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Oh for eyes that see, ears that hear

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Oh for eyes that see, ears that hear

Why is there a tendency for Africans to skim over the most obvious and critical issues staring them in the face and instead chase after impossible utopias? By Baffour Ankomah

I don’t know why, but sometimes we Africans behave much like the people described in the prophecy of Isaiah in the Bible, (Isaiah Chapter 6: 9-10): “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”

I was reminded of this injunction as I sat in over four days of deliberations at a UNECA-convened conference in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo, at the end of October.

The conference was in two parts: the first two days were taken by an ad hoc expert group meeting on “Deepening Regional Integration in Southern Africa: The role, prospects and progress of the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA)”; and the last two days by the 23rd Intergovernmental Committee of Experts of Southern Africa, who discussed the topic: “Trade Facilitation in Southern Africa: Bridging the Infrastructure Gap”.

Established in 2015 by 26 countries in Southern, East and North Africa, the TFTA is an attempt to resolve the difficulties posed by the overlapping membership of the 26 countries in multiple regional economic communities (RECs) such as SADC, COMESA, EAC and others, which seek to do the same things. Thus deepening regional integration in these overlapping RECs is long overdue.

But two things struck me most at the Bulawayo conference. The first was the realisation that even after 60 years of African independence, we are still loath to do the right things first.

The second was that Africa is just not willing to free its citizens from the depressing restrictions imposed on their movement in their own continent by the colonial borders.

Having worked closely in the last 10 months with the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) and the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO), I knew, before attending the Bulawayo conference, about the infamous issue of “capacity deficit” in Africa that is said to hinder African development and even the implementation of the AU Agenda 2063.

Both ACBF and ARIPO have been calling on African nations to take the capacity deficit issue seriously, or otherwise the continent will be left still treading water come 2063.

But do we have ears to hear or eyes to see? This is where Prophet Isaiah comes in. Africans appear to have ears that hardly hear and eyes that cannot see even the most obvious things around us, one of which is the lack of capacity on the continent – an issue that interestingly came up on the first day of the Bulawayo conference.

It was said that in Southern Africa the implementation of integration programmes under the TFTA had been delayed because of the lack of capacity at the SADC Secretariat. SADC is an REC made up of 18 member countries; and yet it is said to lack the capacity to push the TFTA forward. Can you imagine such a monstrosity? Eighteen good member states do not have the capacity to make the TFTA work!

Yet instead of finding ways of overcoming the capacity deficit, the SADC countries that met in Bulawayo just mentioned the problem in passing and went on their merry way until two delegates and myself (I moderated a roundtable discussion on the fourth and final day) forced the issue back on the table for proper deliberation.

Shocking lack of capacity

Nobody has to be a rocket scientist to deduce that without having the requisite capacity, Africa cannot implement any of the grandiose plans and strategies formulated at the institutional, national, regional, and continental levels. ACBF’s Executive Secretary, Prof Emmanuel Nnadozie, keeps reminding the continent of this crucial fact.

“The institutional capacity deficits on the continent affect every level of African life,” Prof Nnadozie said in early September 2017. “They affect the AU Commission and its organs and prevent them from effectively coordinating the continental development agenda.

“They affect Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and inhibit them from effectively playing their role as building blocks of the continental development architecture and accelerating regional integration.

“They affect national institutions and take away their ability to align national development plans to continental and global agendas.

“They also affect Africa’s ability to retain, harmonise and fully utilise the capacity that it may have already sweated to acquire … Unless we can slay the ghost of the capacity deficits, it will be difficult to implement Agenda 2063 and the SDGs.”

I have always wondered how a continent besotted with PhDs still lacks the capacity to implement anything. It shows how  badly we have educated ourselves. Last year I saw a statistic that said Africa had over half the world’s arts and humanities students, doing courses that equip them with no practical skills.

So we come out of universities with PhDs and Masters and Bachelors degrees that add little or no value to African life, except wearing big suits and ties even in the hot African weather and speaking high-sounding English and French. Our ancestors must be ashamed of us – surely!

As I told the Bulawayo conference, if Africa does not take the issue of capacity development seriously, we will one day call a conference to tell the world that we don’t even have the capacity to eat. We must therefore do the right thing now – not later – by tackling the capacity deficit on the continent and overcoming it.

Preference for foreigners

While still at it, we must also slay the other monster – the lack of free movement in Africa for Africans. Surprise, surprise, the TFTA countries are campaigning for free movement in Africa for ‘business persons’, instead of for all Africans. On behalf of Africa’s great unwashed, I took advantage of the roundtable discussion to appeal for the broadening of the campaign to cover all Africans.

“The African does not have free movement in Europe or America, and most depressingly in his own continent. So what are we talking about, giving preference to business persons?” I asked the conference.

I cited my harrowing experience in 2015 when my Ghanaian passport could not earn me a transit visa in Ethiopia but my British passport did. Same person. Same day. Same time. But the Ethiopians did (shamelessly, I should say) give me a transit visa when I produced my British passport! May God help us Africans to see beyond our feeding spoons!

What sort of people have we become – who deny their own citizens free movement in their own continent yet allow foreigners to roam free in the same continent? “Foreigners are tourists and investors,” as Prof Said Adejumobi, director of the UNECA Southern Africa Office sarcastically put it on the first day of the Bulawayo conference, “but the African is a criminal who must be denied free movement in his own continent.”

Prof Adejumobi was uncompromising. “The discourse on the free movement of business persons in the TFTA, though a good idea for trade and production flows, seems rather narrow in the context of the African development agenda,” he told the conference.

“It is not only business persons that require to move, but all citizens of the TFTA. If it is easy for non-Africans to enter our member states whether they are business persons or not, then why ‘quarantine’
our own citizens in national borders?

“Deconstructing Africa’s national borders will not only make for good economics but also good social and political re-engineering of our continent, as contained in the pan-African ideals.”

I rest my case. NA

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Written by Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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