The newly signed Tripartite Free Trade agreement bears great opportunities, especially in the areas of information technology, agriculture, social and intellectual capital. However, as with previous and future agreements its success depends highly on political will and stability in the countries involved.
It is official—Africa now has the largest trading block just launched on 10 June 2015 in Egypt with the signing of the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA). This free trade area is comprised of 26 countries of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), East African Community (EAC) and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). The TFTA has an estimated 600 million people that will fuel business in this massive regional block—the largest on the African continent. This is an exciting development. There has been a lot of negative publicity on the African continent: Boko Haram, Al Shabab, war in South Sudan, protests and violence in Burundi, and refugees from Africa drowning at the coasts of North Africa. With this TFTA in place and waiting to be operationalized, nobody should still doubt that Africa is rising.
But what should we expect from this regional integration architecture? What needs to be done right for Africa to benefit from this development? Africa has had similar exciting developments in the past only to turn into white elephant projects: OAU; Lagos Plan of Action; and NEPAD. Afro-pessimists might be saying in whispers: “We have had similar grand visions before.” TFTA, it seems to me, is different a ball game and might turn Africa’s fortunes around if right steps are taken. I will suggest some new areas that need to be explored for Africa to maximize gains from a free trade area of this great magnitude.
INFRASTRUCTURE: FROM CAPE TO CAIRO ONCE AGAIN
Cecil Rhodes who had a dream of connecting Cape to Cairo with his imperial ambition had a point. The regions of Southern, Eastern and Northern Africa are home to the longest and largest rivers on the continent: Limpopo, Zambezi, Nile, and Congo. Moreover, there are numerous lakes, that make the region have great potential for water transport and hydro-electric power stations. If you have transport and electricity, then you have the basic ingredients for industrialization.
The other related infrastructure is road network from Cape to Cairo. There is the famous Great North Road that connects the Southern Africa region to Eastern and Northern Africa. If this road system is supplemented by air travel - given that the region has the best airlines with Kenya Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airlines - there is no reason why this free trade area cannot enjoy unprecedented economic boom. Jobs and markets will be in abundance.
But infrastructure these days is not limited to transport and electricity, it includes ICT—mobile and internet connectivity. Fiber optic cables are already installed in some countries of Eastern, Southern and Northern Africa. Internet access is improving rapidly. With ICT infrastructure e-learning, e-commerce and e-governance are possible. The region is also home to great ICT innovations such as M-pesa in Kenya, apps to light school bags with solar power that enable school kids to study at night, a device to drive away lions from cattle at night, mobile apps to inform rural farmers of prices of food items, etc. E-medicine is also beginning. A surgeon can easily carry out an operation at Nairobi Hospital while on a computer screen in Kampala or in Mumbai. Unfortunately, some rather conservative folks are hesitant to embrace new technologies especially in e-learning. While some suffer informania (excessive preoccupation with ICT with its fascinating gadgets), others suffer from technophobia (excessive and irrational fear of ICT with its exciting gadgets). Both extremes can be avoided. With free trade, these innovations will find their way in some of the less innovative and conservative countries in the region.
ICT has also enabled online media outlets that make news accessible and affordable. Social media is on rise and political campaigns and business deals are handled through twitter, facebook, Youtube, whatsapp, etc. How are mobile phones changing people’s fortunes across the African continent? Research indicates that sub-Saharan Africa is home to the fastest growing mobile region in the entire world during the last five years. As mobile services become increasingly more accessible and poorer people can afford them, mobile subscribers are likely to hit more than half-billion. Figures showing the mobile phones revolution in sub-Saharan Africa are staggering :
- $84 billion mobile industry is projected to invest in capital expenditure between 2015-2020
- 2.5 million people worked directly in the mobile ecosystem in 2013
- 5.4% of sub-Saharan Africa’s overall GPD was contributed by the mobile industry in 2013 and it is projected to reach 6.2% in 2020
- 40% of the region’s population has mobile subscription
For these exciting developments to be evenly spread in the region, respective governments need to put in place enabling legislation and policies that liberalize the airwaves and telecommunications industry. But this begs the crucial question whether one can liberalize airwaves and telecommunications, and the whole ICT infrastructure without at the same time opening political and economic space.
