The 17th African World Economic Forum kicked off on Wednesday with an opening plenary styled a “conversation” between two Presidents, an aspiring President, a Vice President and a lonely CEO.
Our hopes were raised by Tokyo Sexwale, the moderator, who assured us that this would not be another talk shop, but quickly dashed by President Mbeki who told us that there was nothing new to say about the challenge of Africa.
But this didn’t deter the energetic octogenarian President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, who described the success that had been achieved by his country without the benefits of oil, minerals and other resources. The secret of success being “good friends with lots of money”!
This contrasted with the underlying message from President Mbeki who described the capacity challenges of the continent and posed the question – who will pay? Certainly not the World Bank if Obiageli K. Ezekwesili’s speech was anything to go by. Instead of providing solutions Ms Ezekwesili posed a long series of questions. One of these was how to get the private sector to come to the party and how to get business to recognise Africa was not one country. Cynthia Carroll, the new CEO at Anglo American, was left to answer on behalf of business and showed how hard it is for a business person to compete on a stage with politicians. She stressed the need for partnerships, best practices, good governance and flexibility of approach.
Tokyo Sexwale moderated the event with great charm, energy and humour. However it was clear his thoughts were on other things when instead of referring to the African continent he referred to the African National Congress.
Outside the plenary the tone of the meeting was very much one of quiet determination. Growth of 5-6% showed that Africa was doing the right things and that the right policy choices were being made. Governance was improving and individuals such as Mo Ibrahim vigorously enforced the point that Africa must achieve the same standards as the rest of the world in this respect. There was an attempt to tackle the difficult issues with a BBC debate on Zimbabwe which failed to really penetrate how the current problems could be resolved.
The conference followed the lead of Davos with sessions on climate change, thankfully without the hysteria that accompanied this topic in Switzerland and there was a particular focus on agriculture.
All in all while this year’s Africa WEF seemed to lack the energy and excitement of previous year (I’m sure there were less people in the bars at the Arabella Sheraton), it was more than replaced by a realism and steely determination to ensure that progress on the continent continues.