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Attending the NEPAD Forum in Abuja last week, Okello Oculi is disappointed by a lack of enthusiasm for the most interesting ideas raised. Meanwhile, the last-minute trade fair running in parallel to the forum is ‘a success by the mere fact of its taking place’.

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development, NEPAD, came to Abuja (to arouse talk and promote inter-African trade) from 23-30 October 2010. The talking part was at a ‘NEPAD Forum’ held in Congress Hall of the Transcorp Hilton Hotel. The NEPAD Trade Fair ran on its own momentum inside cubicles under one rectangular plastic tent erected on a corner of the vast Eagle Square that often hosts hordes of either enchanted Pentecostal worshipers or rowdy political rallies.

The presence of former president Olusegun Obasanjo (as the only one of NEPAD’s founding quartet consisting of presidents Abdulazeez Bouteflika of Algeria; Thabo Mbeki of South Africa; Abdullayi Wade of Senegal and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt), gave the talk shop a sense of historical legitimacy. The active participation of John Kuffo, former president of Ghana, added to Obasanjo’s weight, while interventions by ministers for commerce and industry from Zimbabwe and Rwanda added a vital Pan-African flavour.

I came away with three gems from what panel speakers had to say. The young woman minister from Rwanda reported on a policy initiative in agriculture that re-echoed a refined version of Mwalimu Nyerere’s ‘ujamaa villages’ of the late 1960s in socialist Tanzania as the anchor of development. The government of Rwanda is set on encouraging peasant farmers to work their farms together in voluntary communal labour on congruous land holdings; sharing in costs of fertilisers and extension services, as well as harvests and investment decisions. Small farmers would not lose their land to big landowners as a core strategy for agricultural growth and making Rwanda a food exporter after achieving internal food sufficiency. They would be the engine of Rwanda’s policy of getting growth with full employment for the vast majority of the people outside of information technology, tourism and mining. Unfortunately the policy was not picked up for discussion by participants in the forum, probably because it was not in tune with Obasanjo’s bias for large-scale farmers, as chairman of the panel discussion.

Rwanda’s minister also said that her government wants to upturn the notion that Rwanda is not rich in mineral deposits. She was rushed out of the meeting and onto a flight out of Abuja before we could ask if the oil deposits in Lake Albert that Uganda and DR Congo are huffing and puffing at each other over runs under the earth down to Rwanda. The bad blood over Abbiyye oil fields between Sudan’s Southern and Northern leaders may well be a forerunner to boxing matches over oil in the Great Lakes region.

Mike Bimha (deputy minister of industry and commerce and member of parliament from Zimbabwe) and Rwanda’s minister (who stood in for her President Paul Kagame), each focused on the need for political will by Africa’s rulers to launch an African common market. Bimha recalled a meeting by the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries and the European Union (EU) in Burkina Faso at which the ACP countries were rebuked by the EU delegation about the habit of expecting to benefit from benevolent neocolonial exploitation and face the new reality of a lonesome era of self-dependence among them. This issue too was not taken up for deeper debate.

Former president of Ghana, John Kuffo, insisted on Africa’s rulers abandoning the habit of preferring policies dictated from Euro-America. A concrete illustration was given by Abba Kyari, a former boss of United Bank for Africa, who challenged the focus on information technology and banking and stock exchanges, whose growth enriches only a small sector of the population without creating employment and incomes for the majority of the population.

The trade fair at Eagle Square was a success by the mere fact of its taking place. According to acting director of programmes and development in the NEPAD agency of the presidency, Olayinka Olagunju, there had been two postponements of the fair which raised doubts in many African countries about this one taking place at all. Empty stalls for Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Morocco, Egypt, DR Congo, Rwanda and Burkina Faso were attributable to growing scepticism. Kenya’s cubicle was gladly taken up by textile traders from Gambia, while a marketer of cassava flour, plantain flour and ‘acha’ (a small grain grown in Nigeria’s savannah zone) from Plateau State of Nigeria, cheerfully took over the shop spot allocated to Angola.

South Africa’s embassy official in charge of economic affairs, Nicholas Coleman, mounted stands for DSTV and Stanbic IBTC Bank, which dominated the South African stand. He wished that they had been given a notice of ‘at least eight months’ to enable small and medium enterprises to bring their products to the NEPAD trade fair. The government of South Africa, he said, has a policy of subsidising small and medium businesses with costs for air freight, air travel and accommodation. To process those subsidies, however, it would ‘take three months’ of processing by bureaucrats. At the Sierra Leone cubicle, there were also complaints about the short notice from fair organisers of only about five weeks. Under the banner of ‘DISCOVER AFRICA’, they displayed posters proclaiming rich endowments in gold bars, iron ore, platinum, gemstones, palm oil, cocoa, sugar cane grown on land in valleys of their mountainous country, and coffee.

Although in his closing speech the secretary to the government of the federation announced that the fair is a ‘biennial event on a rotational basis among African countries’, Olayinka Olagunji insisted in an interview after that speech that Nigeria will ‘repeat it in March 2012’. There had been a rush to hold this edition so that other African countries would ‘know we can do it’. To give adequate notice, the organising committee will send out letters and ‘put it on the Internet in January 2011’. Both the local organisers and other African countries would ‘have enough time’ towards 2012.

The special assistant to President Jonathan Goodluck on NEPAD affairs, Ambassador Tunji Olagunju, had brought to bear all the creativity and diplomatic skills he developed while conducting behind-the-scenes negotiations as Nigeria’s ambassador to South Africa during shuttle diplomacy for building support for setting up NEPAD between 1999 and 2003. He pulled in top executives of multinational companies with African roots – like AfriIInvest, Zinox Computers (described as ‘Nigeria’s first certified branded computers’), and BHI Holdings. The enthusiasm among small business groups and of mutual discovery between sellers from different African countries and predominantly Nigerian customers was clearly good investment for the future.


* Okello Oculi is executive director of the Africa Vision 525 Initiative.
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