AfCFTA Take-Off: A Significant Step Towards Attaining The Africa We Want


The famed Chinese philosopher and writer, Lao Tzu, who lived between 6th century and 4th century, Before Christ, is credited with the wise saying: The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. For Africa, the journey of a new era of trade, economic development and economic freedom began Friday, January 1, 2021, with the successful take-off of the continental longstanding ambition of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Not a few doubted that Africa lacked the ability and capability to begin this journey of a thousand miles, talk less of completing it.

It was in March 2018 that African heads of state and government held an extraordinary summit in Kigali, Rwanda and agreed to establish the Free Trade Area. The agreement to create the AfCFTA ran pari- passu with the Kigali Declaration, which called for the “operationalisation” of the AfCFTA and for the start of the more ambitious Phase II talks, which would cover competition policy, intellectual property and investment. A protocol on the free movement of people was also signed.

Coming on the heels of numerous conspiracy theories that Africa is a perpetual laggard on many fronts and following an avalanche of insults of many years, instigated largely by Europe and the Americas, not a few trade and non trade practitioners, would admit , that the eventual take-off of AfCFTA, is an occasion for great celebration. We salute the courage of Africa to rise to this onerous challenge. And, we congratulate Africans in general and African political and trade leaders particularly, for bringing us to this point.

We caution that this celebration must not be short-lived; it deserves to be sustained forever, so that generations after generations could build on the successes attained by preceeding generations, for AfCFTA has all the trappings to potentially liberate Africa from the shackles of slavery, in whatever guise they present. Covering a market of 1.2 billion people, with a combined GDP of US$3 trillion, across the fifty-five (55) Member States of the AU that have signed up to the Agreement, it is estimated that AfCFTA will provide the vehicle for African countries to trade among themselves in a more modern and sophisticated manner as well as offer a huge opportunity to exploit the abundant wealth and resources of this great continent for the benefit of African people in addition to giving Africa protection in how to deal with other trading blocks.

Leadership is a critical and decisive factor in development and not a few development experts agree that quality leadership is not in short supply in this clime, nevermind the convulsions of the past, under the throes of which the continent suffered, with the complicity of the west. Africa’s pioneering leaders who formed the Organisation for African Unity(OAU), which has since transformed into the African Union(AU), were people of great vision, who bequeathed a stellar continental template for development of the continent, to their successors. The latter wobbled and fumbled aided and abetted by enemies of Africa, who masqueraded as helpers of Africa, but the good thing is: the vision for Africa’s emancipation was not destroyed in their vicious hands, try, as they did.

The President of the Republic of Ghana, the host for the AfCFTA Secretariat, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, among his peers, validates the fact that Africa’s emancipation vision is as stable today as when it was etched on marble in the 1950s! At the Handover Ceremony of the AfCFTA Buildings in Accra, on August 2020, Akufo-Addo said: “I have no doubt that the coming into being of the African Continental Free Trade Area is one of the most important decisions taken by the AU. When you consider the fact that trade between African countries remains low, currently standing at some 16 per cent of our combined GDP, compared to other parts of the world, like the European Union’s 75 per cent, it is obvious that these very low levels of intra-regional trade constitute one of the defining characteristics of our continuing poverty. They hinder our prospects of bringing prosperity to our peoples. A large part of the growth and prosperity that we seek on the continent will come from us trading more among ourselves.

We, in Ghana, believe that an increase in trade is the surest way to deepen regional integration in Africa. It will mean a rapid increase in the exchange of agricultural, industrial, financial, scientific, and technological products, which would significantly enhance our economic fortunes as a continent, create prosperity, and provide opportunities for employment for the broad masses of Africans, particularly the youth. The economic integration of Africa will lay a strong foundation for an ‘Africa Beyond Aid. It is for this reason that I have continued in the footsteps of my predecessors in fighting for the cause of African unity.

An effective implementation of the AfCFTA will dispel the notion that the AU is not capable of executing its own decisions. Africa’s new sense of urgency and aspiration of true self-reliance will be amply demonstrated by today’s ceremony. In this regard, I appeal to all Member States, who are yet to ratify the AfCFTA Agreement, to take advantage of the postponement of the date for start of trading, and do so by December 2020, to enable us trade fully among ourselves, so we can harness the benefits of the AfCFTA together.”

As at December 5, 2020, 34 countries have deposited their instruments of ratification namely:

Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Niger, Chad, Eswatini, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Namibia, South Africa, Congo, Rep., Djibouti, Mauritania, Uganda, Senegal, Togo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Rep., Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, São Tomé & Príncipe, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Mauritius, Central African Rep., Angola, Lesotho, Tunisia, Cameroon and Nigeria. It has been indicated that parliamentary/Cabinet approval has been obtained by Somalia, Algeria and Zambia; confirmation is pending.

