Dr. Ibrahim Mayaki is the CEO of the African Union Development Agency- New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AUDA-NEPAD). He spoke to Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor on the African Union-United Nations partnership, COVID-19 response, Africa’s development and other issues. These are excerpts from the interview.
Africa Renewal: What is your assessment of the UN and AU relations?
Dr. Mayaki: UN-AU relations are not only critical but a necessity today in Africa. Thankfully, the UN has had a close interaction with the AU, and in instances, jointly implemented missions on the continent. As an example, I was part of a group selected by Madam Zuma [Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former chair of the AU Commission] to join a delegation of the former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to the Sahel region. This collaboration delved into how to tackle the problems of the Sahel. Secretary-General António Guterres has gone a step further, with the UN signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the AU on operationalizing joint projects.
At AUDA-NEPAD we actively interact with the UN system, particularly with the office of the Special Adviser on Africa, which is managed by Cristina Duarte, a former finance minister of Cabo Verde.
How do you envisage the UN work in Africa in the future?
As you know, multilateralism is a product of the motivation of Member States to cooperate better and to delegate some form of capacity to the UN system to solve problems such as hunger, conflict, abuses of women's rights, etc. However, geopolitically, multilateralism is being criticized — multilateralism is not as strong as it used to be, which has evidently constrained the efficiency and effectiveness of the UN. A significant consequence is the financial cost of UN operations. If we look at the constraints and the challenges that the UN system faces, we need to be mindful that we are using available resources the best way possible. The fact that the World Food Programme was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize illustrates this.
Globally, we are observing resilience of the international system, which will allow a new type of multilateralism to emerge. Many countries strongly believe in strengthening multilateralism. The AU, countries in Latin America, in Asia—China and Japan—are strong supporters of multilateralism. Europe is as well. In this context, I foresee a UN that will be renewed in its thinking and can operate even when its financial means are constrained.
How relevant is Africa within the multilateralism space?
Africa is extremely relevant. International relations experts will tell you that Africa plays a critical role with its 54 Member States that are represented in the UN— in terms of numbers, but also in terms of thinking. We should never forget that during the negotiations for the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], there was strong input from Africa, especially from the AU. The African group used Agenda 2063 to flag Africa's interests to ensure the SDGs reflect the objectives and the rationale of Agenda 2063.
Additionally, there has been growing representation of African experts that head several international agencies. You see Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at WHO [World Health Organization]; hopefully, the World Trade Organization (WTO) will be managed by Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister; Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, a former prime minister of Togo, is the President of IFAD [International Fund for Agricultural Development]. The more Africans are present in these positions, the more the continent’s voice is being heard within the international system.
How significant would it be for an African woman to head the WTO, in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)?
There are two areas of significance should an African woman lead the WTO, in the AfCFTA context. The first is viewed through the gender lens, where we need to level the playfield and address women’s under-representation in leadership roles in emerging institutions.
Additionally, it is a recognition of African expertise to drive the continental free trade agenda, through the recognition of an African woman with very high credentials. She [Okonjo Iweala] was number two at the World Bank, the first woman finance minister of Nigeria and she is currently playing a critical role at Gavi [the Vaccine Alliance], working on vaccines. The establishment of the AfCFTA means that Africans are serious about trade and would need all the expertise on the ground for its effective implementation.
You established the AUDA-NEPAD COVID-19 Response Plan of Action. How is that going?
Arguably, the COVID-19 pandemic is a new turf for institutions globally. Our first strategy was to react immediately, in terms of shaping a response by adapting our workplans and our activities to the pandemic. So, everything we are currently doing in health, agriculture, infrastructure, etc. is mainstreamed along with the COVID-19 response. As we are considerably still not out of the woods, the institution hasn’t focused on a “post-COVID-19 response” but is rather supporting mitigation and control efforts.
Control efforts required that our work, to an extent, aligns with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). We did not invent a response plan in a vacuum; rather, we interacted with the Africa CDC, flagged our mandate and our capacity to implement different programmes on health, agriculture, etc., and then inserted our activities into the Africa CDC roadmap. This ensures that our response plan is fully coherent with the response plan of the AU based on the Africa CDC strategy.
Our efforts so far have yielded positively. Against initial expert projections, Africa has managed the pandemic quite well, if you consider the current numbers globally in terms of deaths. A city like New York has roughly the equivalent number of deaths as in Africa with a population of about 1.3 billion.
In terms of policy response, we have put together the critical elements to help stop the spread of the virus. But we need to continue; we should not relax.
How serious have the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic been for Africa?
In response to the pandemic, the suppression and mitigation measures that governments had to adopt have had varied impacts on health services, formal and informal economies, and social setups. The consequences of these impacts have been varied based on levels of extremity of the measures taken by African governments, levels of disease exposure as well as the strengths of the economies pre-pandemic.
Evidently, we cannot forego a socioeconomic strategy for a health strategy, in addressing the pandemic. The intelligent approach is a mix of both strategies. You must have the tools to fight the virus and the tools to fight its socioeconomic consequences. How did African countries mix both strategies? Many countries established safety nets.
