PUBLISHED ON May 16th, 2024

Towards a Borderless Africa: How the AfCFTA Is Changing the Narrative on Continental Integration

Since its establishment at the African Union meeting in Kigali in March 2018, much ink has been spilt and much media attention has been heaped upon the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Yet a lot of misconceptions persist. Borderless Africa was written essentially to clarify those misconceptions and to reemphasise the political economic case for the AfCFTA. We advance the argument that if it wants to achieve its long-term developmental goals, Africa no longer has any viable strategic alternative but to accelerate continental integration under the aegis of the AfCFTA.

Despite its name, the AfCFTA actually goes well beyond the creation of a free trade area – it is about forming a continental market. Yet the wording ‘free trade’ understandably provokes adverse reactions in certain quarters, as it is often associated with economic liberalisation programmes of the 1980s and 1990s – ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ – that caused a lot of economic pain in Africa with very little gain. However, the critics are guilty of making a false equivalence – if it were true that the AfCFTA were a neoliberal project, then all attempts at regional integration would be open to the same accusation.

An idea whose time has come

In fact, the AfCFTA is firmly grounded in longstanding pan-African ideas of how to achieve greater unity among African countries. This goes beyond the usual names associated with pan-Africanism (Nkrumah, Nyerere, Senghor, etc.): Borderless Africa builds heavily on insights of two intellectuals that were deeply committed to pan-African ideals – Adebajo Adedeji and Thandika Mkandawire. In fact, Adedeji was one of the principal architects of the Treaty of Abuja (1991) which laid the framework for continental integration, including the development of a free trade area and a common African market. We argue that the work of African intellectuals and academics like Adedeji and Mkandawire can help guide the process of continental integration, much like the ideas of Monnet and Schuman did for the European Union.

Borderless Africa is divided in 3 parts. Part 1 explains the history of the continent’s economic integration and describes how, hitherto, Africa’s economic engagement with the rest of the world has not delivered the promised benefits. For instance, preferential market access schemes to high income markets – ongoing now since the 1970s – have failed to deliver dynamic trade growth and economic diversification. Similarly, we document how policies of indiscriminate economic liberalisation since the 1980s did not help put the continent on a better growth trajectory and undermined existing manufacturing and industrial capacity. Part 1 concludes that there is a need for a new strategic approach, as embodied in the AfCFTA, that primes continental integration and the growth of regional markets over other considerations.

Getting the narrative right

Part 2 makes the political economic case in favour of rapid AfCFTA implementation, covering the rationale behind promoting greater intra-African trade and investment and creating an integrated market. Here, Borderless Africa conveys some key arguments that diverge from the standard narrative: For instance:

  • It is commonplace in policy circles to talk down intra-African trade. One argument made ad nauseum is that Africa trades with itself far less than any other continent. Another is that past attempts at regional integration on the continent have broadly failed in their objectives. We contest these claims and, as argued eloquently by Mkandawire, stress that Africa has actually made a lot more progress on regional integration than is commonly recognised. Similarly, the extent of intra-African trade is seriously under-reported, and its economic significance is already much greater than commonly appreciated, giving a strong platform on which the AfCFTA can build.
  • The AfCFTA presents the continent with a unique opportunity to tackle the balkanised nature of domestic markets – a characteristic inherited from the colonial era. While individually most African economies are small, collectively the African continent is a force to be reckoned with – when measured in terms of purchasing power, the continent constitutes the fourth largest economy in the world, behind only the United States, China and India.
  • In rolling out the AfCFTA, we argue that there is currently an excessive emphasis in policy circles on small and medium-sized enterprises. Yet it is the dearth of larger firms that constitutes one of the major structural weaknesses of the African economy and explains why African firms often struggle to compete in regional, international and even domestic markets. Shockingly, there is not a single African company currently listed in the Fortune Global 500 of the world’s largest firms, making it the only continent (outside Antarctica) without representation. In this context, the AfCFTA represents a unique opportunity to upscale economic activities on the continent.
  • As stressed three decades ago by Adedeji, Africa needs its own pan-African firms if it is to compete effectively in national, regional and international markets. In this sense, more efforts and initiatives are needed to promote intra-African foreign direct investment, which will be a major driver of increasing trade and investment linkages across the continent.
  • A greater intensity of intra-African trade and investment will likewise only be achieved by facilitating the movement of people. Far from being an appendage to the agreement, our book argues that the (FMP) is at the core of what the AfCFTA is trying to achieve. It will also help firms address skills shortages and provide new opportunities (especially for young people) to find gainful employment across the continent.

The importance of focus

Part 3 takes a look at the way forward, and also contains some warnings. Firstly, while continental-wide surveys reveal a broad-based enthusiasm for the AfCFTA, there is a need to build strong constituencies in support of implementation, both by creating new market opportunities and by facilitating the formation of coalitions with more to gain than lose from greater continental integration. One crucial element in achieving that support, we argue, is by championing initiatives like the FMP, as well as measures like regulating mobile roaming charges, creating a unified intra-continental air transport market, and tackling the lack of consumer protection and competition. In sum, the more tangible the benefits, the greater the popular support and the more rapid the pace of implementation.

A second warning is for countries which might be tempted to implement the AfCFTA slowly and stay on the side-lines while the rest of the continent moves ahead with the continental agenda – the ‘wait and see’ approach. The continent needs to avoid such outcomes and here Africa’s regional hegemons – South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya – have a special responsibility to make continental integration work. Pointedly, all these big economies have large positive trade balances with the rest of the continent and should lead by example through respecting the AfCFTA tariff reduction schedules and rapidly removing the barriers to imports from the rest of the continent.

Finally, in implementing the AfCFTA there is a need to avoid overburdening the agreement with unrealistic expectations or always bowing to the priorities of the donor community. The AfCFTA has already embraced a very ambitious agenda and by membership will constitute the largest trading bloc in the world. Yet at its heart, the AfCFTA has a simple goal – to addresses the Achilles heel of the continental economy: its fragmented nature. If it achieves that goal, Africa will emerge stronger and more economically resilient. As the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie succinctly put it:

Part of the problem is that the rest of the world sees Africa as something to use, and, sadly, Africans agree …we don’t talk enough to one another and we’re always looking outwards … I don’t think it will be a utopia, but a more united Africa, an Africa that trades more with one another.’

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TradeMark Africa.