Is Africa Ready for the Continental Free Trade Area with the Growing Spate of Xenophobia?

Is Africa Ready for the Continental Free Trade Area with the Growing Spate of Xenophobia?

“The Only Thing We Learn From History Is That We Learn Nothing From History.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 

About fifty years ago, under the visionary leadership of Ghana’s first President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union (AU), conceived an African Common Market program. According to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, it was only within the context of an African economic community in which we can pull our production and trade to a common advantage. For example, currently, four West African nations produce almost 70% of the world’s cocoa – Ivory Coast (42%), Ghana (18%), Nigeria (5%) and Cameroun (4%)[1]– but they get just about 2% of the $100 billion a year revenue of the chocolate industry[2]

As a result, on  28 March 2018, both Ghana and Ivory Coast had signed a treaty to defend their interest in cocoa production, and to a large extent become a cartel for cocoa prices in the world market[3]. In fact, the competition for sources of raw-materials by the most advanced and industrialized economies makes continental Africa a vortex for imperialism. This was the reason why the founding fathers of AU saw the need for African countries to break the artificial boundaries and to break bread with a common market in order to develop the entire continent.  

Nevertheless, the goal has never been relinquished. Fast forward in 2012, the 18thOrdinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union adopted a decision to establish an African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) by 2017. But what does this agreement mean in practice and how will it benefit us?

African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA)

Well, the first thing to point out about AfCFTA is that it is not simply a ‘Free Trade Agreement’. It is actually much more than that. It is about establishing a unified continental market, including the free movement of labour and investments. The three main benefits AfCFTA focuses are: 

First, the African continent, all 55 countries have a collective GDP of $2.5 trillion, making it the 8thlargest economy in the world just behind India. And that also makes the continent much more attractive to investment, both from within and from outside the continent. This will encourage business people to make the investments necessary to sustain economic growth and create the job opportunity the continent badly needs.[4]

The second argument in favour of AfCFTA is that it includes protocol on the Free Movement of people. This matters because, at present, travelling from one African country to another  can be very challenging. Also, there are a lot of trained and skilled people across the continent coming out of schools, universities and colleges who cannot find work. If free movement is endorsed, people will be able to use their talents anywhere in the continent where there is a demand for those talents. 

And the third powerful argument in favor of AfCFTA is that it will increase trade amongst African countries. According to United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), less than one fifth of all export are currently from one African country to another. Take Kenya for instance, the largest economy in the East African Community. Each year the country exports $1 billion to Europe, and around $500 million to the US worth of products. Kenya’s total export amounts to $6 billion in 2017. But guess how much Kenya exports to its neighbour Ethiopia? In 2017, it exported just $69 million to Ethiopia.[5]Why? Obviously, the main reason is the high level of trade taxes. For that matter, AfCFTA is proposing to remove trade taxes on at least 90% of all trade between African countries to boost regional trade by nearly $1 billion and to create excessive jobs across the continent. 

In spite of all these promising features AfCFTA is offering, the question we must ask is: how will Africans embrace immigrants from other African countries to allow for the free trade and movement of goods and people without discrimination or violence as evidenced in xenophobic attacks? 

Threat of Xenophobia on the African Continental Free Trade Area

Back in the year 1969, when Busia’s government was inaugurated in Ghana, it immediately issued the expulsion order which caused the deportation of African immigrants, predominantly Nigerians, in a manner never before attempted – after the Aliens Compliance Order was enacted on 18 November 1969. This happened as a result of the economic success Ghana had in the early 60s, drawing immigrants from all over the continent into the country.[6]

But the table turned when mass Africans migrated to Nigeria during the early years of the oil economy boom in the 1970s. After Shehu Shagari took over the reign of government in the country, in 1983, he gave an executive order for illegal immigrants, mostly Ghanaians, to either leave the country or be arrested.[7]

This, when viewed from the prism of the free movement of skill and people, was retrogressive and unfortunate. Now, the state is worsening with the prevailing spate of xenophobia across the continent. For example, in South Africa, the fear of the perennial xenophobic attacks on other African nationals persist as South Africans accuse them of taking their jobs. And in recent times, Nigerians in Ghana have been accused of unlawfully engaging in retail business and some have had their shops closed unlawfully[8].

In the end, if AfCFTA is to be successful to benefit us, we must wake up and smell the coffee. We must learn from the past and put on our African nationalist thinking to resolve our many challenges together, most especially xenophobia. In the famous Zulu philosophy, Ubuntu, meaning “I am because we are”, is the duty we owe to ourselves, to care for one another, and to strive to bring economic prosperity to Africa and to all Africans. 

[1]Ghana’s Cocoa Processing Industry: An Attractive Investment Option, (2017) HLR: online< accessed on 20th June 20 2019

[2]Fact that Ghana and Ivory Coast are still price takers is criminal – Minister, (2017) HLR: online< accessed on 20th June 2019

[3]Joy Business, Ghana Ivory Coast sign pact on new standards for exported cocoa beans, (2019) HLR:online< exported-cocoa-beans.php 

[4]Mesut et al, African Continental Free Trade Area: Challenges and Opportunities of Tariff Reduction (2018) UNCTAD Research Paper No. 15 

[5]Statista Research Department, Exports of Goods to Kenya 2017, (2018) HLR:  online<

[6]Adjepong, The origins, implementation and effects of Ghana’s 1969 Aliens Compliance Order(2009) HLR:online< 


[8]Sahara Reporters, Mastermind of Attacks on Nigerians, Looting of Their Shops in Ghana Will Be Arrested – Police, (2019)HLR:online< arrested-%E2%80%93-police 

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    The AfCFTA has also been designed to address many countries’ multiple and overlapping memberships in Regional Economic Communities (RECs), which complicate integration efforts. Kenya, for example, belongs to five RECs. The RECs will now help achieve the continental goal of a free trade area.

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