Is it possible to create a continent-wide African free trade area wherein goods from one country to another move without undue hindrance by tariffs and non-tariff barriers?
If such a question were to be answered in the positive, we would all have the right to shout our hurrahs, as it would be announcing the dawn of the dream of African unity that our forebears expounded on at such length.
It would spell out the beginning of the end of the balkanisation of Africa, which has plagued our politics and stunted our economic growth.
The African Union, successor to the Organisation of African Unity, in collaboration with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, UNECA, has been pushing just that line: That in order to achieve rapid economic development African countries have to integrate their economies for the mutual benefit of the whole continent.
The figures put out by UNECA at a meeting last week in Kigali paint a miserable picture. Although total trade volumes in Africa have gone up over the past few years, figures for 2016 show that intra-African trade stood at only 18 per cent, a trifling figure compared with the 59 per cent figure for intra-Asian trade, and 69 per cent for intra-European trade.
This means that, while more than half of Asian trade is among Asians and more than two-thirds of European trade is among Europeans, just over four-fifths of our trade is with extra-African partners.
This is an insult to Africa and to our rulers, who have failed to recognise the necessity of looking out for the interests of one’s brothers and sisters instead of giving advantage to total strangers, some of whom directly contributed to the economic, cultural, psychological and intellectual brutalisation of the African mind, including the phenomenon we are discussing here.
The economic production systems imposed on us by the colonial powers calibrated our labour and our hearts and minds to produce for the “mother country” under the conditions imposed by it, and we have completely failed to wriggle out of that straightjacket, even after 60 years of our spurious “Independences.”
The problem is not with our people, who have generally treated our colonial borders with the contempt they deserve.
The Maasai are, of course, the champions of this contempt, crossing the borders with utter nonchalance as long as the grass looks greener on the other side, but other ethnic groups too have paid little heed to the arrogant frontiers put in place by our colonial masters and inexplicably maintained by our current rulers.
Our people along all these frontiers go about their business as though these are mere irritants that allow border police to harass them from time to time, but with no real significance in the economic and social lives of the people on both sides.
The Luo or Mkamba of Mara in Tanzania and their brethren in Kenya; the Wadigo of Tanga, Tanzania, and those of Kwale, Kenya; the Kirundi speakers of Tanzania and Burundi… how can you think of maintaining borders that say these people are different simply because some wazungus in Berlin decided so just a century ago.
That is why I think that the creation of an African Free Continental Free Trade Area is a brilliant idea that should be given all our support.
But, though the AfCFTA was signed by a good few countries (49), the number of countries that have ratified it remains a small minority (seven), well below the threshold of 22 needed to put it into effect.
This may be due to the usual African malady of signing up to agreements, protocols and treaties without hesitation and subsequently getting cold feet when it comes to ratification.
In this particular case, the slow pace of ratification could be attributed to some elements contained in the protocol, such as the call for the free movement of “goods and people.”
This can be quite interesting because a free trade area cannot be attained if actual people cannot actually move freely, crossing actual borders, bearing actual goods, carrying out actual trade.
As one senior diplomat put it, if the goods can cross borders but not the people intending to trade them, what happens at the border, does the trader just throw them over the border and catch money thrown in the opposite direction? What if someone nimbler and taller than you grabs it in mid-air and runs like hell?
Truly, traders in Africa need strong backs, good throwing arms and the ability to keep their eyes on the ball…
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]