There was spontaneous applause as Africa’s largest economy Nigeria signed up to a deal that experts say could provide far-reaching benefits, but only if it is implemented properly.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari knew how much power the open folder before him carried. Inside, there was a raft of loosely held papers containing signatures.
A handful of officials behind him watched silently as a pen dangled between his fingers. As Buhari leaned forward from his seat and signed the paper before him, the audience clapped and cheered.
Handshakes exchanged and a delighted Buhari looked up proudly at the crowd gathered at the African Union summit for African heads of state, held in the Republic of Niger’s capital Niamey on July 7.
This step was, by any measure, a significant move. Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has finally accepted, after nearly four months of delay, to sign an agreement launching the African Continental Free Trade Area –– AfCFTA for short.
The AfCFTA aims to, among several other cardinal objectives, create a single market for goods and services and facilitate the free movement of people, capital, goods and services.
Nigeria had delayed signing the agreement, saying it needed to hold consultations with trade unions and local manufacturers.
President Buhari failed to attend a ceremony in the Rwandan capital Kigali in late March last year where 44 out 55 member states signed the agreement to open up their borders and eliminate barriers to trade.
“Without Nigeria, the leading economic power of the continent, there would have been a taste of unfinished business in the conclusion of this agreement,” Niger’s President Issoufou Mahamadou told the crowd at the 12th Extraordinary Summit of the Assembly of the Union on the AfCFTA.
The Republic of Benin also signed the agreement in Niamey, bringing the number of countries who have signed up to the agreement to 54. Only Eritrea is still to sign the pact, which makes the bloc the world’s largest free trade area.
Plans to get African countries to combine forces to promote regional integration and intra-continental economic cooperation are not new, with initiatives such as the Lagos Plan for Action for the Economic Development of Africa in 1980, and subsequently the Abuja Treaty establishing the African Economic Community in 1991.
But implementation and cross-border support for these initiatives were not strong enough to garner the substantial momentum that AfCFTA has achieved.
The approach makes the difference, says Tunde Ajileye, Consulting Partner at Lagos-based political and economic risk consultancy , SBM Intelligence.
“This agreement focuses on trade and not on creating a new economic zone that merges countries or compels them to, for example, meet this or that criteria to be part of that economic zone,” Ajileye tells TRT World.
“This focuses on trade that exists, that may exist, that will continue to exist and facilitate the movement of that trade across borders without all the cumbersome things that hamper trade like processes at the borders, and tariffs at the borders. It is a better approach that has a higher potential to succeed.”
Following rounds of negotiations, which began four years ago, huge progress was recorded in April this year after 22 countries ratified the agreement, meeting the minimum threshold for the pact to come into force in May. Currently 27 countries have ratified the agreement seeking to liberalise trade, boost intra-African trade, develop regional value chains and gradually build the foundation for a continental customs union.
The African Union has long acknowledged that regional economic communities such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the East African Community (EAC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are vital foundations upon which a more united Africa with a strong position in global trade can be built.
At the end of the summit in Niger last weekend, African leaders launched the “operational phase” of the free trade agreement.
The key instruments that will govern this phase include cooperation on rules of origin, the monitoring and elimination of non-tariff barriers, a digital payments system, and a trade observatory dashboard. These measures are essential in improving the connectivity and efficiency of trade and would eventually increase the benefits accruable to member states.
Ghana was selected as the host for the headquarters of the zone from where further work would be done to implement the agreement, beating Egypt, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar and Senegal, all of whom also bid to host the secretariat.
Trade as a tool for growth
For African leaders, trade represents not just a major driver of growth but also a tool for economic cooperation and integration.
The trade pact has the potential to transform the continent, analysts say, arguing that it would, if successfully implemented, create a market of about 1.27 billion people with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.14 trillion. This market is expected to grow to about 2.5 billion consumers by 2050.
Intra-African exports represent around 18 percent of total exports, amounting to $62 billion in 2016. This means trading among African nations is lower than other continents like Europe (69 percent), Asia (59 percent) and North America (31 percent).
The removal of tariffs and non-tariff barriers will, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) estimates, increase intra-African trade by 52.3 percent by 2020. This will increase employment, facilitate better use of local resources for manufacturing and agriculture and increase access to cheaper products.
But there are challenges to overcome.
Trade between African countries has been held back by several bottlenecks such as poor infrastructure, cumbersome border procedures, trade regulations, tariffs, and high cost of transactions.
The AfCFTA wants to break down these barriers, as member countries ratifying the agreement must cut some 90 percent of tariffs on goods they produce.
Analysts say the trade bloc will boost intra-continental trade, help local businesses to expand and grow, create jobs and facilitate industrialisation, competition and innovation.
What lies ahead
The agreement has the potential to become a “game changer” in the drive to promote continent-wide trade in Africa, argued Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
“Recent evidence by ECA shows that when African countries trade with themselves they exchange more manufactured and processed goods, have more knowledge transfer, and create more value,” explained Songwe, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, DC.
“In fact, manufactured goods make up a much higher proportion of regional exports than those leaving the continent—41.9 compared to 14.8 percent in 2014. The real test of the AfCFTA, however, will be how quickly African countries can accelerate export diversification and product sophistication and make trade more inclusive.”
The AfCFTA is one of the flagship initiatives of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 blueprint, which aims to drive Africa's economic growth and development and transform the continent into a global powerhouse.
For the agreement to work efficiently, the AU must strive to successfully implement other initiatives under the blueprint such as the Single African Air Transport Market, which was launched last year, to promote connectivity between African cities and the African Passport, launched in July 2016, to remove visa restrictions.
“The challenge is still very much present; how will this agreement be implemented on the ground without the necessary infrastructure being built, without the procedural issues that make corruption very possible at the borders?” asked Ajileye of SBM Intelligence.
Ajileye of SBM Intelligence believes African countries will begin to see the benefits of the free trade agreement if corruption, lack of infrastructure and cumbersome border processes are addressed urgently.
“This initiative will require strong political will and the formulation of enabling policies and instruments to guide it,” said Chris Macoloo, Africa Director for World Neighbors, an international nonprofit working to alleviate hunger, poverty and disease.
“Most important, the challenge of poor infrastructure connecting the countries will have to be given priority. In the long run, this initiative should provide Africa with the opportunity to benefit from international trade and to improve the living standards of its people and to attract direct foreign investment to create jobs and transfer technology.”