©Afreepress-(Lomé, April-21-2017)- The emergence of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) as a ‘think-tank’ for the continent is as old as Adam. The ‘think-tank’ model is an oft misused concept, but at the heart of it, is the intrinsic need to question the orthodoxy and to dissociate with the establishment, using intellect and research enquiry as the main weapon. Indeed, Raul Presbich and Adebayo Adedeji, leaders of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the ECA, had the courage of their conviction and as fearless leaders went forth in ensuring that the design of their vision will lay out a bold plan that will secure regional integration, representing a kernel of hope for the people of Latin America and Africa respectively.
But before we rush to comparisons, let us remind ourselves what the historical context was, especially in Africa. The world was entering into a post crisis era following the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970), and the decolonisation phase, hallmarks of divided world.
Adedeji was nothing less than a prodigy figure – a precociously bright scholar, outstandingly gifted thinker - a man who achieved a lot at an early age. He studied economics and public administration in prestigious schools such as Harvard and was appointed Minister of Economic Development and National Reconstruction under the administration of General Yakubu Gowon. His ascent to become ECA Executive Secretary, to take on the levers of power, came at time when the world was starkly divided between North and South and this divide created further polarization not only in ideology, but also gave rise to surrogates such as inequality, poverty and unequal terms of trade – battles that Adedeji addressed head-on. Indeed, likened to the French Jean Monet and his instrumental role in giving birth to the concept of political unity of the European Union and the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), Adedeji’s name is synonymous with Africa’s regional integration. He symbolized the biblical ‘David and Goliath’ story, rejecting the economic orthodoxies of the time that scripted the development formula along neo-classical lines that Africa was supposed to follow, propagated by the World Bank and its sister institution the International Monetary Fund; indeed he opposed the Washington consensus.
Rooted in his belief that self-sufficiency was Africa’s escape from repressive colonial regimes that constrained the region in stale colonial structures of production, his tenure from 1971 - 1992 left an indelible imprint on the organisation’s historical evolution – its ability to promote economic and regional integration; his instrumental role in setting up regional economic communities such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975, at the genesis of the 1965 meeting in Lusaka, where the recommendation for a Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) was first mooted, which led to the establishment of the Preferential Trade Area, subsequently to the establishment of the treaty that was signed in 1981. Adedeji was also instrumental in the setting up of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), in 1983.
By spearheading seminal reports such as the “Revised Framework of Principles for the Implementation of the New International Economic Order” in 1976, it gave ECA one of the first opportunities to challenge the Conventional Bretton Woods institutions and to lay the foundation for historical strategies such as the Monrovia Strategy of 1979 and Lagos Plan of Action 1980. With the finest ECA brains and policy strategists across the continent, Adedeji pushed the boundaries of intellectual theory on economic self-sufficiency and decolonisation to an implementation battleground. Whilst Adedeji’s aspirations for regional integration did not yield much in the way of concrete results – he will be remembered for taking the institution into intellectual prominence and giving it its early ‘think-tank’ status as he sought to belie the contemporary narratives of the Bretton Wood Institutions and took a staunch view against the prevailing narrative that African weak economies can only thrive if they were to become re-structured using Structural Adjustment Policies. But history has proven that Adedeji’s Goliath story was worth fighting for as it proved that the World Bank theories created undue hardship, resulted in a lost decade of failed adjustment policies in Africa and left behind a trail of negative social implications that has left Africa breathless.
Today, more than 26 years later – ECA has been witness to a trail of leaders, not all like Adedeji but many of them fairly united in ensuring that the institution lives up to its mandate of delivering on economic and social development of Africa and its people, with the promise of regional integration, to boot.
The recently arrived news of the newly appointed Executive Secretary of the ECA - Vera Songwe, a Cameroonian national, and a mathematical economist, has left many wondering whether the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gutteres, has got the leadership formula right. The argument here is not necessarily an intellectual one – Ms. Songwe appears to have the right intellectual credentials – a pure product of the Bretton Woods Institutions, she was in 2015 a World Bank Country Director and also served as regional director for the International Financing Corporation (IFC) – an affiliate group of the World Bank for West and Central Africa. Hitherto, she was Country Director for Senegal, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Mauritania at the World Bank (2012-2015) and amongst her credentials, Adviser to the Managing Director of the World Bank for Africa, Europe and Central Asia and South Asia Regions (2008-2011) and Lead Country Sector Coordinator (2005-2008). The test is whether, at 42, (real or imaginary), Ms Songwe has had sufficient time to grow the relevant political muscle that befits a position of this calibre. Indeed, the four other heads of the regional commissions of the UN seem to have been selected with this prerequisite in mind – political acumen and global diplomacy at the forefront. It does beg the question - why is it that Africa’s fate is being deposited in untested and untried hands? This at a time when one of the continent’s leading representative organizations is still reeling from the mess left behind by inappropriate appointments as Executive Secretary, and the hiatus caused by such departures. For example, how would Ms Songwe address the political impasse that led to the collapse of the joint meeting of the recent AUC and ECA Conference of Ministers held in Dakar, Senegal in March 2017, in which Morocco protested against the illegality of a meeting held with representatives from the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in its midst.
