Intra-African trade: The myth and reality

African leaders have for the past 10 years been singing a non-stop chorus of improving trade within the continent in what has been popularized as intra- Africa trade. 

In fact, modern-day African leaders believe their never-ending song of trading within will push the continent to achieving the goal of a United States of Africa, or the goal which Kwame Nkrumah had to see the whole of Africa not only politically-independent, but also economically-emancipated. 

The better part of those who believe in this doctrine think the foundation laid down by the founding fathers of the continent, including Sam Nujoma, Julius Nyerere, Thomas Sankara and Muamar Gadhafi, will come closer to reality. 

The belief is that there is a need to open up the borders of African countries to allow for the free movement of goods and services. Proponents of this are convinced that trade enhancement amongst African countries will see the continent working closely together without recurrent differences. 

Others also believe that close relations among African countries will counter First- World dominance, and give Africans an opportunity to measure their products according to market value, instead of the current scenario where the powerful Western buyer dictates against market forces. 

A thorough reality check shows that the idea of intra- African trade is noble and can be driven in a manner beneficial to all, but the challenge though is what exactly African countries will trade amongst themselves. 

This has been the question which has been raised that while other African countries are abundantly blessed with raw materials which most of them have, it is impractical to drive trade on unprocessed raw materials on the continent because the manufacturing industries have failed to take off.

Africa’s growth continued to increase, rising from 3.7 per cent in 2013 to 3.9 per cent in 2014. 

This performance was underpinned by improved macro-economic management as well as diversified trade and investment ties with emerging economies, amongst other factors. 

Africa’s social development indicators reveal the weakness of the observed economic performance: high unemployment and poverty co-existing with robust but related challenges facing the continent are to be turned to maintain strong economic growth, and to transform it to productivity-induced sustainable, inclusive, employment-generating, poverty-reducing and environmentally-friendly growth. 

These are the sad realities which the continent faces on a daily basis, and it needs to be countered. 

One would suggest that if Africans are to drive a robust trade platform, they need to have a clear policy on industrialization. 

Africans need to create an inter-dependence chain which will see African products going through a value-addition process on the continent, and then only being sold from the motherland as finished products. 

No doubt, Africa’s industrialization should take advantage of its abundant and diverse resources, including agricultural and mineral resources. 

There is also no doubt that if Africa is to have a good trade network, there is a need for heavy investments in infrastructure as some parts of the continent are indeed not accessible. 

While countries like Namibia and South Africa pride themselves in having some of the best road facilities, it is not a secret that the better part of the continent is ravaged by war, and it’s difficult to transport either goods or services. 

There is also that reluctance by African countries to recognize each other as brothers and sisters. 

One wonders how a noble idea of trading within can thus be executed if Africans still have xenophobic tendencies against each other, and would rather embrace that rare American or European tourist than to understand the difficulties and hustles that a fellow African goes through to make a living. 

Recently, two Namibians were killed at the river which Namibia and Botswana share, which proves that not all Africans deem each other as brothers. 

One other particular barrier in the way of Africa to achieving common ground is the pace at which each Member State has developed, for instance South Africa is the most-developed State within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, while countries like Malawi are amongst the poorest within the region. 

In order for common ground to be found, individual Member States need to deal with their own national interests as well as focus on local development before it is spread to the rest of the region. 

The high transport costs in the region pose another barrier for free trade and for African states to achieve common ground. 

If this is dealt with at national level, it can be sieved through to the rest of the region, and common ground within the region will thus be made plausible. 

Nonetheless, Africa should be applauded for having achieved over 80% of a free trade area within the region, making the flow of goods within some SADC states free. Soon, the countries may boast about a 100% free trade area. 

If all Africans showed some form of commitment to the cause, the free trade area would have been achieved as early as 2003 when the region gave birth to the Regional Integration process, which was set to align the whole region. 

There are a number of African projects which have delayed progress within the region because countries do not share similar ideologies, while others take longer to buy into the idea. 

Particularly the region’s one-stop border post is still in the pipeline but once completed, the region will be able to trade freely without barriers. 

But just like all other policies, implementation has taken a tad too long. The slow pace may be attributed to the fact that not all African members endorsed the idea initially. 

Until all Africans unite and embrace the spirit of Ubuntu, inter-African trade will take longer than expected, and countries will miss deadlines set for implementation.