Op-Ed: Trade in Africa should be free, but it must be inclusive

As Africa prepares to formalise a similar economic agenda in the form of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), these are the important lessons that must be reconciled about building identity and unity.

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By Abdullahi Alim*

Since 2000, the EU has spent nearly $1 trillion as part of an ambitious plan to unite a continent once troubled by conflict.

The operation has helped to modernise key infrastructure including airports, trains and highways. In doing so, it has opened previously unconnected markets across Europe, particularly in the eastern part of the continent.

In spite of this, the EU finds itself trapped in the middle of an existential crisis. Less than thirty years into its shelf life, the majority of EU citizens are distrustful of its institutions and political movements to disrupt or stymie further integration are gaining momentum. Political parties that are openly scornful of the EU have taken power in Poland and Hungary, for instance, and have gained a growing following in France, Germany and Austria. In their greatest success to date, these parties managed to spearhead the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, which is now scheduled for March 2019.

As Africa prepares to formalise a similar economic agenda in the form of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), what important lessons must it reconcile about building identity and unity?

Despite the economic case for the EU, talks of its disintegration have quickly become commonplace, in part, due to perceived shifts to the homogeneity of Europe. The seeming influx of migrants and particularly refugees, largely from Middle Eastern and African countries, were enough for some communities to downright reject any form of pan-Europeanism. Ironically, such fervour was especially pronounced in places that benefited the most from EU investments – showing just how fickle the relationship between continentalism and identity can be.

In Africa, while a shared, continental identity was observed in the struggles for independence, its flames quickly waned and rescinded into a convoluted and seemingly flamboyant construct.

Today, only a minority of Africans identify as ‘African,’ which in any event would encompass being part of a landmass stretching for 30 million square kilometers and including 54 very diverse countries. Identity instead is still largely formed at the local level along clan ethnic or religious lines. While this may be grounds for the preservation of culture, it also begs a question of the CFTA discussions that is so often overlooked.

That is, can Africa’s economies sustain a free trade agenda in the absence of grass-roots support for pan-Africanism? Could open borders and market integration even accentuate present-day fractures and inequalities on the African continent?

To be clear, this is by no means an argument against the CFTA. Rather, it is an effort to assess an economic agenda that is generally considered in ignorance of its social context. Take for example Ethiopia, the fastest growing economy on the continent; could free trade add to ethnic tensions by exacerbating inequalities between the winners and losers?

Or what about the tentative recoveries that are under way in economies such as Nigeria? It may be Africa’s biggest economy but it’s far less competitive in many industries than South Africa, or other economies to the north. If opening up its economy fails to deliver broad enough gains, it would be easy to see how economic nationalism could take hold.

Even if the CFTA does manage to deliver meaningful economic gains it may not succeed in healing Africa’s wounds. In Europe, where strides to reconcile traumas of the last century have made strong advancements and where baseline economic activity exists, anti-EU sentiment is still on the rise.

For the CFTA to succeed, it must avoid being seen as a top-down solution for building regional cohesion and it must find ways to ensure that it becomes as valuable an intervention for SMEs and the informal sector as it is for big business. It also needs to proceed hand-in-glove with efforts to boost manufacturing and industrialize farming. Some of the accession countries currently waiting to join the EU, for example, are happy to wait for formal membership as they know that the reforms they are undertaking will deliver most of the benefits of actual membership and because if membership is granted before these reforms are fully implemented,  their domestic industries will not stand up to competition.

A multi-faceted approach of freeing up markets whilst actively intervening to upgrade economic competitiveness is the only way to ensure that Africa can enjoy sustainable and inclusive growth and revive notions of shared identity it last felt profoundly during the struggle for independence. In its favor, as the world contemplates a fourth wave of global integration, the region is well-placed to learn from past mistakes: it must heed these lessons widely and not allow the forces of nativism to prevail.

The writer is lead for the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community in Africa. The views expressed in this article are his own.