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The Midpoint Paper Series N° 1/2020 October 2020 - Covid-19 and AfCFTA: How Africa can help itself

by Ronak Gopaldas

Africa’s most ambitious integration project, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is nearing its commercial phase.

Delayed, but not thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic, an enormous joint effort between the African Union (AU), the AfCFTA Secretariat and deal signatories is underway in a final push to realise continental free trade at the start of 2021. This paper examines the new challenges that the coronavirus presents Africa’s integration and how they need to be overcome, as well as the opportunities that may arise from broader global developments currently at play, namely, through these seven themes: 1. COVID-19’s impact on Africa’s integration agenda 2. Business unusual: AfCFTA’s outstanding matters and revised timelines 3. Can Africa benefit from the shift away from globalisation, towards localisation? 4. Avoiding the pitfalls of integration: Lessons from the past 5. The role of non-governmental players 6. The winners and losers 7. What to watch: Momentum, ratification and implementation Bringing together negotiators from 54 African countries, translating text and dialogue into one of the AU’s four official languages and coordinating meetings across six time zones was always going to be a mammoth task. Any hiccup would threaten a launch schedule that had very little margin for error.

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The coronavirus was a catalyst for the convergence of several severe economic shocks, each with the potential to derail AfCFTA negotiations and implementation. The sheer scale and reach of the fallout from the virus meant that all available human and financial resources had to be redirected to heading off the growing crisis at a critical juncture in AfCFTA’s finalisation. Not only would forging ahead with the original launch timeline have been insensitive, but it would have been impossible (1). There were only two options left to policymakers: push out the launch date by a few months in the hope that the effects of the pandemic subside quickly or delay it indefinitely at the risk of losing valuable momentum.

In the end, a new and similarly ambitious launch date has been set. COVID-19 has not deterred the continent’s integration project, but the pandemic has brought with it extensive challenges and necessitated wholesale process and timeline changes. Complicating matters, the AfCFTA must also find its place in a world that is a great deal more socially and politically fractured than when the initial free trade discussion started. That said, Africa has an opportunity to exploit growing global fissures, both by learning from what did and did not work from past international trade deals as well as leveraging its natural endowments. Framed as an African solution to African problems, however, does not mean that the continent can or should go it alone. Capitalising on the current state of play will require broad-based buy-in and support, not just from signatories, but from donor countries, the continent’s private sector and citizens of Africa. As ambitious and aspirational as AfCFTA is, there are many challenges ahead that could sabotage its realisation. The only real remaining question is whether sufficient political will and momentum can be sustained against mounting odds.

Key takeaways: 

  • African free trade is all the more urgent now to aid the continent’s COVID-19 recovery.  
  • Aggressive implementation timeframes raise the risk of waning political support. 
  •  In the broader global context, however, AfCFTA has the potential to be a game-changer.
  • To succeed, donors, the private sector and citizenry must buy into its benefits. 
  • These benefits must be broadly distributed for longer-term growth and sustainability.

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Henning Suhr

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Head of the Department International Dialogue Programs +49 30 26996-1013
+27 (11)214 2900-201


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