Africa’s leaders converged in Kigali last week and signed a protocol creating a “Continental Free Trade Area” as agreed at the 30th Extraordinary African Union Heads of State Summit held in Addis Ababa in January.
Regardless of whether one is an optimist or a pessimist about Africa’s capacity to take charge of its own affairs, the signing of this agreement is a big deal.
What makes it the biggest deal Africa’s leaders have signed since the creation of the Organisation of African unity in 1963, the precursor to the AU that helped decolonisation, isn’t only the 1.2 billion market to be shared but also associated advantages like the free movement of labour and the fact that a continent that trades with itself banishes war.
That doesn’t mean that all the 54 African heads of state on the continent are equally invested in the deal nor does it mean that it will be easy to implement.
Neither does it even mean that other continents and western powers that had already made Africa their market and source of raw materials will make it easier or desist from playing the “divide and rule” card to make implementation difficult.
It simply means that it’s a very important first step on Africa’s journey to integration and inevitable transformation.
In fact, as President Paul Kagame, who is AU’s Chairperson and reform catalyst pointed out at a Business Forum held a day before the signing, the implementation of the agreement will require leaders to “raise… ambitions even higher”; “ratify it at the national level” and “reform…procedures and rules at the national level”
And while reformists are understandably ecstatic, pessimists are asking irresistibly relevant question. Some are asking: “Why should Africans be optimistic this time that leaders will implement what they have signed when in the past they didn’t”?
To give credence to such questions and pessimism, a day before the signing of this agreement, Nigeria (which is the most populace on the continent) announced that its President, Muhammadu Buhari wouldn’t turn up for signing because Nigerians were still discussing the efficacy of the deal.
But as we were still chewing on this, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo told a Business Forum that preceded the deal signing that: “I am surprised that any African leader at this time would be doubting or debating the benefits of what is going to be signed here and fail to show up. I find it criminal.”
Indeed, while it’s nearly impossible for everyone to be at the same level of comprehension in these matters, it’s surprising that any leader on the continent would still need convincing to see the value of the free trade area for Africans.
Yet of course, as it were, since this deal is a top-down initiative that doesn’t involve ordinary citizens, its implementation is entirely dependent on the goodwill of the same heads of state; without their political will, it will remain on paper.
This is especially the case considering leaders aren’t directly accountable to their citizens where these matters are concerned and Africa’s media and civil society is too weak and disengaged to force leaders to act where they wouldn’t.
And considering that the continent faces no existential threat that would force leaders to unite, one can expect that only the most enlightened will sign but full implementation will wait for the less enlightened to leave the stage.
Yet, whether it takes a long or short time, it’s inevitable that one day, Africa will not only become a single market but also a single unified nation.
That said, methinks that, in the short to medium-term, the success of this deal will depend on the leaders’ willingness to do “small things.” Such as allowing fellow Africans to move freely on the continent and not treating them as “aliens.”
For now, let the AU start by making it easy for every African to access the “African Passport” that was launched in 2016 in Kigali and require all its member states not only to accept it, but to also to remove the visa requirement on all Africans.