Rwanda hosted over 700 experts from Africa and the world at the annual African Economic Conference (AEC) held in Kigali to discuss ways to fast-track African infrastructure integration and the removal of barriers for free movement of people, goods and services across borders.
Focused on the theme, “Regional and Continental Integration for Africa’s Development”, the Conference held from December 3 to 5 shed light on the African Continental Free Trade (AfCFTA) agreement signed by 44 African countries but which only 12 out of the required 22 countries have ratified ahead of the March 2019 deadline.
While many policymakers say there is enough time to move the integration process for the continent, Rwanda believes it should be speedily achieved to place the continent at the level it ought to be as stipulated in the agenda 2063.
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“Africa’s integration is no longer a choice. It’s a must for the continent and its people. To become a global player that it deserves to be, Africa should integrate speedily,” said the Rwandan Minister of State in Charge of Finance and Economic Planning, Claudine Uwera.
According to local Rwandan media The New Times, Uwera told participants that the need for integration goes beyond the economic view and it touches all sectors of life.
“I believe we are at the right time where the expressed political will and leadership exist. We should take advantage of this to implement faster and in the adequate way, our continent’s integration,” she added.
For the UNDP Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for Africa, Ahunna Eziakonwa, integration comes with a potential cost and it shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Africa must not shy away from addressing the potential costs of integration. Regional and continental integration is not without costs. One of them is trade diversion, which displaces low-cost products from non-members by higher cost products from the integrating countries,” she explained.
She added that if integration is inclusive, equitable and sustained, “it will not only lift people from poverty, it will also keep people out of poverty.”
Other participants rooted for the ratification of the AfCFTA which will boost intra-African trade as import duties and double trade will be eliminated and Africa will be the largest free-trade area in the world.
If implemented, the AfCFTA will bring together the 1.2 billion African population which will have a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $2 trillion and the commitments of the countries to remove tariffs on 90 per cent of goods with 10 per cent of “sensitive items” to be phased in later.
Intra-Africa trade which currently stands at 15% will increase to 52.3% compared to 54% in the North America Free Trade Area, 70% within the European Union and 60% in Asia.
The Africa Visa Openness Index 2018 published by the African Development Bank and the Africa Union Commission was also discussed with Benin making the most progress in opening up its borders to African travellers in 2018.
Benin is the second country on the continent after Seychelles to offer visa-free access to all African countries and the first Francophone country to do so.
Visa-free travel for Africans in Africa is scheduled to start by the end of 2018 but only 22 per cent of African countries have taken that step to open up their borders to other Africans.
Ghana, Rwanda, Namibia, Mauritius, Benin and Kenya have all loosened travel restrictions for other African nationals. Following an announcement by South Africa last month that it was relaxing its travel rules to revive its economy, Ethiopia followed suit, rolling out a visa-on-arrival regime for all Africans entering the country.
The latest country to announce the visa-on-arrival policy for Africans is Botswana which started offering tourists visas on arrival from November 24, 2018, to boost its tourism and other sectors of the economy.
Efforts at integrating the continent started over 50 years ago since the formation of the Organization of African Unity and subsequently the African Union reflecting a compromise between the Monrovia and the Casablanca groups espousing different ways to Africa’s unity in the 1960s.
The African Economic Conference is jointly organized by the African Development Bank, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).