Leading experts on Africa’s development have said that the speed and scope of the continent’s post-COVID-19 recovery will depend on the effective implementation of the African Continental Free Trade (AfCFTA).
The AfCFTA is an African Union (AU) flagship initiative that creates a single market for goods and services, a customs union and guarantees the free movement of people and capital.
Vera Songwe, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and Albert Muchanga, the AU’s Commissioner for Trade and Industry and others emphasized the role free trade in Africa could play in stimulating post-COVID-19 development across the continent, while at the same time mitigating conflict.
Ms Songwe and Mr Muchanga were among several speakers on the topic of trade and silencing the guns in Africa during this year’s Africa Dialogue Series (ADS), an annual event organized by the UN’s Office of the Special Adviser on Africa, to raise awareness of issues related to Africa’s peace, security and development. This year the event was held virtually during 20 – 22 May.
Ms. Songwe linked inclusive development to peace and security. “When people are unemployed, conflicts arise,” she said, adding that the AfCFTA offers an opportunity to “build back better after COVID-19. We need to provide things like jobs, energy, water and so on.”
A UNECA report states that, “On current trends, 86% of the global poor will be in Africa by 2030.”
Mr. Muchanga and the other participants in the virtual event concurred that increased intra-African trade would foster regional integration and development, leading to peace and security.
“History has shown that countries that trade amongst themselves rarely go to war,” said Mr. Muchanga, adding that: “The benefits of free trade are not only economic; nations become more economically interdependent. They swim or sink together.”
Stephen Karingi, the UNECA’s director of Regional Integration, Infrastructure and Trade Division, detailed how the AfCFTA could help tackle development challenges.
He said AfCFTA will enhance economic interdependence of countries and increase the opportunity cost of conflict.
“Trade fosters economic development and wealth that would have been lost to conflict,” said Mr. Karingi.
Countries participating in a free trade area easily cooperate on security issues, he added, citing the example of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which established in 1998 a moratorium on small arms and implemented an import ban on weapons not approved by member states.
Besides, the AfCFTA could potentially secure food supplies. “Thirty-nine African countries are net importers of basic food, particularly rice and wheat. [Free] trade plays a significant role in building resilience and mitigating the severity of food security shocks,” emphasized Mr. Karingi.
Trading under the AfCFTA, which had been scheduled to commence on 1 July 2020, has been put on hold because of COVID-19. Mr. Muchanga explained that the AU will announce a new date after a review of the situation.
Despite the holdup, Jackie Cilliers, the head of African Futures and Innovation, Institute for Security Studies, advised African nations to avoid the temptation to step back. “COVID-19 is a wake-up call to implement the AfCFTA as soon as possible.”
He referred to the trade pact as “the single most important way to change Africa’s productive systems.”