It's good news from a conflict prevention perspective that 44 African countries have signed up to the historic African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement paving the way for a liberalised market for goods and services across the continent by lowering barriers to trade.
Beyond the potential for job creation, the implications of its rollout for say, safety and security are immense. It is particularly significant that Africa is expanding its markets across boundaries at a point in time when the world is consciously looking inwards as extremist political parties flourish.
Impediments to AfCFTA include the high internal inequalities in Africa on virtually everything – health, shelter, food, education and income. Many conflicts are driven by poverty and inequalities.
It is becoming clear that wars and all the challenges the continent faces from militants, more often than not embedded within communities, are virtually impossible to win by military means alone.
Methods of war have changed. Standing in a trench waiting for the order to shoot and advance is no longer the chosen method of war. From the social media trench for example, one can unearth information and cross borders without passports.
The trade trench will allow communities involved in violent conflict a way to reconnect with the world and get access to the humanitarian goods needed for post-conflict recovery such as medicine and food. The ability to trade seamlessly across the border is essential to ending cross-border violence.
The preoccupation with perceiving neighbouring countries as competitors has overshadowed our appreciation of much broader trading opportunities.
This preoccupation creates a spiral of unnecessary territoriality around borders that were never ours to begin with. Increasingly, public discourse focuses on neighbours as threats instead of investment opportunities. This in turns breeds prejudice, inhibits trade and interaction and therefore perpetuates poverty. Why do we concentrate on disagreements rather than on common interests?
It is counterproductive to maintain an antagonistic approach toward borders when there is so much benefit to be gained from working together.
Many of the upheavals that threaten the continent are rooted in real or imagined threats to identity and ways of livelihood such as pastoralism and farming. Violent conflict inevitably draws in people who sense their values or interests are being threatened.
The continent, which is resource rich, with ambitious, innovative and youthful populations, needs growing economies. Whatever anyone may assert, the implementation of the agreement will increase Africa's collective impact.
Through trade, one can conquer not only poverty within the changed nature of violent conflict in which insurgents have taken the place of modern armies and cultural differences have become more influential.
Trade helps generate solidarity – border traders expand their businesses on their own momentum without for instance relying on central banks for exchange rates. They have the kinship, cemented for instance by listening to each other’s radio frequencies streaming across borders, that many diplomats spend years trying to develop with their counterparts.
Often, we tend to think of traders singularly, in terms of the specifics they trade in, such as livestock, beans, clothes or cooking oil. But they have an ethic of co-operation and respect for difference such as for instance, learning each other's languages, defining identities superseding their countries, finding common ground.
They often intermarry across ethnic and religious lines.
The traders’ model teaches lessons in co-existence that books cannot. They have known for a long time that the aggregate impact of trading with each other, where all countries enrich each other through variety, is greater than if each country acted alone.
Could the AU produce a people's version of the agreement for traders? This could help ensure that traders know they have an active role to play in ensuring that locally rooted grievances are not expressed transnationally across borders through violence. It will also define definite deliverables that promote both trade and conflict prevention such as identifying shared interests between conflicting identities; building truces for the benefit of trade and holding a consistent dialogue with each other.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]