As is customary the 36th annual ordinary session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) Heads of State and Government held in Addis Ababa concluded with a call for solidarity in implementing the theme of the summit and addressing various challenges facing the continent. Held under the theme: “The Year of AfCFTA: Acceleration of the African Continental Free Trade Area Implementation” this year’s summit underscored, among others, the imperative to forge stronger unity to attain Africans’ aspirations for development, namely through the continental free trade area accord. The heads of state who took part in the summit expressed their commitment to do everything in their power to ensure that the AfCFTA saw the light of day. The AU on its part emphasized that the acceleration the AfCFTA required of the leaders to put resources together for its implementation, mainly the development of infrastructure, to ensure the free movement of goods and people, trade and to promote commerce.
African economic integration has been an ideal the leaders of African states have long sought. Africa’s journey towards the attainment of this goal began with the adoption in June 1991 of thee Abuja Treaty establishing the African Economic Community. Efforts aimed at creating an integrated market gathered pace two decades later when continent-wide engagements were launched in 2012 to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). One of the flagship projects of Agenda 2063, the African Union’s long-term development strategy reprioritized Africa’s agenda from the struggle against apartheid and the attainment of political independence, which had been the focus of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)—the AU’s predecessor— to inclusive social and economic development, continental and regional integration, democratic governance, and peace and security, the AfCFTA is the world’s largest free trade agreement by membership.
The treaty creating the AfCFTA was adopted in March 2018. Every African country except Eritrea has signed on to the AfCFTA framework agreement and as of February 2023 it has been ratified by 44 of the 54 signatory states. African countries began officially trading under AfCFTA in January 2021 after months of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the treaty, members are obliged to phase out 90 percent of tariff lines – over five years for more advanced economies or 10 years for less developed nations. Another 7 percent deemed sensitive will be granted additional time, while 3 percent will be allowed to be placed on an exclusion list. Observers view the launch as largely symbolic, saying it will take several years before the deal is fully implemented. The AfCFTA aims to bring together 1.3 billion people and eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs) in a $3.4 trillion economic bloc that will be the largest free trade area since the establishment of the World Trade Organization. Proponents of the trading arrangement argue that it will boost trade among African neighbors, adding it is bound to enable the continent to develop its own value chains and become self-reliant. The World Bank estimates it could raise income in the continent by 7 percent and lift tens of millions out of poverty by 2035.
Inasmuch as the AfCFTA offers a host of opportunities for Africans, it’s beset by a raft of challenges that prevent the bloc from reaching its full potential. Largely structural in nature, these challenges, including political unrest, excessive border bureaucracy; poor infrastructure; and pervasive corruption are certain to dog the implementation of the AfCFTA for some time to come. Moreover, the fact that an annex to the deal outlining the rules of origin – an essential step for determining which products can be subject to tariffs and duties – is yet to be finalized constitutes another detrimental factor. Efforts to operationalize the AfCFTA will also likely face headwinds due to the ingrained protectionism of some African states and domestic interest groups. Anxiety over the potential to get crushed by more competitive neighbors initially has made some countries wary of the pan-African project.
The benefits of AfCFTA far outweigh the downsides, whether real or perceived, detractors associate with it. There can be no denying that it can be instrumental to ushering in reforms pivotal to securing durable growth, reducing poverty, and broadening economic inclusion. If the AfCFTA is to be successful in delivering its much-touted dividends, it’s of the essence to address the obstacles hampering Africa’s economic integration. Enhancing political cooperation, improving physical integration, and facilitating business synergy can go a long way towards achieving this goal. The harmonization of rules and regulations through regulatory collaboration is also vital in this regard. All these efforts cannot bear fruit however without peace and security. Economic integration is not something that can be achieved with the stroke of a pen; it’s a tortuous and grueling process which takes time. That is why African leaders must take it upon themselves to ramp up their avowed commitment to realize Africa’s economic integration.