It would not be an understatement to confidently state that there is enormous potential in Africa’s regional economic integration and intra-African trade. Sadly, the continent is still heavily reliant on commodity and agricultural exports. Meanwhile, Africa spends huge sums of money importing capital goods and food products, predominantly from outside the continent. For example, Africa’s annual food import bill of US$35billion is estimated to rise to US$110 billion by 2025. It is safe to argue that Africa has a huge export potential. However, the continent currently records a global trade share of less than 3%.
Intra-African trade remains below its potential, accounting for about 17% of the total African trade volume in 2017. In contrast, intracontinental trade accounts for 51% of exports in North America, 49% in Asia and 22% in Latin America, while among Western European countries this number reaches 69%.
African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA)
To accelerate implementation of development and more economic resilience through a unified African market, the African Union (AU) Trade Ministers agreed to establish an African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in January 2012. The AfCTA represents a major opportunity for countries to boost growth, reduce poverty, and broaden economic inclusion. The AfCFTA has since been a flagship programme of the AU and AfCFTA negotiations. The AfCTA was launched in June 2015 and entered into force in May 2019. The AfCTA was signed by 52 African member-states and has been operationalised with the necessary 30 ratifications. This is a huge diplomatic milestone given the short timeline, ambitious liberalisation goals and heterogeneity and large number of 55 member-states negotiating the Free Trade Area.
The Fifty-eighth Ordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was held on 23 January 2021. At this meeting, the heads of state welcomed the AfCFTA’s entry into force on 1st January 2021 and ratification of the agreement by twelve (12) out of the fifteen (15) ECOWAS member-states.
It is worth stating that civil society actors and other non-state actors have played a key role leading to adoption of the AfCTA agreement. The current developments, including impact of the coronavirus pandemic on African economies, provide an avenue for civil society organisations (CSOs) to continue engaging in promoting its implementation within the continent. CSOs can bring citizens’ concerns to public authorities, monitor policy and programme implementation, play a watchdog role, and as well as contribute to the achievement of greater transparency and accountability in the AfCFTA’s implementation.
Positively, the African Union Department of Trade and Industry organised the first annual AfCFTA Stakeholders Forum in Dakar in November 2018, where a good representation of African Stakeholders took part and committed to engage member-states in asking for ratification and implementation of the AfCFTA. Prior to that, the Department took the opportunity to dialogue with African Civil Society through several meetings hosted by civil society organisations. All these dialogues have proved useful in obtaining feedback and views of a diverse range of CSOs. The purpose of the Civil Society Forum is to enhance stakeholder engagement in implementation of the AfCFTA.
The Forum was designed to impart knowledge to all stakeholders on the priority trade issues of the AfCFTA; establish a foundation for regular information flow on trade issues to key stakeholders; improve coordination between CSOs and relevant government ministries and agencies on issues related to the AfCFTA; increase participation opportunities for civil society stakeholders in the work programme of the AfCFTA; and strengthen the culture of dialogue and inclusiveness.
Civil Society’s Roles and Responsibilities
It is envisaged that the engagement with civil society will improve understanding among the public about the AfCFTA – and the requirements for its successful implementation, increased stakeholders’ participation in national, regional, and international trade policy formulation, negotiations, and implementation required for its successful operationalisation. Therefore, it has become imperative for civil society and other non-state actors to support implementation of the Agreement through various strategies and programmes. Some potential roles and responsibilities of civil society include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Participate in sessions of the AfCFTA’s secretariat: CSOs need to find ways of strategically engaging with the AfCTA secretariat. Potential areas of engagement are through participation in their convenings with state and non-state institutions, trade and investment promotion activities, and promotion and dissemination of information on the AfCTA to community citizens.
- Encourage, support, and follow-up the ratification of AfCTA by countries that are yet to ratify: As at 25 January 2020, 30 countries had ratified the agreement. However, 24 countries are yet to ratify. Some of the countries that are yet to ratify are going through legislative processes in their countries to finalise the ratification process. Civil society has a role to play in terms of providing technical and advisory support to facilitate the process for countries.
- Raise visibility and engagement of AfCTA with community citizens: Civil society should organise seminars, workshops, and forums at every level; develop and publicise information tools to facilitate understanding of the Convention; and disseminate information to stakeholders through national and regional media, websites and newsletters. In addition, CSOs should educate citizens about AfCTA policies and their implications on their day-to-day endeavours, and how to provide information to the relevant policymakers.
- Conduct needs assessment on the application of the Agreement in national frameworks and programmes, and identify any difficulties in implementation of the Agreement: CSOs should work with the AfCTA secretariat and other key stakeholders to determine the constraints within countries regarding harmonisation of their national processes and infrastructure to align with the objectives of AfCTA. CSOs can provide valuable technical expertise to collect and analyse data that will allow key stakeholders to ascertain gaps between what exists and what is needed to ensure a smooth implementation of AfCTA in all member-states.
- Participate in multi-sectoral consultations on AfCTA: CSOs should actively participate in consultations with relevant public authorities on the development of policies and measures to effectively implement the AfCTA.
- Demand accountability from governments on the extent to which they are fostering intra-African trade: Civil society should monitor and support government efforts that are designed to ensure relevant national laws and policies follow the provisions and the aspirations of AfCTA. Civil society should also monitor and influence governments to undertake the needed Investments in building the infrastructural and institutional capacity of key policy institutions to facilitate an enabled trade environment within Africa.
Regional economic integration is imperative to achieve competitiveness and growth in Africa. The continent’s regional integration project continues to face serious challenges, including persistent regulatory, institutional and infrastructure challenges. Hence, civil society’s engagement in this process is essential because it ensures that the voices and concerns of community citizens are heard and included in polices and projects. Therefore, civil society’s engagement in the delivery of AfCTA guarantees inclusion and participation, but could also foster transparency, accountability, and adoption.
*The Author is West Africa Civil Society Institute’s Head, Capacity Development Unit