Tunisia is turning to West Africa for trade and business opportunities to offset an economic lull in the region. As war in Libya rages, the Maghreb Union stands at an impasse and southern European doldrums continue, Tunisia is looking beyond its traditional partners to boost its economy.
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, at the “Tunisian African Empowerment” conference August 22 in Tunis, said Tunisia is expected to be confirmed as a member in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) at a summit in December.
The gathering, which Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi plans to attend, underscores Tunisia’s interest in strengthening ties with the West African group. Tunisia has had observer status at ECOWAS since June.
Unlike traditional markets in southern Europe, ECOWAS offers a range of new trade opportunities for Tunisia, including the free movement of people, goods and capital.
Libya had for years functioned as Tunisia’s main trade partner after the Maghreb Arab Union fell into paralysis. Libya also offered jobs for hundreds of thousands of Tunisians during the time.
Relations peaked when the two countries planned to declare their frontier an open border for free trade and the free movement of people but that plan was derailed after a NATO-backed uprising in Libya in 2011 that resulted in the overthrow long-time strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
Tunisia has spent considerable resources trying to ward off the threats of jihadists infiltrating from Libya. Morocco and Mauritania, which, along with Tunisia, Libya and Algeria, are members of the Maghreb Arab Union, are also seeking to be ECOWAS members.
Much of the appeal is the region’s level of trade. ECOWAS’s intra-regional trade stands at 10%, while the Maghreb’s is 3% and has been causing a loss of 2.5% in GDP growth annually for each member. This has deprived the North African region of 220,000 job opportunities per year, official figures and estimates by economists and experts said.
The Maghreb Union was launched in 1989 to spur growth in the region and improve its diplomatic and security profile on the world stage. However, it failed to achieve any of its goals. Even a customs union planned for 1995 fell through.
The land border between Algeria and Morocco, the Maghreb’s main military and economic powers, has been shut down since 1994, the same year the region’s leaders had their last summit.
Tunisia must compete with Morocco to find room in the ECOWAS market, as Rabat has forged successful business links with many countries in Africa, especially West Africa
Chahed visited with a delegation of 100 businessmen and toured Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Sudan as part of his diplomatic efforts. Tunisian flagship air carrier, Tunisair, is planning to expand its African routes to Benin, Sudan, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Nigeria and Guinea in the next four years.
Tunis also wants to boost its soft power in Africa by expanding educational and cultural ties. Tunisian universities receive about 7,000 sub-Saharan graduates and plan to accept 13,000 more by 2020.
For Tunisia, gaining a small share of the ECOWAS market, which has a total population of 350 million, will not be easy. One challenge will be its powerful neighbour, Algeria, which is unlikely to accept Tunisia’s move to join Morocco in the African group. Algerian leaders have disparagingly referred to “French vipers under the rocks of ECOWAS.”
“We would be dreaming to think that ECOWAS is just waiting for Tunisia to join in. We should face the truth when we see the stream of initiatives launched by world economic stars towards Africa,” wrote columnist Meriem Omar in the Tunisian daily, Echourouk.
“The second truth is that Morocco had understood all,” she added, pointing out how Moroccan King Mohammed VI had visited the continent several times to meet leaders, businesspeople and citizens in the streets.
Algeria has its own internal struggle in the Maghreb. It is locked in a diplomatic stand-off with Morocco over the Western Sahara issue, with Algiers backing the Polisario Front for a state in the former Spanish colony that Rabat sees as part of its territorial sovereignty.
Morocco returned to the African Union in January after an almost four-decade hiatus. Its goal was to weaken Algeria and its Polisario ally in the African Union.
“With Tunisia joining ECOWAS in December, the curtain is raising over a joint Moroccan-Tunisian plot aiming clearly at isolating Algeria at a time when the leaders of Morocco and Tunisia are assailing Algeria on world forums to be the cause of the Maghreb paralysis,” said the Algerian newspaper Algérie Patriotique, which is the unofficial mouthpiece of the Algerian Foreign Ministry.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.