I arrived at Abidjan Airport on Tuesday March 18, armed with two letters; an invitation from the conference organizers, and a support letter from my sponsors. I was here to attend the 6th Annual Meetings for Ministers of Economy and Finance and Economic Development, organized by the African Union Commission and the Economic Commission for Africa.
I had been told that my visa had been arranged by the conference organizers. All I had to do was show the immigration officers the letters. But when I did, I was escorted to the police station at the airport, and to an officer who already had a pile of passports before him. To this pile mine, an Egyptian’s and an Ethiopian journalist’s were added.
We would get them back a day later, we were told. Yet for four days we checked with the protocol office, each day meeting new people with the same concern; delegates, experts, journalists from outside of ECOWAS.
When Jenerali Ulimwengu’s commentary came out in The East African, a friend tweeted me about it, coincidentally, minutes after we had got our passports back. For days we had been aliens in an African Union member-nation.
We had spent the week listening to experts discuss ways to industrialize Africa, to integrate and develop the continent’s economies, and the possibility of reaching the level at which Asia is now. But how do we integrate and reap our competitive advantage when we can’t sort out the basics, like movement of persons?
To get here, I had flown from Entebbe via Kigali-Addis Ababa-N’djamena-Ouagadougou to Abidjan. For any airline out of Eastern Africa to fly direct to West Africa, the route would have to make business sense. But discussions with colleagues during the forum echoed one thing; there are simply not enough people to fill direct flights. This is blamed on the volume of trade between African countries, estimated at between 10 to 12 percent.
The day before I was meant to come home, a friend asked me in an online chat; “So what time is your taxi…sorry, flight?”
Debates and scenarios were drawn about how Africa could help itself emerge from poverty to become globally competitive. Presentations were made about adding value to our natural resources, improving the quality of our population, even the consideration for a single African currency (which idea the Nigerian Central Bank Governor rubbished).
But my thoughts kept going back to the systems that would make Africa united, economically integrated, to push its economies on to the emerging stage. Before we speak of grand ideas like a single currency, shouldn’t we consider how much business we do with each other, how easy it is for business to move within the continent? Unless such systems function smoothly, forgive my pessimism, the idea of African integration remains detached from my reality.