Comesa chief executive needs gravitas and political influence
The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) will appoint a new secretary general next year, 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 kilometres, a combined GDP of $755 billion and a population of 520 million, the bloc makes up a third of Africa and is the largest regional economic bloc on the continent. It has enormous potential, for instance $82.4 billion in unutilised intra-comesa trade opportunities.
The new secretary general will find an organisation that has a robust trade framework that promotes transparency, predictability and planning; as well as policy and regulatory frameworks in areas of industrialisation, 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 mobilisation. Depending on the person’s level of ambition, they might wish to position Comesa as a base in a technology and financedriven 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 chief executive who is savvy in intergovernmental evidence-based policy making and demonstrable development practice.
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 organisation.
The next chief executive has an opportunity to put the body on a new footing. 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. Global knowledge doubles every 12 months. A mechanism for systematically harnessing, localising and commercialising skills and innovation from around the world, as well as patient capital, could assist achievement of this vision.
Lack of sustainable adequate resources has slowed down the organisation. 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 mobilising 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, Amazon or Alibaba would revolutionise trade and resource mobilisation 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, focussing on a few clear priorities and eliminating bureaucracy, as well as resources mobilisation through contribution of a small percentage charged on trade taxes. These proposals form a template for Africa’s regional organisations, which should now work more coherently with the African Union.
Business processes to achieve the vision and utilise 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 organisation, arising from waning ownership by member states that explains low implementation of key programmes and donor dependence, as well as acrimonious recruitment and financial management squabbles that have characterised a number of high level meetings.
In conclusion, Comesa needs good leaders to step forward. The new chief executive should have clout and skills to reposition the organisation for it to 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.
A person possessing this sort of capital is usually a former head of government, minister or policy savvy chief executive.
Francis Mangeni is director of Trade and Customs at Comesa