Trade, as we have learnt, can be both good and evil. In the annals of human history, we can find few examples of commerce that can measure up to the inhumanity and vicious evil of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Tens of millions of Africans were snatched from their homes, transported, as cargoed “commodities”, thousands of miles to the “New World” and forced to labour under the most brutal conditions so that their “masters” could prosper. As Bob Marley put it in his song Night Shift: “by the sweat of my brow, [you] eat your bread”.
This first gigantic rupture from the Mother Continent occurred about 500 years ago. Over those 500 years, both Africa, as well as her people in the American and Caribbean diasporas, fought countless battles to free themselves from the parasitic coils of bondage.
This monumental task has now generally been achieved – both Africa and the Caribbean are free, but the rupture with the Mother Continent has not yet been fully healed. The first ever AfriCaribbean Trade and Investment Forum (ACTIF) on the beautiful island of Barbados, I believe, will go a long way towards integrating the severed strands of our great common family and forging a new and powerful branch of our shared African genius.
The theme of the Forum is One People, One Destiny: Uniting and Reimagining Our Future. It is fitting that this historic conference is being jointly organised by the bank I lead, Afreximbank, and the government of Barbados.
In November last year, it became the world’s newest republic when it relinquished the political leadership of the British Monarchy. Her Excellency Dame Sandra Mason was elected by Parliament as the first President of Barbados.
President Mason and the Honourable Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, have fully supported our project and have pledged to be totally invested in the discussions. His Excellency, Chandrikapersad Santokhi, the President of Surinam and Chair of the 20-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the leadership of the 11-member Organisation of Eastern Caribbean Countries (OECS), have thrown in their considerable weight into this exciting project.
From the African side, His Excellency Macky Sall, President of Senegal and the Chairperson of the African Union, is leading a powerful delegation from the continent, while The African Union Commission, under the Chairmanship of His Excellency, Moussa Faki Mahamat, as well as representatives of Heads of State of several African countries, will also be attending, as will the heads of various international organisations.
Reconnecting severed strands
Although over the span of 500 years, our two peoples have travelled different roads, solved different problems and arrived at different destinations, there is no denying that our roots, which extend to the very beginnings of the human species, have remained intact.
The desire to reconnect our severed links, often expressed in music, song, and dance, in religious beliefs and customs and the thirst for freedom was articulated by the likes of the Jamaicans Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley and by Nkrumah’s call for all peoples of African descent to unite. The African Union has also declared the African Diaspora as the sixth region of the continent.
While sporting and cultural ties between the Caribbean and Africa have been growing – as has tourism in both directions – trade and investment have not kept pace.
This conference will set out to change that and establish strong commercial and investment channels linked by banking and other financial services. This enhanced entrepreneurial and financial muscle will vastly increase the scale of both our markets and enable us to more effectively tap into and leverage the $27 trillion economy of the Americas and the Caribbean.
It is our hope that following a membership agreement with CARICOM States, Afreximbank will be able to operate in the CARICOM and deliver concretely on this new vision. Afreximbank expects to open an office in the Caribbean and will work with CARICOM states to set up a Caribbean Exim bank as an Afreximbank subsidiary or affiliate.
We at Afreximbank also envisage committing an investment of $500m in the Caribbean as soon as a regional office is opened. We will look forward to working with the Caribbean Development Bank to scale up trade-enabling infrastructure investments in the region as well as to integrating their economies with Africa. We also look forward to fostering stronger banking and logistical links.
This historic conference marks the beginning of a process of moving beyond rhetoric to building the economic bridges that will bring to life the dreams of Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, the African Union, and so many unnamed others who paved the way for the creation of an economic foundation that can and will foster an enduring brotherhood and sisterhood.
It was an evil trade that 500 years ago ripped away a part of ourselves and planted it on what was then foreign soil; today, it is good trade that reconnects us to ourselves and makes us bigger, fitter, and stronger. We came in in cargo ships; today we arrive in passenger jets. It is a remarkable pointer to what the future holds!
Prof. Benedict Oramah is President of Afreximbank
This article summarises the key messages of Prof Oramah’s keynote address during the inaugural AfriCaribbean Trade and Investment Forum taking place 1-3 Sept 2022.