To address unemployment as a consequence of the measures to stop the spread of a virus, micro small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are being explored as a viable economic recovery tool, which currently employs more than 80 per cent of Africans.
At AUDA-NEPAD, we designed a program we call 100,000 SMEs to further support this sector. We certainly need millions of MSMEs, but by starting with 100,000, we wanted to test our capacity to support them, in partnership with Ecobank and other African banks.
Our intervention is to help these MSMEs cope through the application of digital tools to better understand the situation and adopt managerial behaviour that facilitates access to finance and markets. This programme can then be replicated by governments at national levels.
You have been at the helm at AUDA-NEPAD for over a decade. How do you assess the progress Africa has made in terms of development?
During my tenure at AUDA-NEPAD, Africa admirably doubled the size of its economy — in the last 15 years. At the policy front, what comforts me is that many decisions were taken in the last years, especially since 2016, at the AU level, to make the AU Commission more efficient, towards policy development and implementation continentally.
We have also adopted critical frameworks, one of which is the AfCFTA, to support continental trade. Regrettably, if we had implemented more continental frameworks, let's say 10 years ago, we would have limited the social and economic consequences of the pandemic because the impact of the disruption of global value chains would have been less severe.
At AUDA-NEPAD, we have made great strides. AUDA-NEPAD is the only development agency at the continental level in the world. I am of the firm belief that in the next 10 to 15 years, AUDA-NEPAD will have a scope of activity quite like that of the African Development Bank, and it will be a fully owned African agency.
What are some of the challenges during this period? For example, many countries in Africa are still in conflict.
You are correct. I would, however, like to mention that less than 7 percent of Africans live in regions where there are conflicts, meaning that more than 90 percent live in regions where there is peace, although that does not reduce the seriousness with which we take conflicts. You can add the challenge of food insecurity. We have the locust invasion in East Africa. There are consequences of climate change. We have flooding, which impacts land. Deforestation is also a challenge for the continent.
What reforms does Africa need going forward?
Much-needed reforms on the continent must be guided by two main streams. The first stream is governance that is more open to local communities, to civil society and to the private sector. And by the private sector, I do not mean big multinationals. I am referring to MSMEs. A governance system that is open to these actors will ensure that Africans’ interest is defended.
The second type of reform is to have leaders who think regionally because national solutions are not optimal solutions. We need leaders who strengthen the creation of regional value chains, leaders receptive to the free movement of people and goods across borders, and leaders who are conscious of industrialization being the catalyst for development.
Most African leaders today will leave power within the next 10 years. We need to transition to leadership that can adapt to the needs and the constraints of the continent.
The world is entering critical periods, beyond this pandemic. We will see the exacerbation of competition for resources. Let me give you one example: Africa is the region with the highest proportion of arable land in the world. In the next 30 years, according to FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations], we might face a global food crisis. Africa has the capacity to feed itself and the rest of the world, but we do not want to see Africa being exploited as it was during colonialism, because of terms that are not favourable to Africans. Therefore, we will need strong leadership.
How could Africa retain its intellectual capital?
Kwame Nkrumah used to say he was not worried about Ghanaians going to the UK, to the US, to Europe because they will bring back scientific knowledge and entrepreneurial capacity. I'm not worried about brain drain. Why? Because if I look at my own country, Niger, and others like Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, Africans who have acquired skills outside are coming back more and more. And they are helping shape institutions when they return. They bring another voice, another vision, and another energy. So, we may have one million Africans going out but about 700,000 will come back, which is a huge added value.
To retain their expertise on their return, we need enabling environments where the skills learned can be better implemented. We need supporting policies and adaptive regulatory environments, as well as supporting infrastructure, that encourage more of these experts to utilize their skills on the continent.
But in the health sector, for example, African medical practitioners go abroad, leaving hospitals lacking adequate personnel.
I agree with that. Today, the emergency wards in Belgian hospitals are managed mostly by Cameroonians. And you have a lot of nurses from Botswana and Malawi in UK hospitals. But we should draw a tactical rather than a strategic lesson from that. The tactical lesson is, we should pay them more. Malawian doctors who go to the UK are paid maybe 10 times more than what they were earning in Malawi. The best way to retain human capital is to create the conditions that allow trained professionals to stay and as previously alluded, these would require enabling environments. Therefore, it's a tactical response. But strategically, I'm not worried. Professor Calestous Juma, for example, left Kenya and went to teach at Harvard but what he brought back to the continent was enormous.
What message of hope would you give Africans during this trying period?
To shape our own destiny, we should stop applying broad measures and approaches that are defined by others without referencing the African context. The UN can be a partner, the World Bank can be a partner, the IMF can be a partner, but we should have our own strategies and implement them. Today, in terms of strong leadership, we have a critical mass that can shape Africa's destiny based on Africa's interests. Nobody will develop Africa like Africans. We are the ones to design our strategies and shape our destiny.