Meditations on the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and the Free Movement Protocol: A Nkrumaist Critique.

By Dikeledi Mokoena

The decisions made by African leaders at Kigali, Rwanda in March to commit to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA) have made many modern Pan-Africanists proud. The modern Pan-Africanists are those who genuinely advocate for the unity of Africa and the facilitation of an African renaissance within the similar logic of economic relations of domination, inequality and dehumanization of Africans and violation of our dignity. The quest for integration through a market led framework and its reproduction of colonial stratification of the continent remains a concern. This of course does not take away from the heterodox economic approaches but their logic of the dividends of inequality remain problematic if we are to re-invent Africa. This means that the celebration of the signatures on the free trade agreement comes with a number of concerns.

The first signal is the fact that the advocacy for an AfCTA was facilitated through arguments about the benefits of removing barriers for trade. For instance the removal of tarrifs and other factors hampering the free movement of goods would enable companies to access a market of over 1.2 billion people[i]. Lower trade costs due to the removal of tariffs are said to grant consumers access to a wider range of products at relatively cheaper prices, thus trade liberalization is presented with the promise of also catering to consumerist Africans’ interests. The ratification and accession of the agreement by all the African Union (AU) member states, would render the AfCFTA the biggest Free Trade Area in the world. Thus far, only 44 countries added their signatures to the AfCFTA. The countries that were present at the meeting but did not sign are South Africa, Tanzania, Lesotho, Botswana and Namibia. The agreement is also missing signatures from Nigeria, Burundi, Benin, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau.

There are various concerns highlighted by the parties that did not participate. For instance, the local manufacturing sector was one of the concerns highlighted from Nigeria while South Africa has indicated its commitment to the AfCFTA[ii]. Nigeria’s concerns are legitimate within nationalist framework of economic integration, however when looking at industrialization from the vision that Nkrumah offered, which was planning and implementing industrialization on a continental scale with the dividends managed under a continental fiscus, then “[c]ommon continental planning for the industrial and agricultural development of Africa is a vital necessity!” that would not result in skewed economic benefits for all Africans. However, for this to happen, we will need a different form of economic logic and recollection of valuation systems that are inclusive.

Currently, the AfCFTA is foreseen to create economies of scale, foster “economic growth, industrialization and sustainable development”[iii] Having emphasized the importance of distinguishing long term and short run benefits and costs of trade liberalization, “lower costs for raw materials and intermediate inputs increases competitiveness of downstream producers and promotes the generation of regional value chains”[iv] There have been concerns raised from some AU member states concerning matters of revenue loss currently generated from tariffs. Saygili, Peters and Knebel[v] using the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) computable general equilibrium model they found that complete trade liberalization without exempting any industries from the free market, assuming there is such as thing as a free market[vi], there would be “welfare gains of $16.1 billion even after deducting $4.1 billion of tariff revenue losses”[vii]. In the shot run, there will be significant losses particularly for smaller economies and in as much as micro-economic processes will benefit from regional integration smaller firms particularly ones owned by young entrepreneurs are likely to struggle competing with bigger conglomerates

The potential challenge mentioned opens opportunity for young business people to mobilize and pool resources together in order to survive or fashion regional business models that would aid them. Perhaps the idea of afro-capitalism is an avenue of exploration even though, critical analysis of the capitalist system proves incapable of addressing inequalities and its associated crises. Within this logic of a modern/colonial capitalist dictatorship, establishment of an association of young business people in the continent may be necessary to help lobby their interests. The fact that Africa is integrating within a capitalist framework, means there will be vacancy for trade unionization beyond national territories. In a continent with a bulging youth population, unemployment was at 10.8% in 2017[viii]. Despite the majority of young African people being employed, “working poverty rates among youth in Sub-Saharan Africa is nearly 70 per cent in 2016, translating to 64.4 million working youth in that region living in extreme or moderate poverty (less than $3.10 per day)[ix]. The same estimates that show the benefits of trade liberalization in terms of billions of dollars revealed that employment rates will only rise by 1.17% should there be full trade liberalization. Protection of certain industries from free trade does not promise greater levels of employment for the general African labour force as the rate rests at 0.82%[x]. The crisis of unemployment and underemployment evident with intersecting facets of marginalization and the ever evolving nature of capitalism which in its current form violates its logical principle of profits for reinvestment. The very assumption of regional economic integration yielding well-being for the majority of African people needs to be contested. It seems the dividends of regional integration which also promises increased regional value chains and integration into the global value chains is likely to be sustained not only by systematic violence but physical violence because the underemployed will always rise up to challenge what Julia Suarezz-Krabbe calls the death project[xi]. As the oppressed rise up, so will the guns and bullets of state machineries because these constitute the apparatuses of an African capitalist state which facilitates interests of the transnational hegemons.

