In 1963, as decolonisation swept through Africa, politicians heady with pan-African ideals called for a common continental market. They saw it as a way to transcend colonial economic models based upon extracting and exporting natural resources. Sadly there has been all too little progress since. Intra-African trade remains small compared with the continent’s external trade. Primary commodities account for more than 70% of Africa’s exports. Just 18% of exports by African countries are to others on the continent—a lower share than equivalent figures for Asia (58%) and Europe (68%).
The African Continental Free Trade Area (afcfta) is meant to help change this. This ambitious pact has been ratified by 41 of Africa’s 55 countries. Making it easier for them to trade with one another should boost manufacturing, incomes and growth. The World Bank estimates that, if implemented, by 2035 the afcfta would enable an additional 30m people to escape extreme poverty, increase intra-African exports by 81% and boost wages by 10%. Although the afcfta has in theory been operational since the beginning of this year, in practice no trade has happened under its terms because of continued political wrangling. Africa’s leaders risk squandering the promise of freer trade.