Africa Steps into 2020 with Eyes on Open Borders and Free Trade

Countries in the African Union will open their borders to free trade and movement of goods and services in July 2020.

The open borders, under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), was signed last year in May by 54 out of 55 African nations. Under “the agreement establishing the African continental free trade area”, Africa’s 1.2 billion population will be able to buy and sell goods with minimal tariffs and non-tariff barriers.

The AfCFTA is “determined to strengthen our economic relationship and build upon our respective rights and obligations under the Constitutive Act of the African Union of 2,000 the Abuja Treaty and, where applicable, the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization of 1994,” the agreement reads.

“Having regard to the aspirations of Agenda 2063 for a continental market with the free movement of persons, capital, goods and services, which are crucial for deepening economic integration, and promoting agricultural development, food security, industrialisation and structural economic transformation.”

In April 2019, the AfCFTA agreement secured the minimal threshold of 22 ratification, legally binding the document.

“We are very proud of how quickly countries have ratified the AfCFTA. This is a source of pride for all of us,” said chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat.

“For this agreement to be effective, there is a need to open borders to other Africans. This can only be possible by having a peaceful and secure continent. It would be an illusion to talk of trade and development, without peace and security.”

The Pan-Africanist ideal of the AfCFTA agreement is an offspring of the Pan-Africanist dreams of the 1960s, during Africa’s independence from European colonisation. As such, vestiges of past conflicts are present even within this renewed Pan-Africanist fervour.

“Pan-Africanism is an articulation of shared identity,” Dr Julia Gallagher of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, wrote in 2016.

It is “a ‘we-feeling’ rooted in experiences of colonialism and racism and longer-standing shared cultural traits. However, pan-Africanism, already in competition with local ethnic and regional identities, quickly ran up against the growth of state-based nationalism that developed as African countries became independent.”

Last year, under President Buhari, Nigeria closed its borders to all neighbouring countries citing corruption as a major reason for the closures.

“The borders will remain closed until our neighbours control what goes through the borders and comply with the laws,” Hameed Ali, Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service said.

Buhari’s decision to close Nigeria’s borders was not only hypocritical since Nigeria had signed the AfCFTA Agreement, it was also an exemplification of the contesting Pan-Africanist and nationalistic identities that plague the African Union today.

Individual fears of the AfCFTA’s free movement agreement leads to nationalistic self-preservation. Within the context of massive infrastructural inadequacy and widespread governmental corruption, the AU may not be adequately mechanised to monitor free movement. Some politicians have argued that Boko Haram and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria are supported and indoctrinated by Al Queda’s presence in North Africa. Free movement will increase the presence and power of terrorist groups operating in Africa.

The lack of governmental investment in local and national businesses is also a significant stumbling block for the AU. A continental free trade movement will only succeed when there are local business owners within each country. If this barrier can be surmounted, the AfCFTA free trade movement will reduce Africa’s financial dependence on foreign aid and foreign trade.

The African Union has many issues hindering its success. It can only grow if its leaders begin to hold each other accountable to issues of corruption and third-termism, under the combined force of the union.