SA-Nigeria tensions play out over top post for African free trade area
The South African delegation at the African Union (AU) was on Monday embroiled in intense lobbying of other countries to support a former department of trade and industry official to be appointed secretary of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
This comes after a fierce debate at the AU heads of state summit over the matter on Sunday led to it being referred to a vote.
Tensions between SA and Nigeria were laid bare during a closed meeting on Sunday, when Nigeria refused Wamkele Mene's appointment to the position, which will oversee the implementation of the continental tariff-free agreement, even though he emerged as the top contender after a competency test.
Insiders described how when the matter was tabled at the AU, hours after President Cyril Ramaphosa took his seat as chairperson, Nigeria “went for the jugular” by arguing that their candidate, Cecilia Akintomide, who was ranked third, should hold the position.
They argued that her appointment was a move to boost women empowerment - a key focus of Ramaphosa’s acceptance speech as this year's chair of the AU.
“They invoked Ramaphosa’s words, saying there has to be women empowerment. It was a women empowerment versus a youth empowerment argument,” said a source close to the matter.
The source said Nigeria did not invoke female empowerment for any of the other positions and in this case “used the argument to suit their agenda”.
Another source with intimate knowledge of the discussion said it was an attempt by West Africa to flex its muscles.
“It was argued that how does Nigeria want the position when they are yet to ratify the agreement and signed it much later than other countries?” the source said.
It was also argued that West Africa was already hosting the offices of the AfCFTA, with Ghana the host country.
The Sunday Times reported on Sunday that Nigeria has also been accused of politicising a decision that "should be settled on the basis of competence”.
The tensions between SA and Nigeria first surfaced at a meeting of ministers on Friday, when they could not agree on a candidate. They referred the matter to the heads of state summit, where it was hoped it would be resolved amicably.
However, it appears a vote was inevitable on Monday.
A high-level government insider said South Africa appeared to have numbers in favour of Mene.
The DRC has also fielded a candidate, Faustin Luanga, who came out second in the competency test.
It is understood both SA and Nigeria were lobbying fiercely for the two-thirds support needed.
“It is looking good for us. We may not win in the first round because the DRC would probably be eliminated, but we are hoping by the second or the third round of voting we can secure this position,” said the source.
The successful candidate will head the secretariat to oversee the AfCFTA, which needs to be implemented by July.
Mene is from SA's department of trade and industry and the country's chief negotiator during discussions on the free trade area.
During his address on Sunday, Ramaphosa said the AU needed to put measures in place to ensure the implementation of the AfCFTA agreement did not result in goods from other countries passing through the continent, with minimal value addition in Africa.
The AfCFTA was due to be implemented by all member states of the AU at the beginning of July 2020.
“We must all ensure the AfCFTA does not become a conduit for products with minimal African value addition to enter and penetrate our local markets under the guise of continental integration,” Ramaphosa said to applause.
He said there ought to be a reasonable standard set for what constituted a product proudly made in Africa.
“The era of imperialism and colonialism - in which Africa was a pit stop in the global assembly line - is passed,” he said, adding that the playing field for African businesses must be levelled so they can operate in a large-scale market.
Ramaphosa said the agreement was an integral part of rebalancing global trade relations. It is to be implemented under his chairship of the AU and will allow for the tariff-free passage of goods across the continent.
There are outstanding issues related to the agreement, however. Ramaphosa said he will work to finalise these issues before an extraordinary summit on the matter is held in South Africa in May.