South Africa has the top 10 universities in Africa. The Eastern Africa region has an upsurge of universities with some countries such as Kenya and Uganda having over 40 universities each. Some of these universities are faith-based such as the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Uganda Martyrs University, St. Augustine’s University (in Tanzania) and many more. There is a great deal of human capital trained in these numerous universities which, if visa restrictions were not an obstacle, would turn the region into an intellectual hub of Africa. There are some countries that lack skilled workforce such as Rwanda who have benefitted from the highly trained personnel within the region. Others might be still protecting their few jobs instead of opening up to boost their economy.
For this intellectual capital to be put to maximum use, educational policies in the region will have to be harmonized. Students and teachers should be able to move freely in the region, and educational standards should be harmonized to reduce bureaucracy related with academic papers verification. Talk of regional integration usually focuses more on commodities and goods, but equal attention needs to be paid to intellectual property or intellectual capital. We live in a knowledge-based economy and yet little attention is paid to knowledge production.
SOCIAL CAPITAL AND TOURISM
Eastern, Southern and Northern Africa is a region teaming with diverse cultures, religions and tourist attractions. Rather than being a source of tensions and conflicts, these diverse cultures and religions can be a source of wealth, if they are connected to tourism. Cultural and sacred tourism are areas yet to be explored in other parts of Africa as it has been done in Ethiopia. In some countries where tourism has been given serious attention such as Kenya, the sector brings in a lot of income for the country. This is an area where this region has a comparative advantage: mountains, rivers, lakes, wild life, rare plant and bird species, etc.
This is Africa’s most neglected sector and yet it employs more than 70% of the population on the continent. Food security is still a pipe dream and yet the Southern and Eastern Africa region has excellent climate and rich soils, that with some extra irrigation and enhanced soil fertility, the region would be a bread basket for the whole continent and have surplus for export. African governments have not given sufficient funding for agricultural innovation.
CONCLUSION: WHAT ELSE IS NEEDED?
All these good ideas of infrastructure, intellectual capital, social capital, tourism, agricultural innovation will not bring about sustainable development in the TFTA, if they are not accompanied by good governance and peace. Opening borders to regional trade requires a minimum of democratic values, free press, freedoms of association and assembly and rule of law. Why would someone invest in a country that is prone to armed conflict?
The African continent is currently embroiled in a debate on “third termism.” One wonders whether those clamoring for a third term and removing constitutional restrictions on presidential terms, are honest. Some of the constitutions that provided for presidential term limits are hardly 20 years. What has changed in these countries that necessitates removal of term limits? Why is it that whenever there are state-inspired constitutional reforms, they are geared to chocking democratic space instead of widening it? The claim that citizens are demanding the removal of term limits contradicts the spirit that initially called for term limits. If a leader is genuinely for term limits, there is no way, citizens can force him or her to stand for another term. The claim that “it is not me, but the citizens who want a third term” does not sound convincing. If a leader were to come out clean that he/she does not wish to stand for a third term as some have done like Nelson Mandela in South Africa and others in Botswana, Zambia and Malawi, no amount of pressure from the citizens would prevail.
The constant cry is that good leaders are not known by how long they stay in power, but by what systems they leave in place after their term has ended. It is institutions that build sustainable states not individual leaders with all their good intentions. What does it benefit a revolutionary party to be in power for decades and only to disintegrate after the strong man who held it together has gone? Let us hope that the Tripartite Free Trade Area will not turn into a Tripartite Free Tyrannical Area.
Of course, there are security concerns. The region is also home to Islamist militant groups that are causing untold suffering. Regional integration of this magnitude can potentially reduce insecurity if the respective countries agree on some security architecture for the region. SADC has such a mechanism. Militant groups will also try to take advantage of the free movement of goods and people. However, the best security is the citizens, if they feel included in the development agenda. One way to tackle insecurity is equal distribution of power and resources. If the Free Trade Area becomes a zone of the privileged few elite, then the many unemployed youth will have reason to get recruited by militant groups.
The TFTA is a welcome step for Africa and hopefully by 2017 the continental Free Trade Area treaty will also be signed. Africa is rising and will continue to rise but the priorities of infrastructure, intellectual capital, agriculture, governance and rule of law will have to be taken care of.
* Odomaro Mubangizi (PhD) teaches philosophy and theology at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, where he also serves as Dean of Philosophy Department.
 See, “Mobile Phones Changing Lives in Africa” in The East African June 12-16, 2015, 24.
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