Wed, 16 Dec 2020 Feature Article

African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA): The Prospects And Challenges Of African Economic Integration

African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA): The Prospects And Challenges Of African Economic Integration


The decision to establish the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) as an organizing framework for boosting intra-African trade and economic integration was taken at the Eighteenth Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 29th-30th January, 2012. The Agreement itself is borne out of the African Union Agenda 2063 continental framework dealing with Boosting Intra African Trade (BIAT). The Agreement has passed through so many processes and protocols and the concomitant ratifications and accessions needed to give it full legal teeth. Consequently, it is expected to come into operational effect on the 1st January, 2021. The aim of this paper is to take a look at the agreement, paying particular attention to the challenges and prospects of the Agreement and on that basis make suggestions that would enhance its operations and ultimately conduce to the realization of its goals and objectives. We argue that the idea of an African continental free trade is noble and critical to the economic trajectory of Africa; however, decisive measures should be taken to steer it aright or else it may suffer mortality as past development programmes in Africa. In the event that the storm of these challenges is weathered, Africa would witness a new dawn of economic integration and development.


The decision to establish African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) as an organizing framework to boost intra-African trade for enhanced African economic integration and development was taken by African leaders at an Extraordinary Summit from 17th-21st March 2018 in Kigali, Rwanda, during which the Agreement establishing the AfCFTA was presented for signature, along with the Kigali Declaration and the Protocol to the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community relating to the Free Movement of Persons, Right to Residence and Right to Establishment. In total, 44 out of the 55 AU member states signed the consolidated text of the AfCFTA Agreement, 47 signed the Kigali Declaration and 30 signed the Protocol on Free Movement. The AfCFTA is warehoused within the wider framework of the AU Africa 2063 whose other continental frameworks are: Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP); the Programme for Infrastructural Development in Africa (PIDA); the African Mining Vision (AMV); Science Technology Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA); Boosting Intra-African Trade (BIAT); and Accelerated Industrial Development for Africa (AIDA). AfCFTA is expected to come into operational effect on 1st-January 2021.

It is envisaged that when in full operation, it will be one of the largest trading bloc in the world with a single market of 1.2 billion people and a collective Gross Domestic Product of $2 trillion. Under its framework it is also envisaged that there would be 90% liberalization of products manufactured in Africa (Pine, 2017). Since the 2015 AU Summit in Johannesburg, there have been series of meetings and negotiations geared towards the ratification of the Agreement by the fifty-five African countries. At the moment the threshold of signatories required to bring it into operational force has been attained. The objectives of AfCFTA as set out under the legal framework establishing it has both General and Specific Objectives as follows:

Article 3: General Objectives

The general objectives of the AfCFTA are to:

(a)create a single market for goods, services, facilitated by movement of persons in order to deepen the economic integration of the African continent and in accordance with the Pan African Vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa” enshrined in Agenda 2063;

(b) create a liberalized market for goods and services through successive rounds of negotiation;

(c) contribute to the movement of capital and natural persons and facilitate investments building on the initiatives and developments in the State Parties and RECs;

(d) lay the foundation for the establishment of a Continental Customs Union at a later stage;

(e) promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socioeconomic development, gender equality and structural transformation of the State Parties;

(f) enhance the competitiveness of the economies of State Parties within the continent and the global market;

(g) promote industrial development through diversification and regional value chain development, agricultural development and food security; and

(h) resolve the challenges of multiple and overlapping memberships and expedite the regional and continental integration processes.

Article 4: Specific Objectives. For purposes of fulfilling and realizing the objectives set out in Article 3, State Parties shall:

(a) Progressively eliminate tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade in goods;

(b) progressively liberalise trade in services;

(c) cooperate on investment, intellectual property rights and competition policy;

(d)cooperate on all trade related areas;

(e) cooperate on customs matters and the implementation of trade facilitation measures;

(f) establish a mechanism for the settlement of disputes concerning their rights and obligations; and

(g) establish and maintain an institutional framework for the implementation and administration of the AfCFTA.

