Nigeria has lost a keenly contested battle against perennial rivals, South Africa; for the post of Secretary-General of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) at the African Union summit on Monday. The summit took place in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopa.
Equally important, the role of the Secretary-General of the AfCFTA takes effect from July 1, 2020.
Indeed, one of South Africa’s top trade negotiators, Wamkele Mene, emerged as the new secretary-general of the AfCFTA. However, this came after a bitter political fight with Nigeria at the summit on Monday. Nigeria had wanted the role to go to Cecilia Akintomide; a former vice-president and general secretary of the African Development Bank. Nevertheless, South Africa eventually prevailed over Nigeria after seven rounds of voting by African Heads of State and Government.
Mene, who was incidentally South Africa’s chief negotiator during the discussions with the African Union (AU); on the formulation of the AfCFTA, was on Monday night endorsed by the Heads of State summit in Addis Ababa; as the newly-appointed head of the AfCFTA secretariats.
However, it did not go down without some high political drama involving Nigeria and South Africa.
Mene’s appointment was settled by voting by heads of state following intense debates. This came after Nigeria attempted to block Mene’s appointment by putting up arguments in favour of its preferred candidate, Akintomide.
On Sunday and Monday, Nigeria argued for the appointment of Akintomide. Nevertheless, a technical panel of trade ministers had decided before the summit started; that Mene was the best-qualified candidate to head the secretariat of the AfCFTA. Mene was number one, followed by a competitor from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
SA officials accuse Nigeria of politicising AfCFTA decision
However, Nigeria insisted on Akintomide who emerged as the third candidate after a competency-based selection process by the AU Commission.
Feelers from the summit indicate that Nigeria argued that Akintomide’s appointment would boost women empowerment. As a matter of fact, this had been a key focus of Cyril Ramaphosa’s acceptance speech on Sunday, February 9; when he accepted the chairmanship of the AU for 2020.
Thereafter, this sparked a political debate.
Nigeria refused to withdraw Akintomide. Also, the DRC also refused to withdraw its candidate Faustin Luanga, former economic adviser to ex-president Joseph Kabila. The African leaders debated long and hard on Sunday evening to try to reach consensus.
Consequently, the summit was forced to abandon its usual practice of settling matters by consensus and went into a vote. It took seven rounds of voting for SA to secure the two-thirds majority it needed for Mene’s appointment.
Mene will now be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the newly created AfCFTA; which will oversee the implementation of a tariff-free trade regime. AfCFTA will be headquartered in Accra, Ghana. The body is expected to be fully operational by end of March, 2020.
Meanwhile, reports in the South African media claim that officials were celebrating the victory over Nigeria. They insisted that President Muhammadu Buhari had conducted a political battle; over what should have been a purely technocratic decision.