The fanfare with which the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) was endorsed by 80 per cent of countries on the continent this week here in Kigali was well deserved, having just launched the world’s largest trading bloc.
But, what will mostly linger in many observers’ minds is the underlying message of purposeful self-determination as amplified in local and international media, including on social media.
As summed up in a pithy tweet by UNCTAD Secretary-General, Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, “For Enterprise Africa to capture African markets, it must aspire for global success.”
By looking inward, the tweet suggested, the endorsement also invited world economies to take another look, calling attention to the huge market of 1.2 billion people being opened up.
The message was that Africa is finally ready to take on the world on our own terms.
Hailed as historic, the Kigali meet also included the signing of the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons and the African Passport that was inked by over half of the continent’s nations.
This was crucial, as it illustrated some of the core aspects towards a united continent finally falling in place.
Specifically, endorsement of the CFTA and the Protocol on Free Movement marked the launch of two more of the AU flagship projects under its Agenda 2063.
The first to be launched was the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) in January this year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The significance of the opening up, beginning with open skies is obvious. And, with the political will and commitment exhibited in Kigali holding steady while ensuring the set timelines that at least 22 parliaments ratify the treaty, CFTA could be operational by the end of next year.
It is, nevertheless, not expected to be easy, as there remain many hurdles still to be worked out, including under-developed infrastructure and non-tariff barriers. But these are the very issues the trade pact is expected to address, in addition to spurring economic growth, industrialisation and business diversification.
It is, however, acknowledged that a solution is within grasp, tapping into gains already achieved by the various Regional Economic Communities (RECs) in Africa.
Indeed, aside from the three-year continental negotiation process, the view is also that the CFTA Kigali meeting is the culmination of a series of REC trade meetings that are being seen as the building blocks towards the continental free trade area.
In May last year, for instance, the city played host to the East African Manufacturing Business Summit. Shortly after, in July, this was followed by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to track implementation of the Airspace Integration Project.
Across the border in Kampala, Ministers from 26 African countries would later meet on the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA).
Note that the TFTA brings together COMESA, EAC, and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). Add to these achievements by the expansive Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) along with the other RECs and it makes it only a short step to the CFTA.
Playing on the individual strengths of each regional economic community, they essentially make for building blocs that will come in handy in the implementation of the CFTA agreement to facilitate its effectiveness. Hope, therefore, abounds as to the success of the continental free trade area.
For instance, while there remain hurdles still to be worked out, and being the most integrated on the scale of things on the continent, some of the major achievements such in the East African Community such as a common passport, customs union and common market are testament that the anticipated obstacles on the continent are not insurmountable.
In addition, there is also the goodwill to ensure that it succeeds. The high level representation at the meeting by international partners who included a raft of UN organisations – UNIDO, UNECA, UNCTAD, as well as African Development Bank (AfDB), International Trade Centre (ITC), COMESA and AU’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – adds to this optimism and goodwill.
The high-level attendance and the number of heads of states and national representatives emphasised what stands to be gained, making it worth seriously considering being part of the continental market and make up for the lost opportunity of which we have long played second fiddle to Western economies.
For this reason, the remaining countries were urged to join, and the ratification process by national parliaments speedily accomplished.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.