faster pace of doing business in the continent.

It is these reforms that will tackle poverty, information gaps, infrastructure problems, peace and security, food security and better and more accountable governance for the people of this continent. The day we will realize that good governance starts with us, we will realize the folly of playing blame game and passing the buck at the expense of taking responsibility for our part in contributing to the continent’s miseries.

Despite pressure to deliver, NEPAD as a young initiative needs time to mature and realize its full potential. As things stand, the future is bright for the new kid on the block.

Jerry Okungu
May 5, 2006.