On Wednesday history was made when the African Continental Trade Agreement (AFCTA) was signed by forty-four African countries in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The event is one of the most significant political developments in Africa for 30 years.
What was initially proposed is that all 55 African countries would come together to sign a treaty that will allow the tariff free movement of goods, and people, across borders without impediment. The treaty is set to kickstart a period of growth that will lift millions out of poverty, foster closer ties between African states and benefit Africa’s position in the world enormously.
The African Union (AU) predicts that it will create a common market of 1.2 billion people and an economy worth $2.5 trillion.
Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s new President hailed the moment as the catalyst that will make Africa a leader in the world economy.
And when you see what the motherland has at its disposal it’s hard to disagree.
For years the African nations have had to deal with deeply rooted structural issues, corruption and often violent tribal differences. No surprise as Africa essentially had to start from scratch 70 years ago.
But they’ve started a wave of industrialisation that is sweeping the continent. It’s seen Ethiopia become the home of a plethora of new factories; providing jobs for the local people and making Ghana the fastest growing economy in the world at the moment.
Fewer countries signed up to the protocol that would allow African citizens to travel freely in the continent. This, is understandable, when you consider that the stability of many African states rests on already fragile states of peace between different tribal groups. This could all potentially be upset by the influx of an entirely new group of people.
Regardless, looking ahead, there are exciting times that could bring millions out of poverty, by encouraging the free movement of people and capital across borders, not too dissimilar to the current European set-up. However, not everyone in Africa was thrilled about the idea. Most significantly the Nigerian President Buhari, who refused to make the fateful trip to Kigali.
It seems as though the Nigerian Labour Union (NLU) exerted enough pressure on Buhari for him to withdraw his support. The NLU argument is predicated on the idea that open borders will make life harder for Nigerian entrepreneurs as cheap goods flood the country and undercut their profits, turning Nigeria into what they referred to as a “dumping ground”.
A valid point but one that sounds all too similar to a washed up director lamenting the arrival of a young Spike Lee on the movie scene.
This, of course, feeds into the wider point of the continent as a whole, modernising their economies ready for the rest of the challenges that the 21st century threatens to hurl at it.
Embracing that visionary spirit was Ramaphosa, who lauded the arrival of AFCTA but went further and suggested that Africa should seek out a monetary union: “We must rid ourselves of this colonial mentality that demands we rely on other people’s currency. Perhaps the day, the hour and the moment could have arrived for us to create a single African currency. Our focus should not be on our individual countries but the continent as a whole to unlock great opportunities and capabilities.“
That’s what it’s all about, Africa going it’s own way and taking control of its own labour, resources, and capital. Interestingly, Buhari’s rejection of AFCTA came against a backdrop of an initiative to bind the little known economic union in West Africa called the Economic community of West African States (ECOWAS) into a monetary union. Ramaphosa’s idea isn’t new by any means. But it’s almost written on the wall that the idea is inspired by the Eurozone project of the EU.
But they must tread with caution. As Greece has displayed better than anyone, the preconditions for entering a monetary union need to be stricter than strict, otherwise the entire project is subject to collapse.
What needs to be understood is that Africa is highly indebted continent. As it stands, Eriteria, Cape Verde and Mozambique have debt-to-GDP ratios of 119.8 percent, 116.8 percent and 100.3 percent respectively. Debt-to-GDP is a ratio that determines how much debt a country owes relative to how much there GDP is. The higher the number the more daunting the picture.Entering monetary unions where an indebted and economically weak nation is having to be bailed out by a stronger neighbour is not the path we want to go down.
I daren’t talk about Africa as if it were a monolith, and that exactly is the point. The fontients ambitions should be tailored to the continent needs. If the nation’s get that right then it might just be the EU looking to us for inspiration.