Management experts counsel that creating a good vision is as important as identifying a good vision interpreter and or executioner. For inside execution lies the discipline of getting things done. And, from every indication, Africa appears to have made a good choice of the man to be at the driving seat, the Secretary-General of AfCFTA, in South Africa-born Wamkele Keabetswe Mene. Many who listened while Mene responded after receiving the keys of the AfCFTA Secretariat believe he is a round peg in a round hole.

Hear him: “The AfCFTA offers Africa an opportunity to confront the significant trade and economic development challenges of our time:

• market fragmentation;

• smallness of national economies;

• over reliance on the export of primary commodities;

• narrow export base, caused by shallow manufacturing capacity;

• lack of export specialisation;

• under-developed industrial regional value chains; and

• high regulatory and tariff barriers to intra-Africa trade amongst others.

“The result of all of this, is a very low percentage of intra-Africa trade of 18 per cent, and as noted, an over reliance on the export of primary commodities to traditional markets of the North. In other words, Africa continues to be trapped in a colonial economic model, which requires that we aggressively implement the AfCFTA as one of the tools for effecting a fundamental structural transformation of Africa’s economy. We have to take action now, to dismantle this colonial economic model.

“The AfCFTA is therefore a critical response to Africa’s developmental challenges. It has the potential to enable Africa to significantly boost intraAfrica trade and to improve economies of scale through an integrated market. It has the potential to be a catalyst for industrial development, placing Africa on a path to exporting value-added products and improving Africa’s competitiveness both in its own markets and globally. It also sends a strong signal to the international investor community that Africa is open for business, based on a single rule-book for trade and investment.”

Mene assumed office at a period of unprecedented challenge to the global economy and the multilateral trading system, on which the global economy is anchored. He has demonstrated capacity in right reading the multilateral trading system is under severe strain, largely due to what appears to be an abandonment of the rules that underpin it… Mene believes Africa’s response against this strain on the multilateral trading system must be to consolidate and advance the continental market integration objectives, through the AfCFTA. “Under the leadership of President Issoufou as the AU Champion of the AfCFTA, our collective priority should be to rapidly conclude Phase I and II of the negotiations of the AfCFTA, in order to unlock Africa’s full productive capacity,” he said.

On the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis that has ravaged global economic activity, severely disrupted trade and global supply chains, and of course, had a negative effect on global public health, Mene believes Africa should not despair and fall into despondency. From a trade perspective, the first AfCFTA scribe says Africa should see this crisis as an opportunity. “Through the AfCFTA we have an opportunity to reconfigure our supply chains, to reduce reliance on others and to expedite the establishment of regional value chains that will boost intra-Africa trade and secure Africa’s productive capacity for generations to come….”

Mene’s strongest value proposition is captured in this sentence: “As the Secretary-General, I am committed to ensuring that the AfCFTA is effectively implemented such that there is shared and inclusive economic growth.”

Beyond qualification, the point must be made that Mene is not omnipotent and cannot do it alone. He needs robust systems, structures and competent and requisite personnel to succeed. We urge all stakeholders of AfCFTA to support and encourage him. One thing interesting for Mene and his gang is that the AfCFTA Framework agreement provides for a functionally autonomous, independent institution, within the AU system. To this extent, we do not readily see nor do we envisage the possibility of interference in the operations of the AfCFTA enough to cause Mene and his team migraines. Plus the fact that AfCFTA is subject to review after every five years, which leaves another window of learning open to Mene and his team or their successors.

We were part of the key, specific and critical stakeholders that interacted with Mene while he was on consultative visit on Friday, September 25, 2020 at Abora Suite, Eko Hotel & Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos, south west, Nigeria , including but not limited to the following persons and or their proxies: the Acting Director-General/Chief Trade Negotiator(NOTN) Victor L. Liman, Minister of Trade and Investment, Otunba Niyi Adebayo and Managing Director of Eco Bank Nigeria, Patrick Akinwuntan. On that day, we encountered a young, energetic and qualified Mene ready to take-off as pilot of the ensuing AfCFTA jet. Watching him field questions from reporters, however, his body language presented him as one that could achieve a meeting of minds. His body language also betrayed him as one incapable of knocking heads, which, in our judgement, is equally relevant for the holder of his exalted office. Ability to knock heads is required for instance, if situations of xenophobic attacks as in South Africa and related hate-inspired policies in Ghana should arise on any other spot on the continent. Mene must work on this province of real or perceived weakness on his part, to enable him take AfCFTA to a higher pedestal before handing over to a successor.

We believe Mene’s resolute determination to serve Africa will help him on this important continental assignment that will solidly lay the foundation for birthing the Africa of our dream. We wish him the best of luck.

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