The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is an integration initiative embedded in Agenda 2063 of the African Union. The main objective of the AfCFTA is to create a single continental market for goods and services with free movement of people and investments, thus expanding intra-African trade across the continent, enhancing competitiveness, and supporting economic transformation in Africa.
However, it was launched on January 1st, 2021, when Africa was still having a surge in the pandemic. Therefore, AfCFTA begs whether intra-Africa integration is possible when the pandemic has drastically changed the socio-economic scape.
Before the pandemic, Africa had a promising economy as one of the fastest-growing economies globally. Unfortunately, Africa’s economy was one of the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, social unrest and insecurity escalated amid the lockdown. The framing of the AfCFTA is not equipped to handle the drastic economic retreat Africa has experienced in the past two years. Consequently, the world’s largest free trade area hangs in a delicate balance that needs appropriately handling.
AfCFTA’s cooperation with regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the East African Community (EAC) would go a long way to make its objectives viable. The AfCFTA is an ambitious project given that it aims to bring about intra-African trade within 54 countries. With many African economies still reeling from the effects of COVID-19, it would be catastrophic to attempt continental integration immediately.
In a post-pandemic Africa, the AfCFTA must be implemented in small economic blocs. Using this decentralization method would ensure that the objectives of the AfCFTA are met on a small scale and hence easing the creation of a single continental market. Collaboration with regional trade blocs would decentralize the integration process and create a comprehensive African market.
For the AfCFTA to be successful, it is requisite to focus on the unrestricted mobility of services. While the term trade encompasses goods and services, there is a singular focus on trade in goods. Already, there have been numerous shipments of products like alcohol and processed foodstuffs in the early implementation of the agreement. However, in post-COVID-19 recovery, there is a need to emphasize the trade of services like education and healthcare to cope with the effects of COVID-19. The pandemic brought about a breakdown of health services and the closure of educational institutions in many countries. To fully recover, the AfCFTA must put the exchange of services at the forefront of its agenda.
Furthermore, the easing of visa restrictions among member states would also bring about the actualization of the goals of the AfCFTA in a post-pandemic Africa. As a result of COVID-19, several countries instituted travel bans to limit the spread of the virus. In post-pandemic, visa restrictions are a substantial non-tariff barrier to be eliminated. Currently, many African economies are only partially open with stringent vaccination requirements and quarantine. Undoubtedly the framers of the agreement in 2018 didn’t consider the hurdles that would later crop up. The AfCFTA has to walk the delicate line of ensuring the free movement of people and services.
The AfCFTA is an exceptional opportunity to drive economic development post-COVID-19. Although there is a divide between promulgation and implementation, Africa can still increase intra-trade. Adaptability is mandatory if the AfCFTA is viable in a post-pandemic Africa.
Preta Peace Namasaba is a writing fellow at the African Liberty