Since the launch of the negotiations in Johannesburg in 2015, remarkable progress has been achieved largely because of the political will and commitment of the Assembly of Heads of States, to provide leadership and to ensure that Africa takes concrete steps towards the creation of an integrated market. Inspired by the Abuja Treaty, Africa’s integration objectives have continuously been at the center of discussions to fast-track economic development set out in the Lagos Plan of Action with the view of achieving the Africa We Want as enshrined in the Agenda 2063.
The African Union (AU) Assembly of Heads of State and Government during their 33rd Ordinary Session held from 09 – 10 February 2020 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, demonstrated determination to take rapid action to effectively operationalise the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), by electing its new Secretary General (SG) in the person of Mr. Wamkele Mene, who is from South Africa, for a four-year mandate. The headquarters of the AfCFTA Secretariat is in Accra, Ghana.
H.E. President Mahamadou Issoufou, President of the Republic of Niger is the Champion and Leader of the AfCFTA negotiation process since March 2017. Fifty four (54) AU Member countries have signed the agreement and 30 of them have ratified it, making this the fastest ratification in the history of the African Union.
Mr. Wamkele Mene, first Secretary General of the AfCFTA) was sworn-in on 19 March 2020 at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the presence of H.E Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the AU Commission, H.E Albert M. Muchanga AU Commissioner for Trade and Industry and H.E Edward Xolisa Makaya, the Permanent Representative of South Africa to the African Union and Chairperson of the Permanent Representative Committee (PRC). The Ceremony was also attended by H.E. Mrs. Amma Adoma Twum-Amoah, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Ghana to the AU, representing the host country of the AfCFTA Secretariat and H.E. Mr. Zakario Maiga, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Niger, representing the Champion of the AfCFTA process. AU Staff, dignitaries, invited guests and the representatives of the media also witnessed this very solemn historic moment.
The Secretary General is expected to provide leadership and technical support to AfCFTA Secretariat and overall management of the day-to-day functioning of the Secretariat.He will be responsible for the management of the AfCFTA Secretariat, implementation of the AfCFTA Agreement and strategic collaboration; stakeholders’ engagement; and resources mobilization for the implementation of the AfCFTA Agreement. Amomg others.
The Chairperson of the AU Commission, H.E. Moussa Faki Mahamat congratulated the SG on his election and underscored the challenges ahead: “You have been elected on the basis of your experience and skill. The task that awaits you is quite gigantic but exhilarating because you will be working on the most emblematic project in the history of the African Union. The African Free Trade Zone is a necessity for Africa to strengthen its integration”, said the AUC Chairperson.
“Mr. Mene is entrusted with a huge responsibility to lead one of the key institutions of the African Union and to guide Africa to realize the Aspiration number one of the Agenda 2063 which talks to the attainment of ‘A prosperous Africa based on inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development”, said the PRC Chair.
“We put the AfCFTA Secretariat in very capable hands under Secretary General Mene, we are assured of effective implementation of the AfCFTA Agreement”, said AU Commissioner for Trade and Industry.
According to the new SG of the AfCFTA, Africa is open for business and mutually beneficial investment thereby creating decent jobs and improving livelihoods. He said Africa has a market of 1.2 billion people; it has a combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion, and about 400 continental companies that earn annual revenues of US$1 billion or more.
Mr. Wamkele Mene noted during his swearing in ceremony that, through at least the first half of the decade, seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies were in Africa, according to the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook Database, October 2019. He stated that, Prof Landry Signé and Acha Leke, writing in 2019 in Foresight Africa, a Brookings Institute publication, African industries have the opportunity to double production to nearly $1 trillion within a decade, with three-quarters of that growth coming from manufacturing to substitute imports and meet increasing local demand. This, he said, is a period of unprecedented challenge to the global economy and the multilateral trading system, on which the global economy is anchored.
“The multilateral trading system is under severe strain, largely due to what appears to be an abandonment of the rules that underpin it. This strain on the multilateral trading system has the risk of reversing the modest gains that we have made in placing development at the centre of the multilateral trading system, since we launched the Doha Development Agenda in 2001. Africa’s response against this strain on the multilateral trading system must be to consolidate and advance our continental market integration objectives, through the AfCFTA. Under the leadership of President Issoufou, our collective priority should be to rapidly conclude Phase I and II of the negotiations of the AfCFTA, in order to unlock Africa’s full productive capacity. ” Underscored SG Mene.
