African Union and CARICOM leaders at their virtual summitGroup photo from the summit. Theme: 'Unity Across Continents and Oceans: Opportunities for Deepening Integration'. [source: CARICOM/ AU]

“United by our heritage as one people of African descent, we meet today to start working together to confront the common challenges that face us, to strengthen the historical and cultural ties that bind us and to build social and economic and political linkages that will promote shared prosperity and social progress for us all.”

So said Kenyan leader President Uhuru Kenyatta, who opened the first African-CARICOM Summit on 7 September 2021, bringing together the 55-member African Union (AU) and the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM). The virtual summit provided a platform for leaders to air their views of how a deeper future partnership could help them in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and in the face of a changing global order.

Leaders from Angola, Antigua, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, and Zimbabwe addressed the session.

Originally planned for 2020, the delay caused by the pandemic actually gave leaders the proof of the efficacy of partnership, based on their collaboration to secure more Covid vaccines in 2021.

Current CARICOM Chair, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne, set the agenda early. He called for:

  • the establishment of a Forum of African and Caribbean Territories and States
  • an annual summit for the two regions to analyse the global situation and their “place within it”
  • a founding forum charter in six months’ time
  • and the establishment of the 7 September as Africa-CARICOM Day.

Referring to the legacy of slavery, Prime Minister Browne said: “Our generation should not allow these systems that control us, constrain us, and capture us to continue.” He spoke of Africa and the Caribbean as a “single tree with the same roots” and the need to “reach to the sky together”.

“Vaccine apartheid”

Even though no leader took direct aim at former colonial powers or at the United States, the desire for Africa and the Caribbean to forge their own way in a post-pandemic world came across strongly in most of the speeches.

“We must become the architects of our common future,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Outlining what he called the “value of confronting [Covid] challenges by working together”, President Ramaphosa said that no country or person should be left behind. The South African leader, who is the AU’s Covid response lead, had announced an agreement to pool resources to purchase Johnson & Johnson single-shot Covid-19 vaccines in August 2021.

Outgoing CARICOM Chair, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley spoke of the forging of links over the years between African and Caribbean people. Recalling Caribbean supporters of pan-Africanism such as George Padmore, CLR James and Eric Williams, the Trinidadian leader said that this joint approach to tackle “vaccine apartheid” was a continuation of this vision. Prime Minister Rowley added that these figures had “anticipated that this milestone could be reached”.

One of the most impassioned speeches came from Barbados’s Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who quoted from Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. “The first thing that we must do is … to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery … the mental slavery that has us trading north only …. the mental slavery that has us not recognising that, between ourselves, we constitute one-third of the nations of the world …. the mental slavery that has blocked us from reclaiming our Atlantic destiny and forging our future in the interests of our people,” Prime Minister Mottley said.

She added: “This is our future and this is where we have to carry our people”. She called for weekly direct flights between Africa and the Caribbean, a joint public-private sector mechanism, a shared mass media platform to exchange news, information and culture, and a collective approach to the United Nations Conference against racism on 22 September.

“There is nothing like an idea whose time has come,” she said. The Barbadian leader said that the Bretton Woods institutions set up in the wake of World War Two were “not created with our existence in mind” and now needed revision. She questioned accessible finance structures, asking why countries such as Ghana and Greece should face different borrowing rates, pointing to the “absence of global leadership” during the Covid pandemic and citing the need for Africa and the Caribbean to prepare together for the future impact of new pandemics and climate change.

Prime Minister Mottley urged fellow leaders to “cut out the middle passage …. cut out the middleman”. She added: “Let us forge it [the future] in our interests and in our image …. for us and not for anyone else”.

View the summit here:

Vaccine partnership

Most of the leaders referred to the success of the Africa Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP). The AMSP is run by a South African-created task force which co-ordinated the purchase of medical supplies under African Union Special Envoy, Strive Masiyiwa. Mr Masiyiwa explained to leaders that, in the face of the growing problem of accessing Covid vaccines when supplies had “already been hoarded”, the AMSP had negotiated upfront financing for the purchase of vaccines for Africa and the Caribbean. He said that the programme had arranged a US$3bn funding facility through the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank). This raised 50% of the necessary upfront funding with the remaining 50% of purchasing power coming from donor institutions.

Vaccine shipments from Africa to CARICOM countries started in August. Caribbean leaders included their vote of thanks for the programme as they spoke at the summit. Mr Masiyiwa described the “pooled purchasing arrangement” as an example of what can happen “when we work together to face a major challenge”.

Following the leaders’ speeches, associated organisations had their say. President of the Caribbean Development Bank, Hyginus ‘Gene’ Leon, described the event as a “groundbreaking summit”. He said that the pandemic had amplified the weaknesses and debt structure problems in the global system. Dr Leon said that the regions would be further buffeted by climate change and that regional development banks needed to work together to push for lower access to finance.

The secretary general of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), Georges Chikoti, said that Africa and the African diaspora needed to work together for a “better, fairer world” and towards what he called a “levelling condition”. “It is only when we act together … that we will succeed,” he added.

CARICOM’s new Secretary-General, Carla Barnett, said that the vaccine sharing programme had served as the impetus to drive this co-operation forward. “Let the evils of the past that separated us be translated into the good fortunes of our future,” Dr Barnett said.

“Common history”

In what South African President Ramaphosa called a “re-imagining of the relations between our people”, the summit provided a high-level expression of a proposed new partnership for Africa and the Caribbean, using the lessons taught by post-colonial experiences, climate change and the Covid pandemic.

“Gone must be the time when African and Caribbean countries need to be sourcing medical supplies and vaccines from other countries,” President Ramaphosa told the summit.

“We cannot look to others to find common solutions … We have to do it for ourselves,” Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said.

“We need to stand together to ensure solutions to global challenges,” Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera said.

In closing the summit, President Kenyatta said that the two regions had started to recognise their strength in numbers. He concluded: “Today is a day when each and every one of us can be proud …. and start a new beginning.”

Debbie Ransome is the Website Editor for the Commonwealth Round Table.

Related articles:

CARICOM African leaders identify areas of co-operation at historic first summit – CARICOM Today

Africa announces the rollout of 400m vaccine doses to the African Union Member States and the Caribbean – AMSP press release

Africa: President Uhuru Kenyatta – Africa, Caribbean Must ‘Wake Up’ On Covid-19, Debt – All Africa

Visa-free travel, easier trade & investment among suggestions to deepen CARICOM/Africa relations – Newsroom Guyana