RECENTLY-APPOINTED African Union (AU) representative to the United States (US) ambassador Hilda Suka-Mafudze (HSM) says Africa has the potential to attain Agenda 2063 if it gets its act together. Last week, she spoke with NewsDay (ND) senior reporter Cliff Chiduku about how COVID-19 has impacted Africa-US relations, and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), among other issues.
ND: Can you give a brief profile of yourself?
HSM: I am a seasoned diplomat and political expert with over two decades of practical experience in the execution, monitoring and liaison in African political affairs. I hold a Masters of Arts degree in International Relations from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Sociology and Gender Development from Women’s University in Africa, Zimbabwe. I also hold various certificates in network leadership, diplomacy and mediation, among others.
I served as an MDC MP (2000-2005), as founder and director of a development-oriented non-governmental organisation (2006-2009). I served as Zimbabwe ambassador to Malawi and before then served as ambassador of Zimbabwe to Sudan and South Sudan, a place where I cut my diplomatic teeth. As Zimbabwean ambassador to Sudan and South Sudan, I effectively handled the two country’s secession (and post-secession) issues until 2012. Zimbabwe being one of the police contributing countries to the Darfur Mission in Sudan, I have been instrumental in the Darfur peace process and have been actively engaged in supporting the United Nations and regional mediators’ efforts.
ND: You were appointed ambassador to Sudan during the government of national unity (GNU) from MDC and after the end of the unity government; your term was extended and you were reassigned to Malawi. Did you resign from MDC? It was only you and the late Trudy Stevenson who served beyond the GNU years despite that you were political appointees.
HSM: I was appointed ambassador to Sudan during the GNU from the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC. After the GNU ended, my term was extended and in the new dispensation, I was reassigned to Malawi. The position of an ambassador requires one to be apolitical, once you assume duty. Yes, it was only me and Stevenson who served beyond the GNU years despite that we were political appointees. I was now serving the country so I had to rise above political affiliation.
Politics is dearly played at home and representing one’s country is way above local machinations and needs be done diligently. Moreover, you have a lot of work, that of looking out for your country and ensuring it is at a good place. It is such an honour to get an opportunity to serve your country.
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ND: You have become a career diplomat and in this case, an international diplomat. You no longer represent Zimbabwe only, how did all this come about, ditching politics for diplomacy?
HSM: I am grateful for the confidence placed upon me by AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat to lead the AU Mission to the US. I serve the interests and priorities of the premier continental organisation, the AU, all the 55 members of the union and of an Africa that is united and playing an important role in the international landscape. Being an international diplomat, you stand in the thick of things, speaking truth to power, defending your beautiful country, and you must be able to recommend where need be, and just be a true nationalist, a true Zimbabwean who wants the best for her country.
ND: Africa may have not been as devastated by COVID-19 as western Europe and the Americas, but certainly the continental economy took a huge knock, a 4,5% negative growth expected in 2020. With more countries looking inward, how can you make Africa a priority to the US for investment?
HSM: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all societies and disrupted all economies presenting an unprecedented global challenge, including in Africa. The AU is actively working on several fronts, through a co-ordinated and continental approach, to mobilise critical international support to confront the unprecedented social and economic dislocation the pandemic has brought about.
In my recent meeting with the World Bank leadership, I underscored the importance of increasing liquidity for economic recovery, where Africa faces significant gaps, amounting to a projected US$290 billion for the next three years, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). One of my priorities in these unprecedented times that offer new opportunities is to take Africa-US trade and investment relations to a higher level and to advocate for a robust US private sector-led investment on the continent. Africa receives less than 1% of American investments worldwide, concentrated in a few countries mainly in extractive and energy industries and remain relatively static compared to growth in foreign direct investment (FDI) from other major economies in spite of the huge opportunities the continent offers.
ND: AU member States have signed up to the continental economic trade agreement — AfCFTA. How does this framework support inter-trade considering that South Africa and Nigeria are the biggest manufacturers while most countries depend on selling raw materials?
HSM: AfCFTA is establishing an integrated market of more than 1 billion people, making Africa a powerful and vast market. The AfCFTA is both a strategic requirement for the continent and a business imperative, as it will put Africa in a much better position to engage with partners globally, including the US. AfCFTA will improve the competitiveness of African products through harnessing the economies of scale of a large continental market and increasing the depth and breadth of diversification through geographically-based specialisation and regional value chains. It will result in more FDI inflows, transfer of knowledge and technology, increased productivity as benefits of successful integration.
A single continental market for goods and services and investment would pave the way for accelerating African economic growth and prosperity in pursuit of Agenda 2063. The Africa we want dream is achievable.
ND: After AfCFTA, what will happen to regional economic blocs like Sadc, East African Community and Ecowas?
HSM: AfCFTA is a significant political achievement which has shown that AU is advancing multilateralism. Regional economic communities are building blocks of the integration process of the continent. Their role is increasingly critical in the development of regional value chains and enhancement of inter-African trade which represents about 17% of total African exports compared to other regions — Asia and Europe, which is around 59% and 69%.
ND: How will you improve Africa/US economic relations?
HSM: I will spare no effort to work with and mobilise key partners and stakeholders on the continent and the US, including the diaspora, to increase US economic engagement with Africa across sectors and regions. I will also work with US agencies, for example the US Chambers of Commerce and African ambassadors accredited to the US, to improve the ease of doing business in Africa, highlighting investment opportunities to the US business community. These efforts will be undertaken through multi-stakeholder initiatives and partnerships and by leveraging on our continental institutions and agencies such as the African Development Bank and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in addition to the AU Department of Trade and Industry.
ND: Zimbabwe has suffered from US sanctions. How will you assist it to improve bilateral relations with the US? For instance, Zimbabwe does not benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) — an agreement that gives agricultural produce from Africa preferential treatment to US markets?
HSM: Zimbabwe is well-represented in Washington DC at the bilateral level which has the mandate to defend and promote the interests and priorities of Zimbabwe. The AU at the level of the summit has called for an end to sanctions against Zimbabwe. The AU Mission in co-ordination with the AU Commission is mandated to engage on issues of sanctions with US officials and members of the US Congress and think tank community to advocate for the lifting sanctions.
ND: The US had elections last month in which Joe Biden, a senator for years and one of Zidera backers is now President-elect; do you see the change of guard impacting on US/Africa economic and political relations? Can Zimbabwe in particular be hopeful?
HSM: Africa has always enjoyed over the years a strong bipartisan support in both the Executive and legislative branches of the US government. Each administration, as you know, has its signature initiatives.
And I commend the current administration for the development initiatives taken during the last four years to enhance economic and political engagement with Africa, particularly through the Prosper Africa and the increase in investments of the International Finance Development Corporation on the continent. It goes without saying; observers expect that there will be change of approach and style in conduct of the US foreign relations with the continent, particularly via summit diplomacy. Personally, I was pleased with the recent President-elect’s appointment of Linda Thomas-Greenfield to serve as US ambassador to the UN, a person so conversant with Africa issues.
ND: Lastly, there is now a COVID-19 vaccine in the US and Europe. Do you think Africa can get access to the vaccines within 12 months and at what cost?
HSM: Africa cannot be left behind. The AU heads of State and government underscored the importance of Africa to timely access COVID-19 vaccines. Here, global and continental co-operation is essential and it will test the international community’s commitment to global health security as a shared common good as well as to the values of international solidarity.