These objectives are doubtless noble and if well implemented would herald a new dawn in intra-African trade. One of the banes of economic development in Africa is the low rate of intra-African trade. Intra-African trade is currently at the lowest compared to sixty seven per cent for Europe, fifty eight percent for Asia, and forty eight percent for North Africa (Mahmood, 2018). At this rate of low intra-African trade, the AfCFTA couldn’t have come at a more auspicious time. It is, therefore, envisaged that African countries would hop on the bandwagon of this regional economic integration framework with enthusiasm and commitment. The accent of emphasis is on enthusiasm and commitment because previous economic development strategies enunciated by African countries to promote continental trade and development ended up in the graveyard of public policies; an affliction that is of pandemic proportion in Africa.

Previous attempts by African countries at the continental level to forge common front in the task of integration and development among others include the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, the OAU transmuted into African Union (AU) in 2002; African Development Bank, 1964; the Lagos Plan of Action, 1980; African Economic Community (AEC), 1991; African Central Bank; African Common Currency; the New Partnership for Africa’s Economic Development (NEPAD), 2001; at the sub-regional level are initiatives such as the Economic Community of West African (ECOWAS),1975; the East African Common Market (EACM), 1967; Arab Maghrebian Union (AMU), 1965; and the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC), 1980; Southern African Development Community (SADC), 1992.

These policy measures have been largely unsuccessful in heralding their much vaunted goals and objectives. This gap between policy goals and objectives on the one hand, and policy gains and benefits is a festering cancerous tuber on the African body politic. Among some of the factors that have been adduced as responsible for this are lack of political will, external interferences, lack of manpower, skills and technical know-how, lack of technology and poor industrial base, and low productive economic infrastructure. These and many other factors have affected development on the African continent. The continental leadership has not been deterred in forging ways to integrate and develop the continent in the face of these daunting challenges. The formation of AfCFTA is a measure of this resilience.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is the latest continent-wide development strategy in Africa. The Agreement brings in its wake so much promise of catalysing intra-African trade and development, and as yet it is also exposed to the susceptibilities that have been the bane of development in Africa. It is cognisant of this fact that this paper aims to examine the challenges and prospects of AfCFTA and on the basis of this make recommendations to aid its sustainable implementation and ultimate realization of its general and specific objectives.

The Idea of Continental Free Trade and Economic Integration

The historical and conceptual sedimentation of the idea of free trade has taken roots aeons ago. The notion of freedom of commerce and freedom of the seas long postulated since the sixteenth century Spain (Giovanni, 1994) and the mercantilist economic theorizations of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and a potpourri of other lassie faire economists falls squarely within its conceptual ambient. In fundamental essence, free trade canvases for the enthronement of an economic environment that promotes the freedom of the free entry and exit of goods and services within a geographically contiguous space. It is essentially pro-trade in vision and grafted on the wheels of the ideology of liberalism. It can hardly operate in an environment that supports protectionism and economic nationalism.

The nation-state is the fundamental organizing block of modern international relations. It came into being as a result of the 1648 Congress of Westphalia birthed at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. No matter the contemporary social, technological, economic, industrial and political pressures posed by globalization, multinational corporations, advances in Informational and Communication Technology (ICT), supranational organizations, and a horde of other powerful economic non-state actors, the nation-state has remained firm like the rock of Gibraltar and the driving force of inter-state trade and commerce; it has continued to provide, and foreseeable would continue to provide the much needed legal, administrative, political, ideological and enabling framework to lubricate the wheels of international economic relations.

