From 14 to 16 February 2020, participants from all over the world met in Munich, Germany for the 56th edition of the Munich Security Conference (MSC). The annual conference is one of the leading platforms for international security policy, and this year the discussions centered on the future of Western alliances (“Westlessness”), and the state of world affairs given the current conflicts and disputes over trade, territory and ideology.

The Tana Forum Secretariat organized a dinner side event on 14 February to discuss the 2020 theme, namely “The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA): A Tool for Pan-Africanism and Conflict Transformation”. This annual side event at the MSC is an opportunity for the Forum to contribute an African perspective to global discussions and set the tone for deliberations at the Forum.

The Tana Forum, an independent dialogue platform for peace and security issues in Africa, convenes annually in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. This year’s Forum will take place on 24-26 April 2020. With support from over 16 partners including Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) with implementation by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the Tana Forum has organized eight successful editions since its inception in 2012.

The side event explored the political, economic and technological potential of the AfCFTA in resolving instability and transforming the socio-economic future of millions of African citizens. The path to a single African market will require full buy in from all stakeholders, not only political actors but citizens and the private sector who stand to benefit the most from the agreement.

The dinner was hosted by Tana Forum Board Member H.E. Catherine Samba-Panza, former President of the Central African Republic and Co-Chair of Femwise-Africa. The guests held a rich discussion on the advantages, fears and potential barriers to the successful implementation of the AfCFTA. “Borders have historically acted as barriers”, noted one guest, referring to the efforts of African states to achieve one common African market.

Guests at the dinner side event included: Vincent Biruta, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Republic of Rwanda; Loyiso Jafta, Director General, State Security Agency, Republic of South Africa; Tanja Gonner, Chairwoman of the Management Board, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ); Colin Gleichmann, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Jordan; and Dr. Annette Weber, Senior Fellow, Middle East and Africa Division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

The future of Africa’s integration

The AfCFTA brings together 55 African economies, forming the world’s largest trading area with a gross domestic product worth USD $3.4 trillion and a population of more than one billion people. The agreement has the potential to boost intra-African trade by eliminating import duties, and to double this trade if non-tariff barriers are also reduced.

However, artificial borders and ethno-centric modes of governance have served as significant causes of conflict and division on the continent and have subsequently become barriers to nation-building in Africa. They have affected the trajectories of African politics and created serious security challenges along the way.

In times characterized by trade protectionism and restricted borders by major world economies:

  • What role can regional and international actors play in supporting the implementation of the agreement? 
  • What is the immediate advantage of the agreement and what are some future advantages? How will standardization be organized?

Another guest identified an immediate gain of the AfCFTA as a single common market with similar rules and regulations applying to each country. A future gain would be for free trade to create an enabling environment for the free movement of people. Overall, the common consensus among the guests was that the AfCFTA is a process and change is not expected to occur overnight. 

On the role of partners, one potential role could be to assist with the technical support in improving standardization. African states need to build partnerships that will create added value and eliminate corruption, especially in primary economic infrastructure.

Working with partners and AU structures 

The AfCFTA will be built on the existing success of regional economic communities (RECs). Several RECs such as COMESA, SADC, ECOWAS and EAC already have customs unions and are working to further harmonize trade relations.

The AfCFTA will not necessarily lead to peace across the continent, expressed one guest, who also noted that not all security issues were addressed before the European Union was formed. However, existing frameworks between AU and RECs to enhance coordination will contribute to the implementation of the agreement and to reducing insecurity through increased economic opportunities.

With the Gulf and China increasingly involved in trade on the continent, one guest said Europe should look for and negotiate deals, pointing out that “the market is open and the rules are clear”. It is not about exclusion or preferring one partner over the other, it is about Africa’s interests taking centre stage, they added. 

In sum, several things need to be up to speed for the AfCFTA to be successful – a change of mindset to view the agreement as a common destiny for all African states and citizens, a transparent and accountable governance framework, and a clear demonstration of zero tolerance for corruption.

The Tana Forum delegation was led by H.E. Catherine Samba-Panza; Dr. Yonas Adaye Adeto, Director of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University; Michelle Ndiaye, Director of the Africa Peace and Security Programme at IPSS; and Michelle Mendi Muita, Content Coordinator, Tana Forum and GIZ Advisor at IPSS.

For related discussions on the AfCFTA, in March and April the Tana Forum Secretariat will organize an ambassadors’ briefing, a press conference, an experts’ workshop, and a regional multi-stakeholder dialogue in Kigali, Rwanda. The latter will focus on the role of women, peace and security and their role in Africa’s integration.

To view photos of the event, click here