Will the AfCFTA implementation be pragmatically supported by African countries?

An interesting article published by Andrew Mold, Acting Director, Office for Eastern Africa, Economic Commission for Africa, talks in favour of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), pointing out how the AfCFTA will promote the growth of regional trade, and rejecting the criticism of those who are skeptical to its implementation.

One of the most important impending challenges highlighted by the AfCFTA skepticals, is the low level of trade complementarity between African countries (it is said that “they all trade the same things…”). With regard to this point, he observes that trade patterns are changing rapidly, in Africa too, where currently the intra-regional trade is growing (although slowly), and is becoming much more diversified, especially within those trade blocs with highest levels of integration. This is the case for instance, of the East African Community (EAC), where higher shares of non-traditional exports (i.e. exports other that agricultural commodities and raw materials) and manufactured goods have been exchanged among the partner States in the last years.

Concerning the point according to which “AfCFTA is a ‘neo-liberal’ project serving the interests of big corporations”, he argues that is precisely the opposite, being such entity a building block of a framework of expanding intra-African trade and much deeper African regional integration and co-operation, whose ultimate aim is to make the African continent economically stronger and more resilient. To prevent exploitation by big corporations, the AfCFTA Treaty includes specific safeguards measures, including protocols on competition policy.  

Ultimately, it is argued that the reasons of the current low levels of intra-African trade are the persistent barriers to trade in the form of high tariff and Non-Tariff Barriers; physical hurdles related to infrastructure gaps; and regional disputes, which is exactly what the AfCFTA aims to remove. 

Among the 54 African countries, more than half (28) have now ratified the AfCFTA agreement through their national parliamentary processes. This signals the seriousness with which member States are taking the AfCFTA. Moreover, in a global economy increasingly dominated by large economies and regional blocks like the European Union, the United States, China and India, also Africa needs to build an integrated and single market allowing its businesses to exploit economies of scale (which is also supposed to lead to improvements in their productive efficiency). The AfCFTA represents a precious occasion to achieve this goal, as it will allow African countries to reap the benefits of a continental market. The reality however is that Regional integration in Africa is weak.

It is also known that in Africa nationalist policies still prevail on community (or regional) interests, and without any doubt this represents an obstacle to any integration policy in the Continent.

Let’s think to what recently happened in Nigeria, where the national authorities have contested the allegations that the closure of its land borders with neighbouring countries is against the AfCFTA spirit and violates the ECOWAS protocol on free movement of persons, goods and services, with the argument that national interests (like the protection of the economy and national security), come always first

Nigeria however is not the only country in Africa that closed the borders with its neighbours. Also Rwanda closed its borders with Uganda almost one year ago because of a dispute on the alleged illegal detention of more than 100 Rwandan citizens in Uganda, while Sudan in October 2019 ordered the closure of the country’s borders with the Central African Republic and Libya, for security concerns. Kenya, on the other hand, has on several occasions closed its border with Somalia, because of security (following attacks by the Al Shabaab militias) and sometimes diplomatic reasons.

The concept of the national interest in each African country needs therefore to be rethinked, as it inevitably will lead to the failure of whatever project of setting common policies, promoting collective interests, or of developing a cohesive regional economic development strategy.

It is necessary to avoid that narrow national agendas will take priority over Continent-wide solutions and that African countries are willing to sacrifice part of their sovereignty in favor of the institutions of a future continental body.

Lastly, it cannot be underestimated that Africa is a stunning mosaic of cultures, languages, ethnic groups, customs and beliefs, where national public administrations have organisational structures and operating patterns which are totally different. This lack of amalgamation between African countries and their administrative apparatuses is another element that will need to be addressed through the design of specific programs aimed to strengthen the process of approximation of member States and of their national administrations (as it happened within the European Union, with the various multiannual action programmes adopted in the several fields: customs, tax, trade, etc.). 

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