I have been tracking responses to the signing of the “Continental Free Trade Area” signed in Kigali about two weeks ago and two things are evidently clear: While there is consensus that a single market would be transformative for Africa, no one is betting that the agreement will be implemented!
Of course, as I reported in this column last week, Africa’s officialdom ululated after the signing and many, including Rwandans tweeted to celebrate the event, especially because they know President Paul Kagame — who is also the current African Union reform chairperson — is a man who normally walks the talk and bank on him to stir things in the right direction.
But outside this officialdom and banking on the attributes of a man who will only be in the chair for a year, most commentators on social media dismissed the event as characteristic of leaders who have become specialists at celebrating signing agreements without doing the actual work to deliver results that the agreements are intended to achieve.
To be sure, some even pointed out bottlenecks of implementing such an agreement even if there was political will to do so, including limited infrastructure to move goods across our diverse continent, low industrial output and infant industries in this or that country that would die due to competition, petty nationalism and quarrels that have undermined regional economic blocks like EAC, etc.
And as I have posited in this column before, pessimists have legitimate reasons to be sceptical.
In fact, it’s even legitimate to always remind leaders every time they sign or celebrate the signing of a new agreement that there are many they in the past that were signed without implementation or partial implementation.
And, indeed, it’s also legitimate to point out bottlenecks that need attention just as it’s legitimate to call out some of the leaders who are either disinterested in the general wellbeing of Africans or acting to undermine Pan-African progress hiding behind “national interest.”
What I find illegitimate is to claim that since there are agreements that were in the past signed without being implemented, new ones shouldn’t be signed or that past failures must define the now and the future.
For while it’s indeed true that there are a number of protocols that were signed with a lot of fanfare in the past with limited or no change in the way things are done, including the launch of the African Union (from the OAU) and the promise of “Africa’s solutions to Africa’s problems,” it’s also true that Africa’s transformation will be built on the ideas of today and tomorrow rather than on the failures of the past.
For to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, every generation has its own mission and that mission can either be fulfilled or betrayed.
So, yes, past and even some of the current African leaders betrayed their signatures and perfected the art of inaction in the face of glaring problems they agreed to solve and many of which they had the power to solve.
However, that doesn’t mean that this failure is inheritable or that lessons haven’t been learnt. Nor can it stop new agents of change from identifying their mission and carrying it forward.
To imagine that past failures must determine the future is not only to suppose that mistakes are inheritable, but is also failure to recognise the power of ideas to transform our environment and the ability of human beings to overcome adversity and shape their own future regardless of the past.
What’s critical then isn’t to give up or to live in the past, but to understand why past initiatives either failed or achieved dismally; learn from that and actively shape the future we want and deserve as a people.
And since politicians rarely do anything for the good of the collective in a diverse continent as ours with many structural challenges and political differences without incentives, it should be the responsibility of the media and commentators to constantly shed light where failure or indifference is spotted.
This also means acknowledging today and tomorrow’s agents of change who deserve support and highlighting transformation spoilers who deserve no seat on the table of Pan-Africanists.