The earliest modern attempts at economic integration took place in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. And no example surpasses Germany in reach. Prior to its integration, what is today known as Germany consisted of well over three hundred states, dukedoms and municipalities (Bajulaiye-Shasi, 1992). This number made trade and cooperation very difficult. However, the establishment of a customs union known as the Zollveren in 1831 created economic order amongst these Germanic states (Henderson, 1933). This was further consolidated in 1871 with the creation of the German Empire under Otto von Bismarck. The economic power house that is Germany in Europe today is directly attributable to this exercise in economic integration. Such is the promise and power of regional economic integration.

In modern times, however, the reference point in regional economic integration is the European Union. It had begun its institutional evolution as a bi-national economic integration framework between France and Germany via the merger of their coal and steel ventures to herald the birth of the European Coal and Steel Company (ECSC) in 1951; this merger provided the seed that later sprout into European Economic Community (EEC) through the instrumentality of the Rome Treaty of 1958, and now, the European Union (EU) in 1992. Through a phased strategy of gradualism and periodic implementation of policies, the EU has risen to become one of the leading—if not the leading—regional integration organisations in the world. Buoyed by its virility and sustainable nature, it has rubbed off on regional organizations in the West; making Haggard (1996, p: 3) to postulate that ‘the most significant new regional institutional innovations for the world economy as a whole have undoubtedly been those in the Western hemisphere and Asia Pacific.’

Cradled since EEC, there have been plenteous frameworks to establish free trade area beginning from the US-Israeli free trade area in 1985; and US-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 1989. However, the first major multinational free trade area is the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) which was established in 1994 between the United State of America (USA), Canada and Mexico as founding members with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of well over $24.8 trillion. In 1994, Chile was invited to join NAFTA. In September 2018, the trilateral trading bloc transmuted into United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA); ratified in April 2020, and coming into effect on July 1, 2020, thus replacing NAFTA.

A combination of factors in the international political economy has made the idea of free trade area as important as an organizing principle of international trade and commerce. These reasons, as Haggard notes (1996, p: 6) are bundled in the ‘complex of events that is conveniently if sometimes inaccurately bundled together as ‘the end of the cold war’. Some of the reasons bundled up in this complex of events are the rise of new nations and their pursuit of varying foreign policies that reflect their economic visions; the collapse of Soviet Union; the rise of unipolarism in global political and strategic calculations; the geo-strategic decline of Europe in global politics; the limitations of multilateral economic diplomacy institutions such as General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), among others.

Given the importance of the free trade area in contemporary international economic relations, most regions and economic geographies of the world have come to embrace the idea as the most veritable framework for regional economic development and integration. And it is this understanding and economic philosophy that spurred the formation of AfCFTA. But lurking underneath the trade area concept is the indomitable agenda of economic integration. The theoretical space of economic integration is populated with a plethora of theoretical formulations such as classical, neo-classical, functionalism, institutionalism, common market, customs union, free trade area, preferential trade agreement, and, economic and political union.

We need not detain ourselves here explicating the theoretical properties of each theorem. It is, however, important to state that, from whatever lens of conceptualization one may view the idea, integration is a policy strategy of close-knitting economies that are geographically contiguous with shared historical, cultural, political, economic and social backgrounds. And in a similar measure, the enduring objective of the cooperation and integration may be based on these self-same political, cultural and economic factors (Nye, 1968). What passes as a region and upon whose root the whole idea of regional integration rests upon transmogrifies conceptually as a result of many factors as social change and historical factors occurs (Yamamoto, 1996).

Regional economic integration, according to Yamamoto (1996, p: 21) is conceptualized as ‘preferential economic cooperation among nations in a certain geographical area. For example, nations in a region can pursue joint endeavors to develop regional infrastructure, human resources, and economic development in general. Regional economic integration must include joint, reciprocal reduction (or elimination) of trade (and investment) barriers, and the fruits of the barrier reductions are shared only by the participating nations even though member states can develop various forms of cooperation other than barrier reductions.’

