— An account of Mr Chris Ndibe
Africa Free Zone Organization (AFZO) was created from Africa Free Zone Association (AFZA) in 2015 at a Board Meeting of World Free Zone Organization (WFZO) in Tangier in Morocco.
A director in Tangier Med and a Board Member of WFZO, Mehdi Tahzi, who spearheaded the creation, told the gathering that they were pulling the Franco-phone countries together.
As the Executive Secretary of AFZA, I didn’t think it was necessary since AFZA, which was formed in 2004 in South Africa uses English and French as its official Language.
Other Board members of the World Free Zone Organization advised against a new formation, rather to fortify AFZA.
Backed by the CEO of World Free Zone Organization, a Tunisian and French speaking, Dr Samir Ham rouni, there was no stopping the intention more so when it was fully financed by Moroccan government.
At the recently concluded WFZO Convention in Barcelona-Spain, I engaged some officials from Morocco who were in attendance in a discussion on the inappropriateness of Africa having two Free Zone Associations, as against the formations in other continent.
There the cat was led out of the bag on reasons behind the formation of AFZO and the strong financial backing of Moroccan government.
AFZO, they said, is part of Morocco’s trade policy to look beyond Africa’s Maghreb region to develop new markets.
They further stated that with the closure of the Algeria – Morocco border in the 1990’s during the Algerian Civil war and faltering relations with Libya due to Tripoli’s support for Moroccan rebel movements led Morocco to venture further afield to propel the economic prospects of its people.
Frayed political ties and decades of economic doldrums have rendered the countries of the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya) the least integrated region in Africa by trade volumes.
Morocco with high unemployment rate and limited natural resources thought it wise to create markets abroad to create jobs for its population at home.
Morocco is convinced that the fast – growing economies of West Africa offer big opportunities for Moroccan Companies.
West Africa and Morocco’s trade links stretch far back into history, given the geographical proximity and the wide use of the French language.
This explains the reasons for the sponsorship of the Franco-phone countries (Togo, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Mauritania, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Benin) to the inauguration of AFZO in Tangier Morocco in 2015.
As a matter of fact, it was not until last decade that Morocco ramped up its Africa Investment Strategy, with King Mohammed VI, leading the way with diplomatic and business initiatives.
This renewed focus on the continent has led many commentators describe the country in a favourable term as a “gateway” to Africa, looking at the port facilities in Casablanca and Tangier Med which have weekly links to nearly 40 ports in West Africa.
Buttressing the many foundations Morocco has put in place was the formation of Africa Free Zone Organization which started with the Franco-phone countries of West Africa before expanding to the Anglo-phones like Ghana and now expanding to East and Central Africa.
Though there is nothing wrong in a country fulfilling its strategic diplomatic business initiative, but not with an absolute disregard to an existing non-governmental and non- profit bodies that have tried to bring everyone in the industry together to address common problems.
AFZA is poised to making Africa more competitive by helping in creating and managing the business haven through Free Trade Zones.
The last convention organised in Tanzania had 280 participants with World Bank representatives from World Bank offices in 18 African countries.
The division and setting up of AFZO has brought in doubts to member countries and the multinational cooperations’ that are willing to sponsor such event. In organising our annual conventions, AFZA focuses on reducing trade cost in Africa, promoting investments, overcoming trade barriers, strengthening partnership, driving innovations, developing capacity and capability and building sustainability.
The government of Morocco has mandated `Tangier Med Free Zone to tout the country as regional office of World Free Zone Organization, no matter the cost.
In my opinion,Mr Mehdi would have just strengthened the already existing AFZA which has been clamouring for a country in Africa to help organize a convention where election would have been held and the secretariat moved to another country where the elected Executives Secretary resides.
There was no need to split the Free Zones umbrella body in Africa into two, in the bid to satisfy the selfish desire of a particular country. All the over 500 Free zones, SEZs and IDZ in the continent would have been holding annual conferences in Morocco which could have been seen as filling a gap, instead of the African Rebellious image created with the formation of AFZO.
As Moroccans trade in West Africa since 2010, the kingdom is becoming one of the best performing economies in the Maghreb region and in recent years they’ve started to look at other countries outside the Franco-phone.
They are becoming quite busy in East Africa, investing heavily in Ethiopia and planning a gas pipeline from Nigeria to Morocco. That is why AFZO convention, later part of this year, has been fixed in Ethiopia.
There is no doubt that Morocco is good in their game plan but would have approached the splitting of the Free Zones in Africa (AFZA & AFZO) from a different perspective and still achieve what they wanted.
In 2017 Moroccan investment in Africa was $4.75bn, up from $3.4bn in 2016, according to the World Investment Report 2017 compiled by UNCTAD. Its portfolio of investments is wide-ranging and far-reaching, in sectors including phosphates, banking, construction, telecoms and consumer goods.
Africa must learn to be one, not withstanding the various interest of the countries. We can help ourselves a great deal especially in the immense role that Free Zones will play in actualizing the AfCFTA.