How will Ms. Songwe navigate through these political shenanigans and what solutions can she offer in the face of a defiant Morocco whose strategy has changed from a ceremonial ‘walking off’ to one where it stays in and throughout the meeting, to impose, oblivious to an indignant African delegation persuaded that such trivial geopolitics are ‘much ado about nothing’?
But as the SG exercises his right to try to achieve gender parity and to usher in youthful exuberance as a counterforce to the prevailing old dogmas, the question is being asked whether Africa’s future in a world of increasing disarray, conflict, youth unemployment, migration, famine and post-Trumpian call for increased protectionism, is being sacrificed as Gutteres plays politics. Is the imposing intellectual edifice that Adedeji sought so hard to build showing increasing signs of decrepitude as its takes on its biggest leadership contest to date? As previous ECA executives sought closer alliance with the African Union Commission as the leading Pan-African organization that it must stand alongside with, it is becoming increasingly clear that Ms. Songwe will have to find a way of ensuring that ECA is not seen as a liability within fractions of the new/old AUC leadership, who are writing their political and organisational manifestos, and eager to remove the saddle that a redundant ECA might come with. Ms. Songwe is making all the right noises about Africa’s development and the need for energy security and sovereignty that can support trade, industrialisation and agricultural productivity – but whilst this call may not fall on deaf ears – it remains to be seen whether she can stand as an equal to pan-African leaders and defend the institution’s policies or development orientations in the same right as seasoned regional leaders. The social intelligence and political savviness that are needed to calm the storm and steer the organization forward will have to be rehearsed, and whilst Ms. Songwe’s reservoir may not be empty – it may struggle to function effectively in the absence of ‘real’ managerial experience that will bolster her intellectual acumen and enable her to lead from within and without.
Gutteres seemed to have listened to other regions or even lone nations when it comes to top executive positions – is Africa being used yet again as an incubatory tool that will rev up the ‘political’ engine of politically untested machines in an era where there are so many sensitive geopolitical wounds that will not bear further experimentation time? Was the UN leadership not tempted to widen the search and identify politically mature leaders or tested managers as they waded through its 70 odd contenders for the position of ECA’s executive secretary? Is Adedeji’s legacy facing the prospect of being ignored as ECA goes through yet another round of reforms and hits more false starts before its gets to address Africa’s pressing needs? Or will Vera Songwe put all the naysayers to shame as she stakes her claim to a place in the history books of pan-African leaders? The world is watching, ECA and Africa are watching and hoping that Gutteres may have a plan B if youth and inexperience are not enough to usher in a buoyant, thriving, fearless ECA – challenging orthodoxy and translating dogmas into pragmatism and realpolitik. It might be a wait and see game – but waiting and seeing is one strategy that Vera Songwe cannot afford to pursue – she has a race to run and she needs all the cards in the deck to challenge the huge odds that she faces and reverse the declines of a once thriving ‘think-tank’ for African progress.
- Financial Afrik “ Avec Vera Songwe, une une alternance idéologique se profile à la CEA” – Dakar 15th -16th May 2017
- Jeune Afrique – “La Camerounaise Vera Songwe succède à Carlos Lopes à la tête de la Commission économique pour l’Afrique” – 14 avril 2017
- -360afrique.com: http://afrique.le360.ma/maroc-autres-pays/politique/2017/04/14/11102-union-africaine-cea-apres-lincident-de-dakar-le-soudanais-debarque-et-vera-songwe
- Wabitimrew - Bitimrew Press: “Le Maroc provoque une crise diplomatique à Dakar” – 27 mars 2017.
- Rosaline Daniel AND Dawn Nagar, Policy Research Seminar Report, Regional Building and Regional Integration in Africa”, Cape Town, South Africa, October 2014
- Adekeye Adebajo “Two Prophets of Regional Integration: Prebisch and Adedeji’’ – www.developmentideas.info/website Ch 19.