A dream of establishing a continental free trade area in Africa has slipped back again after a last-minute decision by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari not to attend the summit in Rwanda where an agreement was set to be finalised. South Africa, the other large economic player on the continent, also has its reservations.
By CARIEN DU PLESSIS.
Tuesday, March 20, 2018
There was a hint of dejection as ministers filed into the beehive-shaped Kigali Convention Centre on Monday morning, in the midst of the rainy season, to hammer out the details of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.
The special summit was called by Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who this year also chairs the African Union, and talk in the weeks ahead of the gathering was that the agreement only needed a few final touches and that everyone was on board.
It was supposed to be the breakthrough Africa needed before finally rising, and the no-nonsense Kagame was the one to drive this.
The process started in 2012, and free trade was already supposed to have been a thing by 2017, so there was a goal to meet.
Ambassadors had on Saturday already pored over the paperwork, and it was up to the ministers to fine-tune it before the presidents arrive on Wednesday to sign the agreement.
After this, it would have to go through individual country processes, such as parliaments, to be ratified and come into force.
On Sunday, however, news came from Nigeria, which was bidding to host the CFTA secretariat and which chaired the technical negotiations team, that president Muhammadu Buhari had abruptly cancelled his trip to Rwanda.
ThisDay reported that he was already on his way to the airport on Saturday, but was then told to turn back. This was after business groups in Nigeria objected to the signing of the agreement, saying there had not been enough consultations.
They feared that Nigeria would be overwhelmed by business from the outside without Nigerians benefiting from it.
Also, incidentally, the country is having presidential elections next year, in which Buhari might be running again, which might explain the sudden – some would say undue – pressure from within.
Still, Nigerian foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama arrived at the ministers’ meeting where he possibly had a lot of explaining to do.
Outside of the fight about where the secretariat should be located (indications were that even though both Nigeria and Ghana made a bid for it, it was decided to have it at the African Union’s headquarters of Addis Ababa for now), countries had concerns about the dispute resolution mechanisms in the AfCFTA, and also about whether it would effectively be able to prevent dumping.
That would occur if a country outside Africa used an African country with weak import controls to bring goods in from the outside, using it as a springboard to distribute duty-free to the rest of the continent. Instead of promoting business in Africa, as the AfCFTA is supposed to do, this would undermine it.
South Africa, another leading economy on the continent, also had some reservations about the fine print as well as the Protocol on the Free Movement of People, even though President Cyril Ramaphosa apparently indicated that his pen was ready.
Most of the AU’s 55 member states seemed to have no principled objection to signing the agreement and the legal instruments to establish the AfCFTA, which really means nothing much until it’s ratified by all. This happens when local laws and regulations are brought into line with the agreement through a parliamentary process.
South African officials on Monday morning were still unclear about whether Ramaphosa would sign the agreement or not, although some in the Nigerian delegation seemed to be under the impression that Ramaphosa would join Buhari in abstaining.
Ramaphosa himself was expected to attend the summit, and he even arranged to arrive earlier on Tuesday afternoon to attend an AU-organised business summit ahead of the heads of state gathering where the agreement would be signed.
On Monday, international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu was left to deal with the negotiations even as South Africa’s brand new administration was still busy settling into the continental body (this is her first summit in her new position, and it’s likely that she would have a few bilaterals with her counterparts from other countries to introduce herself).
There was also reported disagreement on how many states needed to sign the agreement for it to come into force. At the lower end, some said 15 states would be enough, while others wanted at least 37. Leaders could eventually settle for something in between, such as half of the states.
As the meeting broke for lunch on Monday, it still wasn’t clear exactly how many states would sign, but an official involved in the negotiations said it was “a good number” and that he was optimistic.
AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahammat imparted the urgency of getting the AfCFTA going in a hard-hitting opening speech, and he seemed to urge leaders to come to an agreement:
“Our continent is at a crossroads,” he said.
“What path will she choose? That of maintaining the status quo, which means making cosmetic changes relating to borderline adjustments which have no real impact on the lives of our populations, or that of effecting a paradigm shift which requires us to look far into the horizon for a truly integrated Africa?”
This would be “structurally reformed economically, guaranteeing the freedom of movement and settlement to all her daughters and all her sons, as well as offering, in the final analysis, fulfilling and promising living conditions for her youth, in a bid to reverse migratory flows”, he said.
Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in her opening speech that the agreement should enter into force as soon as possible, but “with everybody feeling comfortable about it”.
She said the agreement would be to the advantage of Africa, which could then act as “a global player” to promote the continent’s economic interests and attract investment, create jobs and improve things for the people.
The official line is that the AfCFTA agreement would grow intra-African trade, which is still lower than trade between African countries and the outside, by 55% by 2022, and Africa’s exports to the rest of the world would grow by 6%.
Life would also be better for small cross-border traders.
The agreement would open a market of 1.2 billion people, and is one of the flagship projects of the AU’s Agenda 2063, a 50-year plan for a transformed Africa.
The other projects are the Single African Air Transport Market and the Protocol on the Free Movement of People.
Even though the protocol was still in draft on Monday, AU Commissioner for Trade and Industry Albert Muchanga promised that it would be ready for signing when heads of state meet on Wednesday.
The dream, however, would have to be deferred for a little while longer. DM