The African Continental Free Trade Area Could Boost African Agency in International Trade

The agreement, which entered into force in May, could be a major step for Africa’s role in international trade, if the continent can overcome barriers to implementation.

Expert comment Published 10 December 2019 Updated 13 October 2020 3 minute READ

Treasure Thembisile Maphanga

Director, Trade and Industry, African Union Commission (2012–19)

Delegates arrive at the closing ceremony of the African Union summit in Niger in July. Photo: Getty Images.

Delegates arrive at the closing ceremony of the African Union summit in Niger in July. Photo: Getty Images.

The entry into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) on 30 May, after only three years of negotiations, is an economic, political and diplomatic milestone for the African Union (AU) and its member states, crucial for economic growth, job creation, and making Africa a meaningful player in international trade. But the continent will have to work together to ensure that the potential benefits are fully realized.

A necessary innovation

With its advances in maintaining peace and security, abundant natural resources, high growth rates, improved linkages to global supply chains and a youthful population, Africa is emerging as a new global centre of economic growth, increasingly sought after as a partner by the world’s biggest economies. Governments from across Africa have been taking a more assertive role in international markets, including through proactive diversification of trading partners, and the continent remains a strong advocate for the multilateral trading system.

However, this is not yet reflected in outcomes. The African Union does not have observer status at the World Trade Organization, despite diplomatic efforts in the past decade. Africa has less than a three per cent share of global trade, and the growing trend towards protectionism across the global economy may only increase the vulnerability of a disunited Africa. Its fractured internal market means that trade within Africa is lower than for any other region on the globe, with intra-African trade just 18 per cent of overall exports, as compared to 70 per cent in Europe.

The AfCFTA is the continent’s tool to address the disparity between Africa’s growing economic significance and its peripheral place in the global trade system, to build a bridge between present fragmentation and future prosperity. It is an ambitious, comprehensive agreement covering trade in goods, services, investment, intellectual property rights and competition policy. It has been signed by all of Africa’s states with the exception of Eritrea.

It is the AU’s Agenda 2063 flagship project, brought about by the decisions taken at the January 2012 African Union Summit to boost intra-African trade and to fast track the establishment of the Continental Free Trade Area. It builds upon ambitions enshrined in successive agreements including the Lagos Plan of Action and the Abuja Treaty. Access to new regional markets and reduced non-tariff barriers are intended to help companies scale up, driving job creation and poverty reduction, as well as attracting inward investment to even Africa’s smaller economies.

The signing in 2018 of the instruments governing the Single Air Transport Market and the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment provided another step towards the gradual elimination of barriers to the movement of goods, services and people within the continent.

Tests to come

However, while progress is being made towards the ratification of the AfCFTA, much remains to be done before African countries can fully trade under its terms. The framework for implementation is still under development, and the creation of enabling infrastructure that is critical for connectivity will take time to develop and requires extensive investment.


So, the first test for the AfCFTA will be the level to which Africa’s leaders make it a domestic priority, and whether a consensus can be maintained across the AU’s member states as the costs of implementation become clear.

There is no guarantee that the gains of free trade will be evenly distributed. They will mainly depend on the extent to which countries embrace industrialization, liberalization of their markets and opening of their borders for free movement of goods and people – policies that some incumbent leaders may be reluctant to implement. Political will to maintain a unified negotiating position with diverse stakeholders, including the private sector, will come under increasing stress.

A second challenge is how the AfCFTA relates to already existing trade arrangements, notably with the EU. The AU has long preferred to pursue a continent-to-continent trading arrangement instead of the bilateral Economic Partnership Agreements being sought by the EU under the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) framework to which, with the exception of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa, all African states belong. The signing of the AfCFTA is one important step towards making this possible.

But there are currently negotiations under the ACP to replace the Cotonou Accord (the framework governing trade between ACP members and the EU, including Economic Partnership Agreements [EPAs], that is due to expire in 2020). Negotiations on the African pillar of the accord are due to take place after the AfCFTA has entered into force. So African states and the AU will face the challenge of balancing their commitment to the ACP bloc with pursuing their own interests.

And though the AfCFTA should supersede any other agreements, the EPAs or their successors, will continue to govern day-to-day trading, in parallel to the new pan-African market. It is not yet clear how these contradictions will be reconciled.

A new role for the AU?

The AU will need to play an active role as the main interlocutor with Africa´s international trading partners, with the AfCFTA secretariat being the arbiter of internal tensions and trade disputes. The AU´s engagement at continental level has to date revolved mainly around headline political diplomacy, security and peacekeeping. With the continental free market becoming a reality, an effective pivot to economic diplomacy will be critical for growth and development.

With the AfCFTA, the AU has endeavoured to address Africa’s unsustainable position in global trade, to stimulate growth, economic diversification and jobs for its growing population. Much will depend on the commitment of African leaders to maintaining a unified negotiating position to implement the agreement and the AU’s capacity to effectively move from political to economic diplomacy.

This article is part of a series on African agency in international affairs.