It might be time to bribe leaders, à la Gaddafi, to do good for African growth

Saturday June 10 2023

President William Ruto (C) flagging off value -added tea to Accra, Ghana during the AFCFTA Guided Trade Initiative at KICC, Nairobi County, Kenya on October 4, 2022. PHOTO | PSCU

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On October 5, 2022, pan-African drums of optimism were beating so loud in Kenya that you could hear them as far away as Timbuktu, Alexandria and Cape Town.

On that day, Kenya's exportation of tea — and locally made batteries — to Ghana started under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) arraignment. In keeping with the time-honoured African tradition of marking such big events, newly elected President William Ruto was at hand to flag off the consignment.

Kenya was one of the eight countries selected to participate in the pilot phase of the AfCFTA trade initiative, along with Egypt, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania, Tunisia, Cameroon and Mauritius.

Adopted in March 2018, AfCFTA created the largest free trade area in the world measured by the number of countries participating. It aims to facilitate trade by cutting red tape and simplifying customs procedures, which would drive $292 billion of the $450 billion in potential income gains from the agreement.

Too often in Africa, after cutting the tape or flagging off things, we move on to other rituals and rarely check on the results. However, the Business Daily, a sister publication of The EastAfrican, won't let us forget. This week, it returned to Kenya's October AfCFTA tea shipment to Ghana and came up with an embarrassing find.

It reported that "…the first consignment of Kenya's value-added tea to Ghana, which left the country last October, reached Port of Tema in February this year, underlining the infrastructural, security and tariff hurdles hampering intra-African trade," adding that "Africa's under-developed transport networks have been blamed for raising the cost of goods and services by as much as 40 percent, rendering intra-African trade uncompetitive compared with trade with developed continents such as Europe."


The consignment took all of five months, over a distance that would take no more than six hours by direct flight. Setting off simultaneously with the tea, an accomplished cyclist would have ridden a bicycle from Nairobi to Accra and back before the consigned arrived in Tema.

Despite the AfCFTA, the old woes of the movement of goods in Africa persist. On average, goods spend about 20 days in most African ports, compared with three to four days in most other international ports.

Getting the goods out of the port is sometimes the easiest part, as it can take up to 75 days to reach, especially in landlocked African countries. There will be dozens of roadblocks to navigate and police to bribe at several weighbridges where trucks spend days.

Then many days of waiting to cross Customs at borders. At the Beitbridge border crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe, trucks carrying goods from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Malawi queue for so long drivers are alleged to have died in their vehicles while waiting.

The situation can be terrible even within common markets like the East African Community. There probably has been improvement, but in 2013, for example, a report by Trademark East Africa (now TradeMark Africa) noted that it could take up to 71 days to import goods to Burundi from any of the other EAC countries!

These setbacks throw up, in urgent new ways, the question of what could be done to speed up intra-African trade.

We are seeing starkly the limits of what institutions like the AU can do. It might be time to go back to the old ways. Africa needs to have a few countries and leaders — or even just one highly regarded one — who go around the continent's capitals pressuring presidents to make reforms and take actions to open the borders to trade and invest in infrastructure.

About 18 years ago, the continent had "big boys" in South Africa, Nigeria, Libya, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Morocco, to name a few, who could be taken seriously outside their countries. Then it all went to hell in a handbasket.

Jacob Zuma happened in South Africa. The Boko Haram militants sucked the political life of the Nigerian presidency. Political fires consumed Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and the country fell down the chute. Conflict roiled Ivory Coast, and small-mindedness started afflicting the men of power in Senegal. More recently, the great promise of Ethiopia was struck a huge blow by the war in Tigray. In Uganda, after nearly 40 years in office, President Yoweri Museveni is getting too long in the tooth.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so new formations, especially the rise of the "small nations," offer new possibilities for leadership. In Southern Africa, it might be Botswana's time to be more assertive. In the broader Central Africa, Rwanda has the potential to move things, though it would have to go around DRC.

East Africa, in general, is not too badly off. Tanzania and Kenya enjoy some regard on the continent.

Nigeria is seeing a revival driven by its captains of industry and remarkably innovative cultural producers.
Northern Africa has what could be the continent's leading economic influencer, Morocco. If it can get to a pragmatic position on the divisive issue of Western Sahara's independence, it can do a lot to galvanise the continent around the AfCFTA agenda.

There are also lessons to learn from Gaddafi. One reason he was able to have influence wasn't always because of the wisdom of his ideas. Gaddafi simply bribed some presidents and African officials.

A version of that might help. Giving a leader $50 million for "his pet project" in exchange for him dismantling trade barriers could work the magic intra-Africa needs.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3