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Africa's future – more than free trade

July 5, 2019

The Agenda 2063 is meant to bring Africa together in a multitude of ways. However, at an AU summit in Niger, the main focus will be on a free trade agreement, with little time for other issues.

Gikomba market in Nairobi, Kenya
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Irungu

Africa should continue to grow together – at least, that is the plan of the African Union (AU). Up for debate at the organization's summit in Niamey, the capital of Niger, is the Agenda 2036, Africa's masterplan to speed up development and economic growth. It contains 14 initiatives in the areas of infrastructure, education, science, technology, culture and peacekeeping, all part of  "The Africa We Want," the Agenda's motto. But not all is going as planned.

For example, initiative number five, which envisages a total ceasefire in Africa. The AU had set itself this goal for 2020. Dessu Meressa from the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa is skeptical. "We are now approaching 2020, but the guns are still there," he said. "The aspirations are interrelated," he added. "So when we say we are silencing the gun, it is part of most of the aspirations."

Togolese political scientist Desire Assogbavi stressed that silencing guns and increasing security form the basis for development. "If a large part of the continent is on fire, the successful implementation of the Agenda will be difficult.”

An armed soldier stands in front  of several ground-to-air missiles
There is still a profusion of weapons across AfricaImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Guyot

No free trade without freedom of movement?

So how far has the AU come with its plans?  Let's take a look, for example, at the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) which is meant to strengthen inter-African trade and thereby improve the continent's economic standing on the world market.

The agreement was implemented on 30 May 2019 for the 24 countries which had ratified it. If all African states were to join, AfCFTA could become the world's largest free trade zone, with a joint economic output of more than $3 billion (€2.6 billion) and more than 1.5 billion consumers. So far, AfCFTA exists mainly on paper.

For Assogbavi, the Niamey summit is mainly about implementing AfCFTA. "It is a big step in the AU's business plan, and if it is implemented in its entirety, it can change the destiny of the continent." The plans could be given a major boost this weekend as Nigeria, Africa's biggest economy, has announced after a long delay, that it is now ready to join.

This could well push other topics out of the limelight. Meressa doubts whether there will be any real debate on the free movement of people in Africa, although this initiative is closely linked to the implementation of the free trade zone. "If the free trade agreement is going to be successful, people have to be able to travel from place to place, from country to country, within Africa," he said.

A hand holding a Malian passport with various visas
A single African passport is still a long way offImage: picture-alliance/Godong

Colonial legacy in the sky

The initative on the free movement of people is ambitious. All Africans should be able to travel, work and live freely anywhere on the continent. This requires the introduction of an African passport. For Meressa, this is of only secondary importance. "It would be enough to be able to travel more easily with a national passport, without a visa or any other conditions." At a special summit in March 2018 in Kigali, Rwanda, 27 of the 55 member states signed a protocol on the freedom of movement. Since then, not much has been heard. The mutual distrust between individual countries remains an obstacle.

The initiative on developing inter-African infrastructure is also making slow progress. Better connections are urgently needed in order to expand trade and boost the movement of people between countries.  For example, air links. "Many air routes are still in the hands of former colonial powers. To travel through Africa, I often fly via Europe," Assogbavi told DW.  

There are plans to change this in the Agenda 2063, and an initial agreement already exists. In early 2018, more than 20 African states signed a treaty under which their airlines should have direct acccesss to airports of other signatory countries. But here, too, nothing has happened, Assogbavi said.

An Air Namibia plane in the air
Air travel from one African destination to another is sometimes easier via EuropeImage: Imago/Rüdiger Wölk

14 plans in 44 years

Then there's rail travel . A highspeed network is planned that would link the national rail services of 54 countries and all their capitals. For this, at least 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) of track need to be laid. Meressa does not believe this will happen in the near future. "Member states first need to improve their national infrastructures."

Desire Assogbavi is also far from euphoric. "So far I only see a development with AfCFTA. It's not enough for countries to ratify proposals but not implement them." He thinks the ambitious nature of many of the AU's plans is part of the problem. "Projects like the rail network need to be financed. Such an  investment does not happen overnight."

Forty-four years remain for the implementation of 14 initiatives. Is this realistic? Meressa does not think all plans will be completed by 2063. "To a certain degree, yes, but not 100 percent."

Assogbavi is a touch more optimistic. "It is a goal and other continents have achieved it." For him, the success of Agenda 2063 is a question of leadership and political will." If we have strong governments, then we can implement the plans. But if we can't solve the problems of government that we have at present, then Agenda 2063 will remain on paper only."


DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German-born journalist.
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