By Jonathan Nemetz
A unified Africa seems like something that could never, and should never work. A multitude of religions, cultures, and languages sprawl across the massive continent, not to mention a diverse biome of massive deserts, dense jungles, and breathtaking savannas. Yet despite all of its differences, the African continent came together on December 2, 2017 to agree upon the final draft of an agreement that creates the Continental Free Trade Area.
The Continental Free Trade Area (Or CFTA) is an economic zone across all 55 nations of Africa that aims to eliminate up to 90% of intercontinent tariffs by 2027, and lays the groundwork for a central African government, similar in style to the European Union1. It unifies many regional free trade zones that had already existed in Africa into a single agreement that is far larger and far more ambitious. The announcement of the agreement has many excited both about the prospects for African economies and a new experiment on large-scale free trade for developing economies.
The Continental Free Trade Area receives many of the same benefits as other free trade agreements, namely a massive swell in economic growth. The combination of so many economies leads to more competition and easier transfer of capital and information, creating an economic boost, which has been estimated for Africa to be as high as 9% annual GDP growth3. In addition, supporters claim that the free trade area could create much needed diversification in the African economy.
Africa’s current economy is mostly centered around the exploitation and export of natural resources to countries with limited natural resources, mainly Europe. However, African countries have significant overlap between the natural resources they possess, meaning that the more lucrative industries between the now tariff-free African nations will not be the current natural resource industries. There will be no incentive to build up these resource operations when massive new markets do not need many of those goods. Instead, Africa may see a growth of industries found in emerging economies. Manufacturing, production, and even middle-class industries such as credit could begin to emerge with more and more commercial exchange within the continent3. Supporters hope a larger amount of consumers and producers will also drive innovation and competition in an area that has been stuck in technological backwater for so long.
Many of the people that have pushed for the free trade zone said the agreement was not only an economic victory, but a cultural one as well. A unified African economy is a powerful force in seperating Africa from dependence on its former colonizers. A push for free trade is a push for an Africa more free from the shadows of colonialism. The unification could give the new coalition more influence on the global stage, something Africa has lacked for the vast majority of its history. With a combined GDP of nearly $3.5 Trillion USD, the continent will have more leverage in international policy and trade deals in dealing with other nations and organizations3.
However, the plan is not without its opponents. Most of the objections to this plan center around the practicality of i;critics point out that this plan would be undermined by the lack of infrastructure required for such a massive and poor continent.
The first major concern is that Africa is simply too large of an area to manage under a single organization. In the eyes of many, the European Union is already too bureaucratic and slow to draft meaningful legislation that creates a positive difference. The Continental Free Trade Area holds 55 member states which is almost double the EU’s twenty-eight members. The CFTA also has many more diverse factors to be kept in mind: the economic, historical and cultural differences between places such as Algeria and Angola are massive and will have to be very carefully considered. Creating policy to benefit such a large area will be no small challenge for the new organization to overcome4.
The second concern is that the governments of Africa will become far poorer than they already are. Due to Africa’s poor infrastructure and rampant corruption, internal tax collection is extremely difficult. As a result, trade tariffs are a main source of income for many African nations1. However, with the elimination of these tariffs under the CFTA, cash-strapped governments will have to cut back on spending or rely more heavily on illicit or immoral methods to bring in revenue. Not only does this concern citizens of the continent, but charities and global organizations also worry that the progress in education and standards of living may be hindered more than helped when their government funding is cut. Security experts also warn that with less funds, the ability for these nations to fight African terrorists is dramatically decreased, causing terrorists’ threat to the people of the continent and world to continue to grow4.
Despite the possible dangers, many are hopeful that the CFTA can be a model for economic growth and free trade in our global society. Ironically, Africa’s history may actually helpin this situation. When colonial powers began providing independence to many African nations, they drew the borders of new nations arbitrarily to the people actually living there. Some tribes found themselves on either side of a new border. What were once peoples and civilizations were now separated into many different nations. All these new nations now governed several groups of people from different backgrounds. The arbitrary nature of these countries has led to the lowest rates of nationalism anywhere in the world2. Thus, while other parts of the world may worry that their country is disadvantaged in an agreement, Africans have no strong allegiance to such nations. Africans only see more jobs and more prosperity in Africa as a whole. When nationalism does not interfere in global policy, people only see the betterment of people as a whole.
This positive change for humanity extends outside of Africa as well. The data gathered from such a poor area experimenting with extreme amounts of free trade can be used to improve other poor economies in the developing world. It could be an example of both policies to follow and policies to avoid3. Because everyone involved recognizes that this will not be a flawless agreement, but instead a tentative first step towards a brighter African future. A tentative first step with lessons to be taught, and hopefully carried into that brighter future, for the whole world to learn.
Going into 2018, Africa faces a myriad of problems and conflicts that need solutions. But by valuing cooperation and unity within their continent, they are no longer going into all their conflicts alone. As the rest of the world enters just another year, Africa enters a new era where its strength and diversity is utilized for a safer and more prosperous continent.