The second challenge to the global economy according to the new AfCFTA SG is the ongoing Corona Virus scourge, which has ravaged global economic activities, causing a materially adverse impact on global capital markets, severely disrupting trade and global supply chains, and of course creating a negative effect on global public health. Mr. Mene however underlined that Africa should not despair and fall into despondency. “Through the AfCFTA we have an opportunity to reconfigure our supply chains, to reduce reliance on others and to expedite the establishment of regional value chains that will boost intra-Africa trade.” He said.
Mr. Mene promised to engage in discussions on this issue with the Commissioner for Trade & Industry and the technical partners such as the UN ECA and UNCTAD. “As the Secretary-General, I am committed to ensuring that the AfCFTA is effectively implemented such that there is shared and inclusive economic growth.” He explained that the backlash against free trade and trade liberalisation witnessed in recent years is not because trade liberalisation is intrinsically beneficial exclusively to a certain elite or to certain countries. Rather, the backlash is, in part, attributable to the unequal distribution of the benefits of international trade and a lack of shared and inclusive growth. The lesson for the AfCFTA from this backlash against trade liberalisation and the pursuit for freer international trade through the multilateral trading system (i.e. the World Trade Organisation) and through FTAs is that, beyond boosting trade flows, the question of equitable distribution of the gains of the AfCFTA must be at the centre of its implementation.
Mr. Mene further noted that, the AfCFTA should not be perceived to be benefiting only a handful of relatively industrialised countries in Africa but all African businesses. Therefore the need to empower women and young people in Africa as they often face significant challenges when attempting to benefit from trade agreements. “I therefore intend to take concrete steps to ensure that women and young Africans are at the heart of implementation of the AfCFTA. In due course, I will announce specific measures that can be put in place to enable women, young Africans and SMEs, to benefit from the AfCFTA to achieve the objective of inclusive benefits of the AfCFTA .” He emphacised.
The AfCFTA and the 4th Industrial Revolution:
With regard to the fourth industrial revolution, the new AfCFTA SG said the global economy is on the brink of a new industrial revolution, driven by new-generation information technologies such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing, big data and data analytics, robotics and additive manufacturing. All of this presents challenges and opportunities for the AfCFTA. He stated that, the 4th Industrial Revolution is likely to impact on the AfCFTA in a manner that we have not fully contemplated.
How is Africa preparing herself for the 4th Industrial Revolution, in the context of the AfCFTA? With the advent of additive manufacturing, what is the impact on industrialisation and job creation in Africa, jobs which may have been created on the back of the AfCFTA? How will the e-commerce and digital trade chapter of the AfCFTA position Africa to be a global player in cloud computing services, data processing and data storage? All of these, Mr. Mene said, are questions that require forward looking intellectual rigour, including analysing how the future of trade and investment flows might change as a result of technological factors and the 4th Industrial Revolution. He added that, such forward looking intellectual rigour is critical in shedding light on the complex policy issues and strategic choices that will shape Africa’s trade and investment prospects over the next 10-30 years.
The new AfCFTA SG reiterated that the Africa Continental Free Trade Area offers Africa an opportunity to confront the significant trade and economic development challenges of our time including: market fragmentation; smallness of national economies; over reliance on the export of primary commodities; narrow export base, caused by shallow manufacturing capacity; lack of export specialisation; under-developed industrial regional value chains; and high regulatory and tariff barriers to intra-Africa trade amongst others. The result of all of this, is a very low percentage of intra-Africa trade of 18%. He said the AfCFTA is also a critical response to Africa’s developmental challenges. It has the potential to enable Africa to significantly boost intra-Africa trade, improve economies of scale and establish an integrated market. It has the potential to be a catalyst for industrial development, placing Africa on a path to exporting value-added products, improving Africa’s competitiveness both in its own markets and globally. It also sends a strong signal to the international investor community that Africa is open for business, based on a single rule-book for trade and investment.
Worth noting that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a way of describing the blurring of boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds. It’s a fusion of advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other technologies. Whereas a technological revolution is a period in which one or more technologies is replaced by another technology in a short amount of time. It is an era of accelerated technological progress characterized by new innovations whose rapid application and diffusion cause an abrupt change in society.
According to digital dictionaries, the Fourth Industrial Revolution heralds a series of social, political, cultural, and economic upheavals that will unfold over the 21st century. Building on the widespread availability of digital technologies that were the result of the Third Industrial, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is driven largely by the convergence of digital, biological, and physical innovations. It has the peculiarity of changing how we live, work, and communicate. It is reshaping government, education, healthcare, and commerce among other aspect of life