There have been many policy frameworks charted by the United Nations Organization (UNO) such as the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) for economic integration in Africa, It is ECA that advocated for the formation of sub-regional groupings such as Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS), 1975; West African Economic Community (CEAO), 1974; Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC), 1983; the Preferential Trade Authority for Eastern and Southern Africa (PTA), 1981; Maghreb Arab Union Federation, 1983; and, the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC), 1980; which in 1992 transitioned to Southern African Development Community (SADC). Before the formation of all these frameworks, there had existed the East African Community (EAC), by far the oldest and most advanced customs union on the African continent which collapsed in 1977.

Outside the establishment of these organizations, countless policies and programmes aimed at monetary, financial and agricultural and other sectoral integrations had been designed and implemented. As good as the aims and objectives informed the formation and establishment of these supranational frameworks of economic integration, these programmes and policies, it is sad commentary that nothing much has been achieved by African countries by way of integrating their economies and exploiting their comparative advantages and economies of scale. We have aforementioned some of the factors responsible for these failures and as such it is needless to recount. The benefits of economic integration are many and far outweigh its minuses. It is on account of this that notwithstanding the high mortality rate of supranational organizations and policies; African countries have continued to relentlessly trudge on.

The AfCFTA is the latest strategy of economic integration established by African countries. It has a continent-wide mandate and it is expected to come into full force in 2021. It is not freed of the challenges that had previously besotted economic integration policies and programmes in Africa. It is also envisaged that in the event of the challenges being surmounted there looms on the economic horizon a new dawn of cooperation and development. What are these challenges and prospects?

The Challenges and Prospects of AfCFTA

The AfCFTA when fully operational is envisage to be the single largest trading bloc in the world since the World Trade Organization (WTO) was founded in 1994; with up to 1.2 billion people and a collective Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $2 trillion. It is expected to liberalise ninety percent of products manufactured in Africa. By this, a country can only protect ninety percent of its local industries (Daily Sun, 2018; Anudu 2018). It is expected to boost economies of scale, exploit opportunities of production and manufacturing; support continental industrialization drives and reduce external dependence; boost intra-African trade by 52.3 % and eliminate import duties. Ultimately, it is hoped that it would crystallize into the formation of a continental customs union. The potentials and benefits of AfCFTA to Africa generally, and particularly, intra-African trade, economic cooperation and development have been well touted (Pine 2017; Anudu, 2018).

The prospects of economic integration via the instrumentality of AfCFTA are enormous and can hardly be exhaustively tabulated here. The gains are both tangible and intangible. In what follows hereunder, we will identify and discuss some of the prospects of AfCFTA; and in a similar vein, outline the challenges.

Prospects of AfCFTA

Elimination of Intra-African Trade Barriers: One of the major encumbrances to intra-African trade is the assortment of barriers that African countries have to plough through to engage themselves in trade and commerce. Some of these barriers are historical, social, nationalistic, political, cultural, and so on. On account of these reasons, intra-African trade which is currently at fifteen percent in comparison to the other regions of the world is the lowest; Europe is sixty seven percent; Asia fifty eight percent, and North America, forty eight percent (Mahmood, 2018). Writing on the poor character of intra-African trade, Ogun and Adenikinju (1992, p: 370) posits that:

… Africans trade least with each other. Not only was the African ratio of intra-regional trade to overall trade at 3.7 percent, the world’s lowest as at 1985, its coefficient of growth of intra-regional trade since 1960, at 3 percent, was similarly a world record low. Africa is not only the poorest developing region, it is the most foreign-trade dependent, especially on the markets of the advanced industrial countries, and it is also the least regionally integrated and the slowest growing in terms of mutual interdependence.

With the coming of AfCFTA on board, it is expected that a new chapter in intra-African trade will be opened. Rather than depend on external sources for trading, the agreement would open up new vistas of opportunities, eliminate trading barriers such as tariffs, quotas, import duties, custom duties, and so on; expand already existing arrangements and boost economic integration and expansion on the African continent. It is calculated that 7.2 percent would represent the amount of the tariff revenue removed.

