THE leaders of 44 African countries have signed up to one of the world’s largest free-trade deals, creating a single market of 1.2 billion people.
The African Continental Free Trade Area, signed on 21 March in Kigali, Rwanda, seeks to put the countries into a single trading bloc. This would be the largest created since the World Trade Organization in 1995. Tariffs on internal trade and other barriers will be removed, allowing goods and services to flow freely between the countries participating.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, welcomed the move, calling it an “important step” towards “delivering on the African agenda of peace and prosperity”. The head of the Africa Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called it a “noble and glorious challenge”, one that calls for “the courage to dream, the courage to believe, the courage to dare, the courage to do, the courage to envision, the courage to fight, the courage to work, the courage to achieve — to achieve the highest excellencies and the fullest greatness of man”.
Ten countries, however, including Nigeria — which has Africa’s largest economy — have not signed the agreement; and it still needs to be ratified by parliaments across the continent. The President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, cancelled his trip to Kigali at the last minute, after the Nigeria Labour Congress opposed the deal: they feared it would allow “unbridled foreign interference” in the country.
The principal private-sector adviser at Christian Aid, Dr Matti Kohonen, welcomed the Kigali announcement. “African countries do not trade enough with one another; so it should be a positive move.” He said, however, that “it could be harmful if it favours larger, more developed countries.”
He also sounded a warning about the detail of the agreement, saying that it was “really important to see whether the deal includes labour and environmental standards, like other free-trade-area agreements.
“It is a good thing that Africa is deciding to trade within itself, as only ten per cent of African trade is currently internal. The other important thing is for Africa to trade as a bloc with other parts of the world.”
If countries that were less developed, such as Rwanda with its IT services, or Sierra Leone with its food-processing sector, could find new markets for their goods inside Africa, he said, it would bring “huge benefits”.