The Kigali Convention Centre broke into cheers during the 10th Extraordinary African Union Summit as 44 African countries signed the historical African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.
All the years of hard work had come to fruition and Africa was finally on its way to claim its position on the world trade negotiation table.
But how did this idea, which many say was floated as far back as over 40 years ago, make its way to Kigali and finally into history books?
“It has been a long process,” Albert Muchanga, the Commissioner, Africa Union Trade and Industry, said in an interview.
Muchanga explained that the process goes as far back as when the African Union, then Organisation of African Unity, was conceived in 1963.
“What most people are seeing is something we started in 2015, but the reality is that this whole thing started when the African Union was conceived. At the time, Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, made a passionate call for the unification of Africa,” he said.
Delivered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, before 31 African Heads of State on May 24, 1963, Nkrumah’s speech, which has since become iconic, called for the creation of a strong continental union.
“No independent African state today by itself has a chance to follow an independent course of economic development, and many of us who have tried to do this have been almost ruined or have had to return to the fold of the former colonial rulers. This position will not change unless we have a unified policy working at the continental level,” he suggested.
Nkrumah’s suggestions showed promise when several regional economic blocs were created. Today, the AU recognises eight such blocs and Rwanda is a member of two; the East African Community (EAC and the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA).
In 1991, the Heads of State came up with the Abuja Treaty establishing the African Economic Community which is supposed to end in 2034.
“It was the continuation of this journey that in 2012, the Heads of State said that we must fast-track the establishment of the AFCTA. Between 2012 and 2015, there were technical studies on the establishment of the negotiation processes,” Muchanga said.
The negotiation process
The negotiation process was launched in June, 2015, and the first forum kicked off in February 2016.
At the launch, a roadmap setting December, 2017 as the end of the negotiation process was set.
In an interview with The New Times, the Director of External Trade at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Alice Twizeye, said there were no country specific challenges on the negotiating table bringing together 55 countries.
“The challenge shared by all countries was that you have all these countries, each with its own context. It made everything complex. It wasn’t an easy process but, with time, they all reached a compromise and here we are today,” she said.
There was also an issue of a tight deadline, which required those on the negotiating table to work extra harder.
“From February 2016 to December 2017 was very little time, but we worked very hard, and that’s why many are saying the instrument was negotiated in a very short time,” she added.
Addressing the 10th Extraordinary African Union Summit, the current AU Chairperson, President Paul Kagame, paid tribute to “all the leaders, past and present, involved in bringing us to this point. We are reaping the rewards of their foresight”.
“The Continental Free Trade Area is the culmination of a vision set forth nearly 40 years ago in the Lagos Plan of Action, adopted by Heads of State in 1980. That undertaking led directly to the Abuja Treaty establishing the African Economic Community in 1991,” he said.
He added: We continue to be guided by the foundational principles and detailed implementation roadmap that were laid down in those instruments.”
Among the most important guidelines is the pre-eminent role of our Regional Economic Communities, he said. “They have been the model and the engine for Africa’s economic integration and they will continue to be.”
The head of the CFTA Unit at the African Union, Prudence Sebahizi, said the bottleneck in this process was the issue of lack of enough expertise.
“This had never happened before in terms of having all these instruments to go through but very limited time. Because AFCTA is very broad, it requires a wide range of expertise and each country needed about 20 at a time. It was a challenge for many, including Rwanda,” he said.
He also said that there was an issue of lack of enough awareness from stakeholders, both locally and regionally.
Responding to questions raised by those who called the entire process rushed and predicted hiccups in the future, Sebahizi explained that when it comes to negotiations especially of this caliber, losing momentum is always a risk.
“You risk disengagement of players when the process is dragging on for years. They will definitely lose interest and we couldn’t allow that to happen,” he explains.
He also pointed out that the process had to be hastened to avoid external detractors.
“There are people who had a hidden and negative agenda about this agreement. They did not want this kind of deal for Africa and they had already started showing it in different mediums. We were avoiding that,” he says.
Sebahizi said that this is a progressive process.
“There is no pressure but the next step is that, of course, most countries have to go back for more consultations and later ratification. Implementation differs from country to country. Signing the agreement was the first important step,” he said.
The signatories have tentatively 180 days to ratify the agreement and according to the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Vera Songwe, said the world is watching.