A longtime dream in Africa has been the creation of a free-trade zone from Cairo to Cape Town. Last week the dream found some reality. Most of the continent’s 55 countries signed two pacts to reduce tariffs and allow the free movement of people. The agreements not only blow against current global winds of protectionism. If fully implemented, they could create the world’s largest free market – and liberate Africa from many historic dependencies.
The continent’s 1.2 billion people have much in common, including past colonization and a high reliance on foreign aid. Trade, however, is not widely shared. Only 16 percent of Africa’s exports and imports are with itself. That compares with 70 percent for Europe. If Africa is ever to end its dependence on commodity exports to wealthy nations and unlock its potential to become a manufacturing powerhouse, it must integrate its economies.
The two pacts are a milestone not only in the potential to boost trade (which is estimated to grow $35 billion by 2020). They are also a step in establishing trust and equality between Africans. When groups of nations open their borders to goods and services, they erode notions of business as a zero-sum transaction. They see the long-term benefits of expanded markets rather than simply the short-term losses and costs of adjustment. A greater flow of goods is seen as a greater good.
Still, the fear of more intra-Africa trade led 11 countries to put off signing the main pact, the Continental Free Trade Agreement. Two of them, Nigeria and South Africa, worry about competition to their industries or the possibility that some countries will slap “Made in Africa” labels on imports from elsewhere.
Such concerns can be fairly resolved as negotiations continue to put the agreements into practice. The momentum to see Africa as one market is too strong. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa even suggests creating a single currency as within the European Union.
The continent has a larger middle class than the American population. Its people are digitally connected, especially in financial transactions. And while it still struggles to plant democracies, a continent with a median age of 27 faces strong demands to create greater opportunities. The new pacts could be Africa’s second historic moment of emancipation.