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AfCFTA Secretary-General Wamkele Mene lays out his vision for continental trade

Brick by brick, Wamkele Mene is building the institution set to guide Africa’s economic integration. Step one, create a team of trade negotiators who can help smooth the inevitable tensions in national trading priorities and help Africa create common positions when faced with heavyweight foreign trading blocs.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat has now received permission from the region’s leaders to recruit up to 350 officers, according to general secretary Wamkele Mene.

Just over a year in existence, the secretariat is entrusted with bringing the AfCFTA agreement to life as the technical implementation arm. The up to 350 officers would be trade specialists, including trade lawyers and economists, who will be instrumental in the successful implementation of the continental trade agreement.

The best and brightest

Mene said: “We have been given permission by the heads of state to recruit up to 350 officers from all over the continent. I believe this secretariat … [must] be as good as, or even better than, the most efficient international organizations. That means we get the brightest and the best Africans … to work at the secretariat.”

Mene was responding to The Africa Report’s question about institution and capacity building at the AfCFTA Secretariat on the final day of the Intra-African Trade Fair (15-21 November). In so doing, Mene outlined his vision for the secretariat and revealed some of the lesser-known inner workings of the young institution.

“What we have begun to do is to build a civil-servant sense of public service in the secretariat so that we create a cadre of trade lawyers [and] trade economists who will serve our continent for the next two to three decades,” he explained.

“That is my vision: that we build a cadre in the secretariat of the brightest and the best,” added the general secretary.

Continental conscience

The South African trade negotiator overseeing the technical aspects of the AfCFTA is resolute about infusing an Africa-centric vision in the institutional DNA of the secretariat. That extends to the sources of funding support for the AfCFTA Secretariat, which are currently distinctly African.

“I want to go to president Oramah and ask him for support. It’s important that we build this ‘African-ness’ in our trade policy, economic policy and we rely on African institutions to build what we want to achieve,” Mene said.

In February 2020, Mene was elected secretary general at the 33rd ordinary session of the African Union (AU) assembly of heads of state in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was sworn-in the following month in the Ethiopian capital and given a mandate by the continent’s heads of state to help to double intra-Africa trade by 2035.

In August 2020, the AU handed over the Accra-headquartered AfCFTA Secretariat’s official building to Ghana. On 1 January 2021, trading under the AfCFTA agreement began, later than the originally planned 1 July 2020 because of Covid-19.

Inside the AfCFTA Secretariat

Much has happened since Mene’s election last February. Said Mene: “I am very proud we have the youngest people … [at] the AfCFTA Secretariat. We have close to 80 people that work in the AfCFTA Secretariat – the brightest and best Africans. The average age is 30 years old.”

“We have met gender parity. You will recall that when minister [Nkosazana] Dlamini-Zuma was the chairperson of the AU Commission, she introduced gender parity. We have senior leaders who are women.”

“We have people from all regions of the continent: Portuguese speakers, French speakers, English speakers, Arabic speakers, an isiXhosa [Mene’s first language] speaker.”

Mene said he considers himself fortunate to have been witness since 2010 to the negotiations that lead to the eventual signing of the AfCFTA agreement.

“I saw it from the beginning. I have never seen this high level of commitment from our heads of state, who want to make sure our continent becomes industrialised. [That] we create jobs for young people. And that we place ourselves as a continent on a path to success and prosperity,” said Mene.

To achieve those aims, Mene noted that: “When I was elected by the heads of state last year, they said to me: ‘We want to double intra-African trade by 2035. We want to make sure that we dismantle the colonial economic model of trade. We … [must] make sure the AfCFTA succeeds to industrialise our continent’.”

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Grace Khoza – Principal Communications Advisor
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