Apparently unknown to the initiators and protagonists of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), one of the greatest threats to that fledgling economic initiative is the depth and dimensions or ramifications of entrenched xenophobia within the continent. This is a bizarre situation in which citizens of certain African countries hate and (physically) attack fellow Africans (from other countries) residing in their domains.
Even with the pomp that has marked the founding of the continental body that is expected to facilitate the broadening and deepening of intra-African trade, the fundamental issue of “free movement of persons” among the member-countries is yet unresolved.
Authors of the AfCFTA believe it has created an opportunity for a US$3.5 trillion “borderless market” of about 1.3 billion people, not minding the antagonistic and ‘colonialism-induced’ internecine hatred among the African peoples; a status quo that has been entrenched and sustained till date. But it is pertinent to explore some of the ideals that form the substratum of the continental body that effectively came into existence in January 2021 when 54 out of the 55 African countries signed their consent instruments. (Only Eritrea is yet to belong,)
Part of the lofty ideals is vividly captured in the ‘Economic Development in Africa Report 2021’ published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Titled, ‘Reaping the Potential Benefits of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) for Inclusive Growth’, the Report says: “The design of the Agreement establishing the AfCFTA reflects an explicit commitment to create a framework for deeper socioeconomic integration and improved cooperation that enables trade, investment and the mobility of people, to support industrialisation and the development of a dynamic services sector.”
As of December 2021, Rebeca Grynspan, the Secretary-General of UNCTAD said “intra-African trade is currently low at 14.4 per cent of total African exports. UNCTAD estimates that the AfCFTA could boost intra-African trade by about 33 percent and cut the continent’s trade deficit by 51 per cent.” But confronting these great expectations are mammoth obstacles, including existing tariffs and non-tariff hurdles that are yet to be dismantled by many of the member-countries.
However, by far, the most potent of the ‘barriers’ to the attainment of the otherwise noble goals of the AfCFTA is the ‘human factor’; and which is why till date, the basic objective of “mobility of people” within the continent is yet to be achieved. Indeed, more than ever before, primordial centrifugal forces tugging at the unity of the continent have been at play. Member-countries are rather coming up with more ‘protectionist’ and ‘nationalistic’ policies that tend to stand as counterpoise to the intendments of the continental body.
Although AfCFTA took off officially with its headquarters in Accra, Ghana, about 21 months ago, cleavages, allegiances and alliances amongst African countries along colonial lines tend to be getting stronger. In West Africa, for instance, it is still fashionable to strengthen bilateral relations along ‘Anglophone’ or ‘Francophone’ lines than any other socioeconomic consideration. This, more than anything else, has stood against the cohesiveness and attainment of the core economic objectives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—a body that was founded some 47 years ago.
It was this primordial divisive tendency that ‘boiled over’ in 2020, when Anglophone ECOWAS members, led by their ‘Colonial Master’—France—‘conspired’ to ‘highjack’ the ‘Eco’—the common currency of the sub-region that has been in the making for about three decades. Obviously, the French President, Emmanuel Macron-led ‘currency union’ initiative was to tie these (Francophone) countries more closely to France than to their African (or West African) neighbours.
Taking ECOWAS as a microcosm of the African continent, the ‘umbilical attachment’ of AfCFTA-member countries in other sub-regional groups is consistently pulling them to their former ‘Colonial Masters’. Whether in the Southern Africa, East Africa or North African groups, their member-countries (in their socioeconomic dealings) lean more towards their ‘ex-colonisers’ than the new reality of economic union of the African continent. The deteriorating economic conditions of these African countries, especially with the onset of the global pandemic (Covid-19) in 2020, have practically forced them to get tightly tied to the apron strings of their ex-colonial overlords. The Coronavirus pandemic in the past couple of years had further impoverished most already poor African countries, who now literally live on the crumbs from their colonial overlords.
When the pandemic really became a palpable threat to the human race, the developed economies commenced producing vaccines only for their citizens. Some of the rich countries placed embargo on the export of such vaccines to Africa. It was only after a lot of clamour by many humanitarian and human rights organizations that some packs of the vaccines (some, inferior or fake) were allowed to trickle down to African countries.
It must be recalled that in 2018, African Heads of State adopted the protocol relating to the free movement of persons, right of residence, and right of establishment to enable Africans to freely move and work within Africa. Five years down the line, this protocol is observed more in breach: there is neither free movement of persons nor right of residence. Xenophobic attacks on citizens of Africa in African countries are, more than ever before, on the increase.
Citizens of the ‘Giant of Africa’, Nigeria, seem to be the worst victims—whether in South Africa, Ghana, Libya or Sudan, Nigerians and their livelihoods are serially being attacked. Hardly any week passes without an alert or alarm calling the attention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and/or the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) to the threat or actual attack on Nigerians in some African countries.
Set up by an Act of the National Assembly in 2017, NIDCOM provides for the engagement of Nigerians in Diaspora in policies, projects and participation in the development of Nigeria and for the purpose of utilizing the human capital and material resources of Nigerians in Diaspora towards the overall socioeconomic, cultural and political development of Nigeria and related matters.
Even with these noble intendments of the NIDCOM Act, the agency has since become more visible in efforts at quelling xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in various African countries than in ‘harnessing Diaspora resources.’ Executive Chairman, NIDCOM, Mrs Dabiri Erewa has practically been in the ‘war front’ fighting to arrange safe passage for Nigerians usually ‘trapped’ in xenophobic attacks in many African countries.
News reports about these attacks or threats of attacks (in South Africa, Libya, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroun, etc.) on Nigerians have since become a common feature. In April 2022, a newspaper headline said: ‘Nigerian community in S/Africa decries attacks on foreign nationals by locals.’ Quoting the President, Nigerian Citizens Association in South Africa (NICASA), Mr Benjamin Okoli, the report decried attacks on foreign nationals by locals in South Africa. Yet, in another report on August 29, 2022: ‘Xenophobia: FG alerts Nigerians of planned attacks in South Africa,’ the ugly scenario played out again.
These reported attacks are worrisomely replicated in many other African countries almost on a daily basis—thus, making the “free movement of persons” and rights to residence/work “anywhere on the continent” a mere fantasy. This boldly questions the very foundation of AfCFTA and other African Union (AU) agencies. Can AfCFTA really stand with ‘Africa warring against itself?’ Time shall tell!
•Okeke is an economist, sustainability expert and business strategy consultant.