Modern Diplomacy | 15 June 2021
The free trade vision and its fallacies: the case of the African Continental Free Trade Area
By Nikita Triandafillidis
The notion of free trade consists of the idea of a trade policy where no restrictions will be implemented on imports or exports in the respected countries that have signed such an agreement. Some economists argue that free trade is understood through the idea of the free market being forced through international trade. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a trade area that was founded in 2018, and it is the most ambiguous project in the history of the continent. This project has plenty of potential successes, as well as fallacies. Particular African nations are either in favor or against this project, and it is a matter of time before the world understands if this project will reflect the true notion behind the idea of a free trade policy.
The African Continental Free Trade Area: The European Union Vision in Africa?
The African Continental Free Trade Area was founded in 2018 in Kigali, Rwanda. It is believed to be the most prestigious project ever created on the continent. It was created by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and it was signed by 44 countries. Some of the general objectives of this agreement include: The creation of a single economic market, the establishment of a liberalized market, the allowance of free movement of capital and people, diversification of the industrial development in the continent, e.t.c. In some ways, this project can be compared with the European Union and the vision that it represents for a single market and free movement of goods and people. However, due to the size and the geopolitical tensions of the African continent, there are a few obstacles to the achievement of this project. The European Union itself was a project that took more than half a century to be established in its current form, and still, we can see some problems that remain. With that being said, among the 27 member states, there seems to be more or less a coherent economic and political stability. In the case of the African Union, there are far more obstacles, ranging from huge economic differences, political and religious turmoils, and in general a neglected infrastructure; that might not be able to support a mammoth project like this. Any sort of optimism should be also approached with a realistic perspective when it comes to its implementation, which might not be happening anytime soon, certainly not before 2030.
The Relevance of the Free Trade Notion in Africa
It is important to remember that this project deals with the concept of free trade, and free trade itself is something that economists still argue about. Generally speaking, most economists seem to be in favor of free trade. There is an argument that supports the idea of free trade and any kind of reduction in government-induced restrictions on free trade which will be beneficial to economic growth and stability. On the other hand, some economists suggest that the policy of protectionism could be a more lucrative alternative for an economic policy. There is a suggestion that the liberalization of trade will result in an unequal distribution of losses and profit gains while economically dislocating a large number of workers in import-competing sectors.
In the case of the AfCFTA however, the opinion of Ha-Joon Chang, a South Korean economist, might be more relevant. He suggested that if there is going to be any kind of free trade liberalization in the African continent, some prior steps should be taken. For example, the improvement of the institutions in those developing African nations must be achieved to have sustainable economic growth and development. In addition, the idea of demanding from the developing nations to achieve institutional standards that we see in the developed nations such as the U.S or Great Britain, but have never before been achieved in those countries, will only hurt these nations since they might not need or even afford the implementation of these institutions that we see in the West. There is a valid point in the argument because the concept of the AfCFTA might indeed benefit some nations in Africa, but still, it will not develop to its full potential to benefit all 44 countries that have signed the agreement. This is because this project involves countries with different views and needs. Some of them see the AfCFTA as a blessing for the liberalization of the African economy, while other nations are more skeptical about it, thinking that this project will result in African states “biting off, more than they can chew”. This dichotomy is visually striking when we compare some African nations and examine the true reasons why they are in favor or against the AfCFTA.
The African Dichotomy
Rwanda is a small nation in East Africa, having at least 12.5 million people, with a total estimate of its GDP being close to $33.45 billion. A very impressive number, if someone considers the fact that in 1980 its GDP was barely $2.1 billion. It is also the nation that is strongly in favor of the ambitious free trade project in the continent. It is estimated that from 1994 until 2010, Rwanda’s economy grew an average of 6.6%. This is mostly based on the fact that the president of the country, Paul Kagame, led a strong campaign towards the liberalization of the country’s agricultural sector. His reforms allowed the producers to benefit from this liberalization boom while boosting productivity through capital investments. It is clear by now that any sort of project that aims to liberalize the economies of other African nations will be beneficial to Rwanda that aims, as President Paul Kagame mentioned before, to make Rwanda the “Singapore of Africa”.
However, some countries pose some key arguments that need to be addressed for the AfCFTA. There are concerns regarding the massive difference between populations in many African states, as well as the potential of the markets to sustain such a project. With that being said, there is still optimism from some experts that view this project as a win-win situation for Africa since it will allow a trade-led diversification away from Africa’s commodity dependence and focus towards industrial development. On the other hand, this optimism is being taken with a “pinch of salt” from certain African nations, like Nigeria. Nigeria is a nation of at least 205 million people with a total GDP of $1.087 trillion. Nigeria was one of the last nations to sign the agreement, but not before firmly opposing the deal. The strongest argument that Nigeria had against the deal, was the fact that Nigeria could do nothing to undermine the local Nigerian manufactures and entrepreneurs of the country. There was strong domestic opposition to regional trade liberalization and concerns about the government’s ability to implement it effectively. In the same line of thought, Togo’s Foreign Minister Robert Dussey did not hide his concerns. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Mr. Dussey stressed the fact that many African countries will need to be firstly well-equipped with the right technical tools to meet the challenges of such an enormous project. He shared his views that some rich nations in the West are not so keen to see the potential industrialization of the African continent: “African development is foremost the responsibility of Africans. We have a problem with work for our youth. It is important that we have strong industries to have work for the young”, said Mr. Dussey for Deutsche Welle.
Can we safely say that the AfCFTA project complies with the economic policy of free trade? Theoretically, it does. The project has the potential to change the socio-economic status of all the countries involved. Even if some nations are more industrialized than others, and can take full advantage of the opportunities for manufactured goods, other nations that might not be so privileged can benefit by linking their economies into regional value chains. This can happen again theoretically if there is a reduction in trade costs and facilitating investments. However, one should not overlook the growing challenges of this project. It is not feasible to suggest a 90% tariff cut, a unified digital payments system, and an African trade observatory dashboard that the AU Commission promises in the next five years. For the simple reason that you cannot have this liberalized economic system when most of the African countries are suffering from socio-political instability. How can a system which in some ways is based on the European Union, work when there is such a striking inequality among African nations? There is a lack of industrial infrastructure to support such a project, and it will be more beneficial to address these regional problems before expanding in a global vision. One day Africa will reach its full potential, but not in the next five years and not in the next ten years. Such an agreement is a blessing, but it needs careful examination before being implemented; otherwise, we will talk about a disaster in the African continent that could potentially bring more inequality and regional tensions.