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Tough continental deals make 2020 a year for the optimists

Patrick Smith
By Patrick Smith
Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report.

Posted on Monday, 3 February 2020 12:35

Nigeria's land border with Benin at Seme in July 2019 /Afolabi Sotunde

It should be a vintage year for the resolutely hopeful. Two gargantuan ambitions are hitting deadlines in 2020. And already, sceptics are sharpening their pencils, checking the spelling of ‘quixotic’.

In July, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement goes into operation. And in January, African Union (AU) leaders met to track progress on the Silencing the Guns by 2020 campaign, a bid to crack down on the small-arms trade fuelling conflicts.

On both projects, much of the heavy lifting was done in Addis Ababa.

The UN’s Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) worked closely with the AU and the AfDB on the trade treaty’s planning and drafting. Apart from it being the world’s biggest free-trade treaty in terms of the populations it covers, it was among the fastest and most intricate set of negotiations, taking just over three years.

Yet conditions could not be more ill- starred.

Nationalism, protectionism and populism are thriving on the international stage, with some echoes in Africa. The World Trade Organisation, which should play a key support role, is being marginalised by the US and other big economies.

If prospects for the trade treaty are tough, how much more so for the anti-arms trade campaign with wars raging in Libya, the Sahel, the Horn and beyond?

Again, the experts are convening in Addis: Algeria’s veteran diplomat Ramtane Lamamra is running a team out of the office of AU Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat.

In fact, the two projects are tightly linked. Even moderate success on the trade treaty would strengthen economies and regional cooperation.

UNECA predicts that within two years of the treaty’s take-off, Africa’s GDP would have grown by $35bn, with local producers replacing some $10bn of goods currently imported from outside the continent.

Can that happen when Africa’s second-biggest economy, Nigeria, has shut its land borders to protect its local producers against smuggling? In fact, the treaty, with its stronger monitoring systems, could support Nigeria’s bid to block Thai or Vietnamese rice relabelled as local produce.

Nigeria is losing billions from contraband imports and illegal exports of its subsidised fuel. Its diplomats are now working with neighbouring states to step up cooperation over these high-stakes problems.

Up close and broken down into their component parts, these mega-projects for 2020 are less utopian than they look. They could achieve incremental gains at a time the region’s politics and governance are changing in unexpected ways.

The drive for democratisation and account-ability is picking up, inspired by the stellar victories of citizen campaigners in Algeria and Sudan. They have become international models of how mass non-violent protest can change politics.

But they are far from one-offs. Over the past two decades, 25 non-violent mass movements have started in Africa according to a recent study in Foreign Affairs magazine.

That compares with just 16 in Asia,the second-most active region for mass protest. And those movements, buoyed by youthful demographics and digital media, are picking up momentum and covering all the angles. Politics and economics are more closely tied than ever in Africa.

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