Expansion of African Economies, Manufacturing and Consumption Base: By encouraging intra-African trade, the individual economies of African countries would expand significantly. This is so because, given the favourable investment climate and business opportunities, African economies would be vastly improved especially in terms of the exploitation of local raw materials and their processing into finish goods. And because there is ready availability of buyers it would ginger and encourage investors and producers to do more. And as the economy expands and grows in leaps and bounds, there would be the felt need to further expand the contours and horizons of the market especially through the elimination of barriers that may clog the wheel of economic integration thus making the market freer and more dependent on market forces. It is envisaged that the Agreement holds the potential of expanding the African economy and the ratio of intra-African trade to 52.3 percent.

Generally, the Agreement would expand the market on the continent. And for this reason, countries that were producing for small markets would have the opportunity of larger markets for their products. And as their share of the market increases so would be the need to expand their manufacturing base; and by so doing, products and services would be easily available at the disposal of the consumers. The large base of products would lead to the reduction of prices and boost consumption. In the event, the economies of African countries would be expanded and the shares of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in equal measure would grow exponentially. With AfCFTA, for instance, it is envisaged that by 2050, the African economy would reach $29 trillion.

Regional Integration and Specialization: One of the most envisaged benefits of the Agreement is the integration of African economies. This would wade off dependency and the economic manipulation of African countries by international economic and political forces which have arrested and crippled the continent’s search for economic, social, technological, industrial and political development. The benefits of integration can hardly be gainsaid. But it is apposite to state that with integration there would be economic revival on the continent which will lead to massive jobs, for both the skilled and unskilled, in the informal and formal sectors of the economy, thus increasing real wages.

African economies are largely agriculturally oriented; what this means is that agriculture as the mainstay of these economies would be given an added impetus through the creation of agriculture value-chains and this would crystallize into the expansion of the agricultural economy and the opening up opportunities for farmers and those engaged in agricultural production. Each country would focus on its area of comparative economic advantage and specialization thus opening up its economy the more. This would expand the total economic production base of African economies and attract foreign direct investments,

Challenges of AfCFTA

Danger of Extra-African Economic Agreements: majority of African countries are erstwhile colonial entities. And even though they are formally politically independent, they more often than not cling to the coat-tails of their former colonial overlords; deferring to them in many matters of national and continental interest. They have signed various kinds of trade and monetary frameworks of operations that may in all likelihood run contrary to the spirit and letters of the AfCFTA. There are about nine trade agreements in Africa (Alokan, 1992). In some cases, where such agreements may not be dependent on ties of colonialism, they are, nonetheless, externally dependent and in majority of cases with the developed industrialized countries of Europe and North America. A very good example is the case of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) which is a free trade deal proposed by the European Union (EU).

Morocco, for instance, has signed the EPA. What this entails is that Morocco may allow goods from Europe and rebrand these goods as hers and then inject it into the African market. This sort of arrangement contravenes the aims and objectives of setting up AfCTA. It was one of the bases that the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) advised against the government of Nigeria signing the Agreement. The President of MAN in voicing the dissent of the association stated that (Adejokun, 2018, p: 17):

Government should, as a matter of urgency, convene a special meeting of the relevant stakeholders, including experts on trade policy to consider tariff lines rate along the line of efficiency, sectoral and subsectoral performances that would be most beneficial to Nigerian businesses under the AfCFTA dispensation as well as reconsider the national position of EPA vis-à-vis the AfCFTA especially on tariffs lines of products on the sensitive/exclusion list, with a view to ensuring that the EU-EPA is not reintroduced through the AfCFTA backdoor. Review presentation and prepare a detailed submission for the government on ways and means of participating in the AfCFTA in a manner that our national interest and that of budding manufacturing sector are effectively protected.

