For proponents of an independent, integrated and resilient Africa, 2019 will go down as one of the most pivotal years in recent history.
All but one of the 55 African states have already signed up to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, a bold attempt at borderless trade.
According to research by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca), implementation of AfCFTA could see intraregional trade in Africa grow to $70 billion annually just by the removal of tariffs. Equally, intraregional trade could account for half of exports by 2040, from the current 17 per cent.
While they may look like cold figures on paper, in the real world they could translate into improved livelihoods, healthier populations and higher levels of advancement on the continent.
As is often said, however, the devil is in the details. AfCFTA is unique in the sense that its objectives go beyond boosting of trade, to creating the conditions that instil a durable culture of openness and intercultural intercourse.
To achieve this, it is complemented by other initiatives such as the protocol of free movement of people, right to residence and establishment as well as the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM).
A quick scan would reveal that while all African states have signed up to AfCFTA and critical thresholds for implementation have been met, ratification has not been as universal. Even more telling is acquiescence to the complementary protocols on free movement of people and SAATM. For whatever reason, Africans still largely live in fear of fellow Africans and the policy environment continues to reinforce this outdated legacy.
Despite recent progress, many African countries are more open to outsiders while they remain shuttered to fellow Africans. By October only 28 of the countries had ratified AfCFTA while an even smaller number has signed to the principle of free movement of people. SAATM is only making staggered progress as countries that even have no national airlines to protect fail to appreciate the enabling value of air transport.
Without Africa conquering its fears, AfCFTA and SAATM risk ending up where previous initiatives have ended—in leather-bound folios on book shelves.
Even in its current state, the story of intra-African trade shows just how more prosperous the continent could be with just a little more effort. At 42 per cent, the percentage of manufactured goods in which African countries trade with each other is higher than the 15 per cent to other regions.
Contrary to fears, trade with neighbours is a pathway to prosperity but only if we keep faith with the protocols and resist the temptation to intervene in the markets when they appear not to favour a particular player.
It is still some months before AfCFTA comes into force. In the intervening period, there is a lot of work to do. The policy and physical infrastructure that will support free trade needs to be built and barriers to free movement of people and commerce need to be dismantled rapidly.