It’s not often that two former generals-turned-presidents meet on the sidelines of an international conference. Yet this is exactly what happened when former major general and incumbent Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari met in Cairo with former field marshal and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The two gathered in Sharm el Sheikh alongside several other African heads of state and some 1,500 participants, to honor the opening of the business and investment forum “Africa 2016”.
A lofty affair, the forum had one main objective in mind: uniting the African continent by tearing down trade barriers between its 54 countries.
At the end of two days in the luxurious Egyptian resort, participants agreed to breathe new life into last year’s landmark tripartite deal between COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, 19 countries), SADC (Southern African Development Community, 15 countries) and the EAC (East African Community, 5 countries) to form Africa’s biggest trading block. Encompassing 620 million consumers spread across 26 countries and with a combined GDP of $1,2 trillion, the (yet) unnamed free trade area would serve to increase intra-African trade, from its current nadir of 13% and un-peg the continent from its reliance on capricious commodity exports.
That the Africa forum also served as a good PR stunt for an increasingly isolated el-Sisi came in second.
Hands were shook, backs were slapped and generous amounts of champagne and macaroons were downed by the conference-goers in what is Egypt’s biggest play to date to rekindle its African roots, put on hiatus after Nasser’s death in 1970. Since the start of his presidency, el-Sisi pivoted to Africa in a bid to jumpstart Egypt’s revolution-battered economy by drawing to his side African leaders. Somersaulting from the country’s long-standing pan-Arabist slant, el-Sisi positioned himself as an African leader with sufficient clout and will to bring together the continent’s economies.
Whatever el-Sisi’s ulterior motives, the approach is registering some notable successes. Gabon’s Ali Bongo Ondimba, accompanied by his chief of staff, Maixent Accrombessi, walked away from the conference with a slew of cooperation agreements and memorandums of understanding in political consultation, education, health, and pharmaceutical industries. In the course of their bilateral meeting, the two parties agreed to capitalize on their respective economic strengths and bolster bilateral ties to their full potential. Currently, Gabon only imports some $14 million every year from Egypt, but the trade balance is expected to increase following el-Sisi’s calls for more intra-African investment.
Egypt’s choice of partnering up with Gabon is not haphazard. In recent years, Ali Bongo has sought to carve out a leading role for his country in south-south cooperation and has made overtures from Morocco in North Africa to Djibouti on the very tip of the Horn of Africa. Africa has been registering one of the highest growth rates in the world, averaging 5% across the past decade. Building trust, economic ties, lifting trade barriers and lowering tariffs are requisites for more investment – the lynchpin to unlocking Africa’s economic potential.
Looking beyond diplomatic clout, Nigeria, from its enviable status as Africa’s largest economy, can play a complementary role. While political leaders can huff and puff, reaping the benefits of the future intra-African free trade agreement can only come by bringing the private sector on board. And while Egypt can mobilize its clout, Nigeria’s dynamic private sector and big market can act as the engine of growth within the upcoming FTA.
Taking a walk down the memory lane, a nostalgic Buhari reminisced that in the course of his army service he had received military training in Egypt and praised Cairo’s military support during Nigeria’s civil war between 1967 and 1970 – a war that, ironically, was ignited by the successful 1966 coup d’etat against General Aguiyi Ironsi where a young lieutenant Buhari was one of the plotters. Today, the two generals have the opportunity to shine in a different light, if they and the 24 other African nations succeed in pushing forward the ambitious agenda of building a shared economic space.