Never before has the desire for African integration been backed by concrete actions than in the last couple of years. We have, of recent, seen growing interest from African leaders who now realise that trade – not aid – is the key to achieving significant economic development.
Without doubt, African countries will need to do more business with one another in order to develop. Almost all countries that have risen in the 21st century attribute the indispensability of trade as the key to their success.
The abundance of wealth in Africa is common knowledge. The continent has about 30 per cent of the world’s remaining mineral resources. And, looking at the size as well as the composition of the population, the potential knows no bounds.
Africa too can be a global trading heavyweight. And with some of the wealthier economies charting isolationist paths, the continent as a bloc should proactively take up its rightful place as a global trade giant.
To achieve that, however, African countries must first look inward, shake off the myopic need for egoistic and short-term wins for more impactful development, especially for the young who constitute almost 70 per cent of the population.
This is why the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) is arguably the biggest venture that will transform Africa.
Next month, African leaders are scheduled to converge in Kigali to sign the agreement establishing the free trade area. This is the climax to a long journey that picked momentum when negotiations for the agreement started in 2015.
If implemented successfully, the CFTA would become the largest free trade area in the world in terms of membership. With 55-member countries forming a single market with a GDP of over US$3 billion, Africa will be a trading force to reckon with.
More importantly, implementing the CFTA will inject intra-continental trade with the much-needed boost. At the moment, trade between African countries is estimated at just 14 per cent, but with the CFTA, this is expected to double, with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa putting estimates at USD$ 35 billion up from only 14 billion.
While opening the Heads of State summit in Addis early this year, the AU chair, President Paul Kagame, spoke about how scale is important and the urgency required if Africa is to catch up.
“We are running out of time, and we must act now to save Africa from permanent deprivation,” he said adding, “We must create a single continental market, integrate our infrastructure, and infuse our economies with technology.”
“No country or region can manage on its own. We have to be functional, and we have to stay together,” Kagame pointed out.
Indeed, disunity has been Africa’s greatest shortcoming. The risk of not being together on this front will be costly for the success of the CFTA - missing out on yet another opportunity for Africa to create wealth and better living standards for Africans.
In the last couple of years, we have seen progress in African countries working together. Today, more than ever, people are moving freely across borders, restrictions that have hindered air travel are slowly eroding and regional trade blocs have tasted the benefit of working together, increasing the appetite for scaling up.
It is unfortunate that the craving for intra-regional trade is at a time when skepticism towards trade liberalisation is growing.
However, by responding to the needs of people in an inclusive way and ensuring equitable distribution of benefits, the CFTA journey will be less daunting. Not to mention the valuable lessons learned from the experiences of regional economic communities across the continent.
Whether it’s from Abuja to Addis, Cairo to Cape Town or Mali to Malawi, all African nations can advance by eliminating barriers to the free movement of goods and capital.