Other than MAN, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), and a host of other continental organizations and businesses have raised eyebrows against the EPA and similar other extra-continental economic partnerships and agreements they view hold the promise of truncating the AfCFTA initiative. Indeed, the NLC (Daily Trust March 19, 2018, p: 5) calls AfCFTA a ‘dangerous and radioactive neoliberal policy initiative.’ It is, therefore, expected that the African leadership would treat these apprehensions with the deserved attention.

Non-Complementary Nature of African Economies: with the exception of few countries, majority of African economies are based on the export of primary commodities, minerals and agricultural products. In most cases, the economies are monocultural; and the goods produced by these countries lack overlap and interdependence (Aboyade, 1982). This reason fundamentally accounts for the non-integration of African economies and the low volume of intra-African trade. And what is more, African economies lack the requisite capital, skills, technical-know how, and technology to drive a modern economy. In fact, African economies are largely not founded on any solid industrial and technological infrastructure, thus, exposing them to the vagaries of international economic forces.

In order to get the much needed skills, capital, technology and technical know-how to boost their economies, African countries rely predominantly on the industrialized countries for these factors of production; and for economic, fiscal and monetary policy, oftenest seek recourse to multilateral international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) among many others. Reliance and partnership with these organizations have been at great risk to the health of African economies, a subject that is beyond the pale of this paper. But more importantly, hardly can the AfCFTA idea fly if the necessary infrastructure and foundation needed for trade is in a state of near absence as is the case at the moment. This lacuna must be critically and carefully addressed if the Agreement is to attain its lofty aims and objectives.

Poor Democratic Governance and Insecurity: As good as the idea of the agreement and the prospects it holds, nothing constricts its realization as poor democratic governance and insecurity. No meaningful trade and business can thrive in an environment characterized by poor governance, weak democratic institutions, poor regulatory institutions and policy inconsistency. For the most time, African countries are characterized by dictatorial and authoritarian regimes whose vision of governance is not premised on the rule of law but the whims and caprices of those in power. This environment of uncertainty and inconsistency of policies have been a veritable source of discouraging foreign direct investment and killing of local entrepreneurial engagements and initiatives.

An ancillary factor is the climate of insecurity in Africa. Many African countries are besotted with terrorism, banditry, inter-ethnic conflicts, kidnapping, assassinations and so many other forms of criminalities. These vices have been a major discourager of investment and entrepreneurship in Africa. It goes without saying that no worthy investment and business initiative can thrive in an environment of chaos and violence. In Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Libya, Mali, and many other countries, the government is fighting hard to contain insurgencies. This has shifted attention away from issues of social, political, cultural and economic development to issues of security. In such environment, it would be foolhardy to promote trade and investment.


The African Continental free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a noble economic policy. Its economic philosophy and vision for Africa is well conceptualized. It holds the promise of jacking up intra-African trade from its current lowest rating as compared to other regions of the world to an enviable status. What is more, it would integrate African economies, create job opportunities, and expand the production and manufacturing base of African economies. As promising as the Agreement is, African countries must not rest on their oars. This is so because past similar initiatives such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) founded in 1963 and transmuted into African Union (AU) in 2002; African Development Bank, 1964; the Lagos Plan of Action, 1980; African Economic Community (AEC), 1991; African Central Bank; African Common Currency; the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), 2001; at the sub-regional level, initiatives such as the Economic Community of West African (ECOWAS),1975; the East African Common Market (EACM), 1967; Arab Maghrebian Union (AMU), 1965; and the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC), 1980; Southern African Development Community (SADC), 1992 and so on, have suffered the fate of unrealized dreams.

These failures are due to a plethora of factors. The paper has identified the prospects and challenges of AfCFTA. It is envisaged that the stumbling blocks to the full realization of AfCFTA’s aims and objectives, which this paper identified to be: a) the negative impact and influence of extra-continental trade agreements, b) non-complimentary nature of African economies, and, d) poor democratic governance and insecurity would be rid off. In the event, the AfCFTA would pave wave for African economic integration, rejuvenation and development.


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