Technology shatters restrictive colonial boundaries

Wednesday January 27 2021
Trucks in Malaba at the Kenya-Uganda border.

Slow Covid-19 testing causes truck pile up at the Malaba border point between Kenya and Uganda. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Sixty years since most African States attained independence, the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a fresh spotlight on the folly of the haphazard colonial boundaries.

Long traffic jams at border posts across the continent, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, were the poster child of the non-tariff barriers that continue to hamper trade in Africa. These boundaries are the primary reason for the high cost of doing business in Africa and are the cause of low intra-African trade, investment, economic integration, and poverty.

Covid-19 has also introduced a new economic paradigm, with digital technology taking the lead to ease the safe flow of goods across borders. If the pandemic persists late into 2021, some of the new digital technologies introduced to facilitate safe cross-border movement could become permanent fixtures across the continent and indeed other parts of the world.

The concept of intra-African trade dates before the 15th century. Despite war and competitiveness among African empires, they traded among themselves, sometimes travelling long distances to do so. The Songhai Empire practically controlled the trans-Saharan trade whereby an array of goods and services including gold, slaves, ivory, silk, horses, and sugar were exchanged. As is the case today, trade was a mutual exchange of goods and services and it had two dimensions to it; commercial and societal.

With increased trading activities came a well-developed system of trading. The barter trade system was eventually replaced by currencies such as coins used in northern Africa, brass rods used by the Tiv of Nigeria, and copper ingots in central and parts of southern Africa.

To overcome the challenges of adverse weather conditions that rendered some trade routes impassable and the insecurity posed by raiders, traders started sharing information and goods.


Trade routes were developed, opening up previously inaccessible regions. Societies were formed, ultimately leading to European colonisation of Africa.

Trade patterns

With colonialism came new trade patterns. The transport corridors were designed to extract raw materials from the hinterland to the metropolitan centres. The Berlin Conference of 1884 portioned Africa into small colonial enclaves, leading to the creation of 55 African states, 17 of which are landlocked. The partition was intended to settle disputes in the scramble for African land among the colonial powers; it was certainly not for the benefit of Africans. The boundaries engendered rivalries that have persisted and taken the form of mistrust among African leaders.

These rivalries have been costly to the continent and partly explain the perpetual disadvantages that have contributed to Africa’s poor performance in economic, social, and even political growth. Almost 140 years since they were drawn up, the arbitrary boundaries continue to define the relationships among Africa states.

Intra-African trade has continued to suffer, dropping to between 14 to 18 per cent of total traded goods and services.

Landlocked countries face huge challenges because of trans-shipment of goods, leading to high cost of doing business. Global studies indicate a common feature among landlocked countries: low property prices, low industrialisation, dependence on a single commodity, and resentment of neighbours on which they depend due for their imports and exports. First Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah’s sentiment that political independence should be accompanied by economic emancipation still rings true for Africa. The continent is still in the mental shackles of colonisation. How else can we explain our willingness to allow others to exploit Africa to advance their own agenda?

Well, it is not all gloom and doom. Since 1963, when the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established, there have been several initiatives to address the challenges facing intra-African trade. These include the Lagos Plan of Action, the Abuja Treaty, the Constitutive Act establishing the African Union (AU), the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development, and Agenda 2063. In addition to the continent-wide initiatives, all African states subscribe to one or more regional integration arrangements. Through these cooperation arrangements new transport corridors such as the Northern Corridor, the Southern Corridor, and the Western African Corridor are taking shape and have helped to lower the cost of doing business.

Regional economic communities have been at the forefront of championing intra-continental trade through protocols aimed at reducing tariff barriers. Like their counterparts in southern, central, and western Africa, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) and the East African Community (EAC) have spearheaded and promoted transport corridor arrangements, including the concept of the One Stop Common Border Post (OSCBP).

Transport corridor

Bilateral programmes such as the Standard Gauge Railway could potentially help in shaping new transport corridors, but must be accompanied with a robust trade facilitation programme. Throughout history, urbanisation and cities have developed along transport corridors. Concomitantly the location of industry has always been influenced by availability of power, communication, labour, access to markets, financial infrastructure, and raw materials.

Goods, including agricultural produce, automotive, chemicals, beverages, mining, and heavy machinery, vital for daily consumption, are transported by sea, railway, and road. Under the Programme for Infrastructure Development for Africa (PIDA), the continent has articulated a strategy to address the challenges.

African governments and multilateral agencies have made an effort to reduce tariffs, which are a barrier to trade. Next, the continent needs to tame non-tariff barriers, the biggest of which is the mindset.

Ambassador Erastus Mwencha is former Secretary-General of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and former Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission. He is current the chairman of TradeMark East Africa.

This article was first published in a pullout in The EastAfrican on December 5, 2020.