, VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe, Jun 8 – The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) has finally launched a Customs Union, which marks a significant step in the realisation of a deeper regional economic integration.
Although there were tense moments after the East African Community (EAC), through Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni initially expressed some reservations about signing the agreement establishing the Customs Union saying the EAC had not reached a consensus on some of the issues raised in the report, COMESA member states present agreed that its launch was the way to go.
"We are bursting with joy, with a sense of achievement as we now launch our Customs Union here today. On this occasion we say to each other, that we are COMESA, bound together as a region, and that together we can achieve what we set out to achieve. To the whole world we want to say that we are COMESA, and that we are serious as a region. We want to be taken seriously," said Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Chairman of the COMESA Authority at the 13th COMESA Summit.
While underscoring the importance of trade and investment as the pillars on which COMESA stands, President Mugabe said the launch also meant that the COMESA regional bloc, which has 19 partner states and a population of 400 million, was open for business and wanted investors from all walks of life to invest in it.
"Our message to investors worldwide and those of our region is clear – we have a regional market for you. Come to COMESA," he enthused.
The Customs Union gives the region the impetus to enhance its intra-regional trade and it is expected to offer a more predictable economic environment for both investors and traders across the region.
This is because among other benefits, the business community can expect stable tariff rates and uniform customs procedures, which level the playing field for them.
"It will enable the region to grow beyond the free movement of goods and establish the foundations of a single market, where production and marketing decisions at company level are based on company reasons and not country boundaries," said President Mugabe.
Other speakers in the meeting including COMESA Secretary General Sindiso Ngwenya, said the Customs Union should be used as a platform for value addition.
Mr Ngwenya called upon the member states to put in place policies and strategies towards this end. This initiative will however be spearheaded by several industry associations including the African Cotton and Textile Association, the Agro-Processing Association, the East African Fine Coffee Association and the Leather Association.
Observing that the region spends $19 billion every year on food imports, the SG urged partner states to establish agriculture centres of excellence, which would provide farmers with input such as seeds and fertiliser, hire equipment and provide extension services. This would improve agricultural productivity and income for farmers, as well as ensure food security in the region.
He said the countries should in the next three years strive to double the agricultural productivity of staple crops, source food supplies from within the region and meet food deficits through increased intra-COMESA trade.
The vision of the bloc is to become a vibrant common market. The development has been progressive from the Preferential Trade area to a Free Trade Area and now with the launch of the Customs Union, the introduction of a monetary union is next in line in 2016.
Finally, a common market will be expected by the year 2018.
During the meeting, the COMESA Regional payments and Settlement System (REPSS) – which is expected to assist the private sector in making regional and international payments – was also launched. The system will see the cost of cross border payments reduced from the current $600 million per annum to $75 million.
After the launch, three journalists from Kenya and Uganda were awarded with certificates in recognition of their stories highlighting issues of the regional integration.
The awards followed a decision by the COMESA Authority meeting in 2006 to introduce the COMESA Media Awards to spur interest in reporting and highlighting the integration process.
The three including Capital FM reporter, Evelyn Njoroge, won in the Radio, TV and the print categories in the inaugural awards.