Recently in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt THE gathering in Egypt for the launch of the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) was no ordinary congregation. But for all its ingredients seeking to make a productive and thriving Africa, a whole block was missing; the so-called Francophone bloc that is represented by ECOWAS. The launch of the TFTA in the searing desert heat of Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, this week was testament to determination of the current African leaders not to let the aspirations of the founding fathers die. Talks for a TFTA, the coming together of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to form one huge market, began with the first Tripartite Summit in 2008, Kampala, Uganda. And after seven years of talks the TFTA was finally launched, in Egypt. Of significance was the presence of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and African Union (AU) Chairman, President Robert Mugabe, the outgoing chairperson of the Tripartite Summit, who duly reminded the gathering that the TFTA was steeped in the noble aspirations and vision of Africa’s founding fathers. “The historic decision we took was a reaffirmation of the noble vision and ideals of the champions of Pan-Africanism namely Kwameh Nkrumah, Abdel Gamal Nasser, Sekou Toure and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere who were convinced that the political, social and economic liberation of the African continent could only be realised through the creation of a United States of Africa,” said President Mugabe during the launch of the grand TFTA. President Mugabe who was chairperson of the Tripartite in his capacity as SADC handed over the chairmanship to Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. To President Mugabe who continues to run with the torch of the founding fathers, the TFTA is important in that it is a grand step towards continental integration, the ultimate desire of the founding fathers. “Through the TFTA and associated programmes, we have committed ourselves to creating a single market that would be a powerful magnet to trade and investment from within and outside the region,” he said. “In other words we should use the Tripartite arrangement to create a borderless economy with free movement of goods, persons and services. “The Tripartite process has become a catalyst, model and critical building block towards the establishment of the Continental Free Trade Area targeted for 2017.” Although this was a ‘Tripartite thing’ the absence of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or, in French, the Communauté économique des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest,( CEDEAO) still brought a sad feeling. And the sadness was increased in the streets of Sharm El Sheikh by African brothers from Egypt who exclaimed to fellow Africans: “oh you from Zimbabwe, you from Africa.” Even at that great moment that brought together 26 African countries, almost half the membership of the AU, with a combined population of 625 million people and a Gross Domestic Product of US$1,3 trillion, the Egyptians showed that they were more inclined to the Arab League. It took close to a decade to bring together SADC, COMESA and EAC, countries that share an almost similar colonial history. And inevitably the question arises that how will efforts to have ECOWAS on board pan out? President Mugabe is very clear with regards to what needs to be done for Africa to prosper; unity and total integration are key. But it is also very clear that the former colonial master of many of West African countries, France, still has a firm grip on its former colonies. According to a high ranking official at the launch of the TFTA who refused to be named, discussions with ECOWAS will be difficult. “The discussions to have them on board in sync with the rest of Africa will be difficult for the simple reason that it will be more like Africa negotiating not with fellow Africans but France,” he said. He was right. For instance, for many years France’s Elf oil company has dominated exploitation of the commodity in Gabon. Talks for oil exploration and trade in the country have to include the French. Many countries in the ECOWAS still pay taxes and rent for buildings in their countries to France. Some of the leaders in the ECOWAS are quick to appeal to their former colonial masters for assistance instead of approaching the AU. According to Dr Lansine Kaba, writer and professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, France still has huge interests in its former colonies. “One wonders why France, a former coloniser, launched almost alone an air and ground campaign against the Muslim insurgents,” Kaba said. “Did such operations rest on ‘classic’ colonial motivation for resources, greed and hegemony? “Unlike Gabon or Cote d’Ivoire, Mali is not known for its wealth. But Mali highly matters in terms of strategy and defence of the European Mediterranean. “Its strategic position makes it a valuable territory to defend against Jihadist threats. “This thought might explain President (Francois) Hollande’s bold move, once Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, called for immediate French help.” However, another official who was heavily involved in the TFTA negotiations said negotiations with ECOWAS might not take that long. “The need to rope in ECOWAS will be on the agenda at the AU Summit in South Africa,” he said. “ECOWAS might have its issues but we are confident that with the current chair (President Mugabe) negotiations will not be a problem as he is respected in both the so-called Anglo-Saxon and Francophone Africa. “The will of President Mugabe for a united and integrated Africa should not be doubted or underestimated.” The TFTA are expected to benefit countries though an enlarged market resulting in increased market access for products, elimination of challenges associated with overlapping membership and opportunity for increased Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and infrastructure development.