The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AcFTA) came into effect on 1st January. This is the largest free trade agreement in the world, covering 1.2 billion people and with a market size of almost $3 trillion. Its promoters have described it as what Africa needs.
Before now, just 18% of all trade done by African countries was between themselves. The AcFTA, as we are told, will address this, with the added promise that it will lead to more jobs; food security; better prices, with a wide variety of goods and services; and Africa’s economic independence.
How true are these claims? Will the poor working masses across Africa, in both the formal sector and informal economy, actually benefit from this continental free market arrangement?
Proponents of the AcFTA argue that it will encourage economic growth, due to increased foreign direct investment. Small and medium-size enterprises (SME) will also benefit immensely from the free trade across borders and thus lift millions of working people in the informal economy (where more than 80% of the continent’s labour force work) out of poverty.
As socialists and revolutionary pan-Africanists, we are against all borders. But the question is on what basis and how? Instructively, the borders will now be open for commodities (i.e., goods and services), not poor people who will still need visas when going outside their sub-regions. And quite importantly, where will the non-agricultural and primary goods to be sold within the free trade come from?
Manufacturing accounts for just about 10% of the African GDP. With the abysmally under-industrialised state of the continent, these goods will come from imperialist and newly industrialised countries (NICs) which will now benefit from removal of tariffs across countries to flood the continent with imported goods.
The assertion that SMEs will benefit is also baseless. The imported goods will be cheaper due to the larger scale of production advantage that industrialised countries have. We have seen the textile industry in Nigeria collapse due to cheap imports, mainly from China.
This was why NLC initially kicked against Nigeria’s ratification of the agreement in 2018, describing it as a “renewed, extremely dangerous and radioactive neoliberal policy initiative”. The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) was also hesitant. It wanted issues related to who will have access to the African market cleared first and rules of origin enforcement guaranteed before committing to the AcFTA.
We can see from this that MAN and the bosses’ class in Nigeria at large are not averse to the neoliberal (i.e., anti-poor people) heart of the agreement. What they wanted was to make sure that they would not be outsmarted, or at least not too much outsmarted by the imperialist bosses in raking in the profits that would be generated from the free trade.
There will definitely be some beneficiaries from further liberalisation of the African market, just as there is likely to be growth. But these are the bosses, particularly those in a few countries. And the bosses in these countries along with their countries’ governments which represent their interest are positioning themselves for sub-imperialist pickings.
Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt alone account for over 50% of the continent’s cumulative GDP. Not surprisingly they also have much more billionaires and millionaires than all the other countries. Even before the AfCTA, these are the countries whose bosses’ corporations are making profits in other African countries. Egypt has North Africa as its catchment area. The most industrialised of them being South Africa has its imprint more firmly entrenched with companies like MultiChoice/DSTV and MTN being everywhere you go. And Aliko Dangote’s conglomerate stretches its hands through cement and pasta across the different regions.
There will be economic growth for sure. But global capital and the local African billionaires and multimillionaires will be the ones that will harvest the fruits of such growth. Indeed, despite the crisis that Africa has been embroiled in for decades, the problem has not been one of lack of resources.
Africa is a very rich continent with exceedingly poor people. In terms of natural and mineral resources, it is the richest continent in the world. But in terms of social development, it occupies the back seat, while the few rich live better than even most people in the advanced capitalist countries. These natural resources which have been pillaged through centuries of imperialist plunder will be further exploited, and with abandon, by the capitalists under the free market mantra of the AfCTA.
The problem has equally not been so much one of lack of economic growth. The 21st century has been described as one of “Africa Rising”. It has witnessed the fastest economic growth in the world. Between 2005 and 2015, the continent’s economy expanded by 50% while the world average was just 23%.
But did the poor masses benefit from this growth? The answer is clear to you and I. We never did. The beneficiaries are the same people who stand to benefit from the neoliberal arrangement of the AfCTA.
It is however not enough to simply dismiss the AfCTA. What alternatives can we pursue? There are those who would argue that all what we need is a return of the developmental state, the sort that helped to build some level of physical infrastructure and improve on provision of social services in the first two decades of independence.
But this is a short-sighted and one-sided view of history. The emergence of the developmental state model was not simply a matter of the will of the continent’s ruling elites at the early post-colonial period. It was an integral element of the post-World War II order which included the establishment of the welfare state in advanced capitalist countries.
It will be almost impossible to generalise the so-called “democratic developmental state” in Africa, within the dynamics of neoliberal globalisation. And the AfCTA is a neoliberal project of this global order.
Is the challenge for us to simply challenge and attempt to roll back neoliberalism globally and particularly so in Africa? On the face of it, that could seem reasonable. The more visionary Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa, 1980-2000 never took off because it was swallowed up by the global turn to neoliberalism at the time it was born. In its place came the structural adjustment programme as the welfare state was equally been rolled back in Europe.
But perspectives which stop at anti-neoliberal agendas will end up as nothing but mirages. Our aim as activists must not simply be anti-neoliberalist, it has to be anti-capitalist. The development of Africa which will entail the social, economic and cultural emancipation of its peoples cannot be achieved on the basis of capitalism.
The era of developmentalism in Africa and the welfare state in Europe was not borne out of the benevolence of the imperialist overlords. It was conceded out of fear, fear of socialist revolution. The working masses in Europe rose in the wake of the Great Depression and the World Wars to demand much more than mere reforms.
They wanted to overturn the capitalist system. They organised mass strikes, including sit-in occupations of workplaces and mammoth demonstrations on the streets. The poor masses in Africa and other colonised parts of the world also raised hell for the imperialist with national liberation struggles. It was within this context that that era was won as a compromise, a distinct period in history.
The AfCTA means further pauperisation for the poor working people in Africa just as the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) meant for the poor people in the Americas and other free trade agreements across the world have brought misery and poverty to all but the rich few in these countries.
We must stand against the free-market ideology and practice. We must demand a united Africa of the people in solidarity with the poor working masses of other parts of the world. We must demand the re-writing of the rules.
This has to be part of a broader strategy, the strategy which informs our demands – the strategy for upturning the capitalist system which thrives on liberalisation of trade and production for the expansion of the wealth of a few.
Against the rallying cry for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and false claims of its benefits for us, we must put forward a stand for an African working people’s socialist federation as part of a new global socialist order.
As the bosses commence implementing this pro-rich people agreement, trade unions, radical civil society organisations and revolutionary organisations must challenge the anti-working people contents of the agreement. And we must go self-limiting critique to formulating the programmatic basis of an alternative future which we will implement by us, working-class people, for us.
Another Africa is possible, another world is possible. It will be won only through our ceaseless struggle, and not through capitalism and its free-trade ideology.
by Yusuf LAWAL