The AfCFTA should capitalize on COVID-19 to drive integration

13 May, 2020

On 30 April 2020, over 60 participants attended the first IPSS Virtual Policy Dialogue, a new online webinar series initiated in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Suitably, the topic of discussion was “The AfCFTA, Peace and Security: Implications of COVID-19”.

Aside from the deadly impact of COVID-19, the pandemic has resulted in the closure of borders and cancellation of international flights, strict quarantine measures, state of emergencies, curfews, lockdowns and other strict measures enforced by many African countries to help curb the rapid spread of the virus. As a result, the impact of the pandemic goes beyond health, affecting the socio-economic, political, human, peace and security spheres.

With the implementation of the AfCFTA originally set to kick start on 1 July 2020, the onset of COVID-19 calls for increased attention regarding Africa’s efforts to promote regional integration and open borders, particularly through the free movement of people.

Moderated by IPSS Director Dr. Yonas Adaye Adeto, the webinar featured five panellists of diverse backgrounds:

  • Mr. Emmanuel K. Bensah, Deputy Executive Director, AfCFTA Policy Network-Ghana & Diaspora
  • Ms. Roslyn Ngeno, Senior Investment Expert, African Union
  • Dr. Shakira Choonara, independent public health practitioner and the 2017 Woman of the Year in Health
  • Mr. Stefanus Ndeu Naukushu, Productivity 4.0 specialist, Agenda 2063 Youth Champion, Author, trainer, entrepreneur
  • Mr. Peter Fabricus, freelance journalist, specializing in covering foreign affairs and Africa

Mr. Bensah emphasized the need to keep the momentum on the operationalization of the AfCFTA on the continent. He noted that several innovations have emerged from across the continent and suggested the trade corridors should be used as health corridors during the pandemic. Bensah stated that this is a time for Africa to solidify herself, through building strong and effective integration infrastructures. Further, COVID-19 is also pushing non-state actors such as civil society and the media to take a more active role in upholding democratic values and practices. The legitimacy of African governments will be challenged as conditions worsen.

Ms. Ngeno shared the main impacts of the pandemic on African economies, including supply shocks and a disruption in transportation that has negative implications on the importation of critical medical equipment and supplies. In addition, the decline in demand for services such as transportation and tourism; the capital flight in African markets putting pressure on currencies; and the decline in incomes in informal markets will further put pressure on governments to deliver adequate responses. However, she said, this is an opportunity for African countries to explore home-grown solutions to meet the needs of citizens by providing relief to businesses and households, reconfiguring supply chains, and investing in the digital economy.

“Economic survival is a non-negotiable”, shared Dr. Choonara, adding that now more than ever is the time to build basic working infrastructure such as running water in vulnerable communities. She highlighted how women have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. For instance, women activists cannot participate in response efforts because of responsibilities at home; girls are increasingly likely to drop out of school to support struggling households; and funds may be diverted from maternal health and reproduction services as witnessed during the Ebola crisis. Not only is there a need to address immediate relief measures, she concluded, but also a need to think long term in “how to change insecurity into security”.

Mr. Ndeu noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is a worst case scenario for Africa as the continent is the most vulnerable region in the world to cyber attacks. Given this, he insisted that the implementation of the AfCFTA should continue with the Secretariat using the crisis as an opportunity to take “revolutionary steps” towards greater regional integration and trade. As countries around the world shut down their borders and prioritize national interests, this is a reminder that African countries can also look inward and reduce dependency by meeting the nutritional needs of their own populations.

Mr. Fabricus shared that based on the recommendation of African Union ambassadors and the AfCFTA Secretariat, it is all but certain that the trading start date of the AfCFTA will be postponed to 1 January 2021 or later, in order to redirect current efforts to combatting COVID-19. According to the recently appointed AfCFTA Secretary General, Mr. Wamkele Mene, one of the main reasons for the postponement is that despite online technology, it has proved impossible to conduct trade negotiations online with difficulties faced with simultaneous translation.

The current objectives of the Secretariat include ensuring  trade continues as much as possible under existing conditions. Open trade corridors are being negotiated to allow for the free flow of medical goods to fight the pandemic and a moratorium on the import of essential products has also been proposed.

In addition, a task force team was created to address how trade can support the public health crisis, how the AfCFTA can promote the production of generic medicine, and how to use the agreement to establish medical industries for equipment such as ventilators. According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), 10 African countries have no ventilators, South Sudan has two, and the Sahel region have approximately six among them. The donation of 300 ventilators by the Jack Ma Foundation will be distributed by the CDC to the neediest countries.

According to the World Health Organization, global trade could drop by 32%. The African Export-Import Bank cautioned that rising protectionism and debt burdens could be worst felt in African countries, and has urged countries to avoid protectionist measures and instead coordinate responses to health efforts.

The panellists concluded by responding to questions from the audience that ranged from rising acts of terrorism, media coverage and the role of the media in battling this crisis, examples of social solidarity, and the postponement of elections.

The panellists noted that the way forward involves:

  • Promoting joint infrastructure and joint border processes
  • Harnessing the digital economy and artificial intelligence to boost regional value chains
  • Enhancing visibility of the AU and Africa CDC
  • Increasing government relief responses to vulnerable communities and businesses
  • Increasing civil society and youth engagement
  • Investing in home-grown innovations and medical treatments
  • Messaging on the AfCFTA that reflect an “adaptation” rather than a “postponement”.