Africa indigenous knowledge (IK) about seafaring has it that in the event of the most unlikely worst development, the boat fails when approaching the harbour. This is how one can visualize the impact of COVID-19 pandemic effects that have blocked the start of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).
Rwanda’s capital Kigali in 2018 was the launch pad of the AfCFTA implementation originally scheduled to start from July 2020. As fate would have it, this is not going to happen. The curse goes to the novel Coronavirus. Lives have to come first.
So, come 1st July 2020, the AfCFTA story of the world’s biggest trade agreement pooling 1.3 billion people from Cairo to Cape Town and constituting the global last economic development frontier, will not read the same.
The COVID-19 script on the walls suggests sparking the worst recession in sub-Saharan Africa in 25 years – the otherwise strong African economies the likes of South Africa and the oil-rich countries of Nigeria, Angola, Algeria, Gabon and Namibia notwithstanding. The latest World Bank Africa’s Pulse update projects threatening decline in regional growth from a modest 2.4% in 2019 to between -2.1 and -5.1 per cent in 2020.
Fifty-six per cent of Africa’s population live in overcrowded urban slum dwellings, 71% of them informally employed and cannot fit in any global health COVID-19 response framework other than washing hands. Social distancing is not possible; nor can they work from home. In between, 40% of the children are undernourished and the continent remains an importer of medicine and pharmaceutical products.
Thirty-four out of 55 African Union Member countries belong to the Least Developed (LDCs) category and are impacted by high public debt. They are suppliers of raw materials and manufacturers of low-value products.
Intra-regional trade built on regional value chains to advance industrialization, improve infrastructure, and strengthen good governance and ethical leadership present themselves as the way out. But current African corridors — Mombasa-Nairobi; Addis Ababa to Egypt; Abidjan-Lagos handling more than two-thirds of West African trade — are impacted by poor ports, roads, railways, customs procedures, poor efficiency and roadblocks. Even the African Peer Review mechanism, which is good for the achievement of a free trade area agreement, has not been accessed fully.
It is against this background that Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) transport logistics and trade ministerial coordination committee sat in Abuja, Nigeria, in the third week of June, 2020 and recommended gradual re-opening of land, air and sea borders for restoring cross border economic activities, especially movement of humanitarian personnel medical supplies and equipment and essential goods in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic
Based on expert report on the harmonization and facilitation of cross border trade and transport in the region on the COVID-19 pandemic and related post-recovery actions, the ministers put forward a three-phase approach.
- Starting with local internal domestic air and land transport within ECOWAS member states.
- Opening land an air borders to allow movement of goods and persons on strict application of harmonization.
- Opening air and land borders to other countries with low and controllable levels of COVID-19 contamination rates according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Besides this, the meeting identified the importance of sharing accurate information guided by the spirit of solidarity, collective self-reliance and inter-state co-operation through bilateral and multilateral consultations. This is to be coupled with the need to ensure speedy and safer clearance of transit goods at borders and minimize contact in customs and cross-border trade transactions through the rapid deployment of ECOWAS interconnected goods and transit management system.
The ministers also called for provision of information to private sector actors—shipping lines, airlines cross-borders, transporters, media and civil society and considerations for easing public health and social measures including lockdown in the African Union.
Reading between the lines of their recommendations, one comes to a logical conclusion that for a delivering African exit from the impact of the Coronavirus, the scope of (co)operation must transcend the economic blocs currently making the continent fall victim to the elementary economics law of diminishing returns.
In responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa finds itself divided into the Africa of the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS); Africa of the East African Community (EAC); Africa of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), Africa of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Africa of the Great Lakes Region, Africa of… name it. On top of that, most countries belong to more than one bloc.
When taking a tally, not of John Hopkins COVID -19 confirmed cases, recoveries and deaths, but delivering responses, one fails to find any match of the African Union as “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.” Africa is Anglo, Franco or Portuguese in practice.
I still remember the days when in order to make a call to Lorenzo Marques (Maputo today) from Dar es Salaam, we had to go through London and Lisbon. Without Paris, Comoros, Madagascar and the Seychelles were not reachable. The same applied to travel.
At the height of the pandemic scourge, many African countries, among other things, prayed to God to save them from the novel Coronavirus infections leading to the COVID-19 disease. While undergoing through that process, they forgot another aspect. That is, to pray to Him for political will and commitment among their leaders. This cannot be generated in Arusha (EAC), Gaborone (COMESA), Lusaka (SADC) or Abuja (ECOWAS).
Addis Ababa (AU) is the site. That is the right place for shaping and sharing accurate African policy and information guided by the solidarity spirit, collective self-reliance and inter-state co-operation through bilateral and multilateral consultations. From the bloc secretariats, what is possible is every state pulling the string to itself in the style of the African drum makers. But from Addis, the story stands better chances of replicating the African experience of fire place stone movers who operate from the same side.
ECOWAS, COMESA, EAC and SADC ministerial committees can meet over COVID-19 and make resolutions. But in the present circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic response, Africa needs more political will and commitment from its leaders than ever before. It is this will which will decide how the related medicinal and pharmaceutical issues would be handled. (1064 words).