Members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) need to integrate further if they are to become a trading bloc that can compete on the world stage, the group’s chief said.

Heads of state and delegates representing 20 countries and more than 400 million people stretching from Egypt to Zimbabwe will met recently in the Ugandan capital Kampala.

At the top of the agenda was the creation of a customs union and common investment area which one day can challenge trade blocs like the European Union (EU) and North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA).

“COMESA is the most ideal institution for realizing the dream of African union in terms of bringing large numbers of people into the key area of economic integration,” said Erastus Mwencha, COMESA’s secretary general.

COMESA includes some of the world’s poorest countries. Many regional leaders have needed convincing that accelerated integration will bring them a bigger share of Africa’s world trade.

But Mwencha said moves to reduce national tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers showed a realization by member states that greater harmonization was inevitable and desirable.

“I am satisfied that there is good will, but that doesn’t mean that all is well,” he said in an interview.

Mwencha said there were occasional trade disputes but they were encouraging because it showed industries were striving to be more competive.

Engine of growth

He cited the restructuring of the sugar, cement and fertilizer industries in many member states as just one of the benefits of enhanced competition to national economies.

He said that instead of wrangling over increased access to markets in wealthy countries, member states should focus on the potential for riches within the region.

Total intra-COMESA trade in 2003 increased by 15%

“We cannot lock ourselves out of the international community, but we need first of all to have an open approach to regionalism.”

Even greater need

As well as the customs union and common investment area, the expected 15 COMESA heads of state will also discuss the free movement of services and labor, a move some countries worry could swamp them with neighboring talent.

There are also fears among some member states that increased regional harmonization could mean the loss of government revenues from external tariffs on imports.

Despite the concerns, Uganda’s minister of tourism, trade and industry, Edward Rugumayo, told officials meeting ahead of the main summit that they could not contemplate failure on the road to deeper integration.

“If large economies in America and Europe are seeking bigger markets and stronger economies by fostering regional integration, the smaller economies of Africa have an even greater need to come together in a regional, and subsequently, continental common market,” he said. (Reuters)