Africa's free-trade blueprint: GAME CHANGER OR PIPE DREAM?

Author:Thomas, David

In March, 44 countries signed a pact in Kigali establishing Africa's Continental Free Trade Area. Far from marking the end of the process, this represents just the beginning of the long road to developing a single market across the continent.

Six long years after the African Union's decision to establish an African free trade area, policymakers met in Kigali this March to put their signatures to the most ambitious pact in the continent's history. After sitting through endless meetings and wading through hundreds of documents, an initial forty-four countries united to pledge their support for the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), an ambitious pact which promises to create a single market for goods and services by eventually removing tariffs on 90% of goods and facilitating the free movement of business people.

For many African politicians, the signing of the CFTA represents a hard-earned victory--a vital shot in the arm for the forces of trade liberalisation and a firm commitment to overhauling a continent mired in red tape and protectionism. For national governments, just getting to this stage involved a delicate process of placating anxious neighbours, navigating complex negotiations with industry and warding off domestic political pressures. On a continent where pan-African rhetoric often falls prey to the politics of self-interest, many argue that the signing of the CFTA represents a genuine multilateral achievement.

"I think it's a positive development, there's no question that regional integration has been on the African trade agenda for some time, so to see this agreement being signed by 44 is an indication that it's really being taken seriously and that governments recognise that intra-regional trade is an important component of economic growth and the development of the continent," says Witney Schneidman, senior advisor for Africa at law firm Covington and a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Yet while a congratulatory round of backslapping may be in order, the signing of the pact represents the beginning, rather than the end, of the monumental task of overhauling Africa's dire trade record. Despite broad economic liberalisation across the continent over the last two decades, reflected in improved GDP growth and a spike in personal incomes in many countries, Africa's trade figures have yet to catch up. According to the Brookings Institution, intra-African exports in 2016 made up a paltry 18% of the continent's total exports, compared to 59 and 69% for intra-Asian and intra-European...

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