Article 14 of the treaty establishing the African Economic community relating to the free movement of persons, right of residence and right of establishment deals with the free movement of workers. And it is expected that a labour sending state maintain contact with a host member state in ensuring fair working conditions for nationals working abroad[xii]. However, history has taught the working class that capitalist states cannot be fully trusted to ensure interests of the workers are safeguarded thus trade unionization is mandatory as we work towards economic decolonization framed by Nkrumaist economic thought[xiii]. Moreover, the influence of transnational institutions geared at reproducing global neo-liberalism will not waver. On the 24th of May 1963 Kwameh Nkrumah highlighted that Africa’s political independence emerged “with imperialism grown stronger, more ruthless and experienced, and more dangerous in its international associations” African unity became an imperative for Nkrumah who expressed understanding that Africa’s struggles did not end with the demise of colonial domination but extended to the need for economic and cultural independence.

He argued that we “are fast learning that political independence is not enough to rid us of the consequences of colonial rule…” He had also argued that “the social and economic development of Africa will come only within the political kingdom”.

According to Nkrumah’s vision of African Unity, the union government of Africa would have executive powers. These executive powers should be utilized to conceive of a political economy model that centralizes African’s well being and the environment with which we cultivate symbiotic relationships. This model would also inform how current strong economies relate with others which are not as strong. Moving beyond economic conceptions of regional integration, it is imperative to take heed of Zondi’s[xiv] call for an Afrocentric perspective of regional integration. Zondi warned against falling short of appreciating the African centered call for unity advocated by Nkrumah in what he conceived as the African personality. African personality is “defined by the cluster of humanist principles which underlie the traditional African society. It essentially sums up African people’s conception of moral and ethical approach to existence…These principles ensured societal equality and the supremacy of the community over the individual” (Nkrumah cited and explained by Fagbayibo, 2017). Nkrumah’s centralization of the people also came through in his speech delivered in Ethiopia before the formation of the compromise that was the Organization of African Unity. This gives light on the ideological orientation of the economic thought and approaches to be followed in the renewal of Africa basically freeing Africans from the coloniality of being entangled by colonial matrix of power sustaining Africa’s economic domination and subordination[xv].

It seems that Nkruma’s decolonial approach to Africa’s political and economic independence remains marginalized. Also consider how before the Kigali meeting, a number of countries, including South Africa, had expressed concern over the free movement of people. The other countries that expressed reservations were Egypt and Algeria, which are part of the top 5 biggest economies in Africa. These countries did not sign the Free Movement Protocol (FMP). Their concerns raised was the consequence of unequal economies, civil registration and lack of an integrated border management system for implementation. Article 6.1 of the protocol stipulates that “nationals of member states shall have the right to enter, stay, move freely and exit the territory of another member state” and the right of entry will permit nationals to enter host states without visas.

Reading the protocol reveals the dominance of the market logic in terms of free movement of persons. For instance, Article 13 speaks of movement of students and researchers, Article 14 is on the free movement of workers and those seeking employment in other countries have a right to seek employment but this right should adhere to the national “laws and policies of the host member state”. For instance, in the South African case, an African from another integrated African member state will obtain employment in SA should they be in possession of a critical skills aligned with the economic objectives of the country. There is no error in this considering the developmental objectives of the country however what it presents is the market centred perspective that is overtaking the basis for people’s movement in the continent and it is discriminatory on the basis of class and overall exclusionary. Even Article 17’s right to establishment places emphasis on economic factors.

Pertaining to matters of implementation relating to the Free Movement Protocol (FMP) signed only by 30 AU member states. The protocol is meant to “promote the achievement of greater unity and solidarity between the African countries and the people of Africa”[xvi] and achieve the goal of “an integrated, people-centred and politically united continent and commitment to free movement of people… amongst the member states as an enduring dedication to Pan Africanism and African integration as reflected in Aspiration 2 of the African Union agenda 2063”[xvii] Reasons provided by the South African Home Affairs in a document titled ‘South African position on the implementation of the African Union Agenda 2063 as it relates to migration, regional integration and Africa passport’ expressed that before the implementation of the right of entry and abolishing visas, certain preconditions need to be met thus the country opting for a gradual approach to implementation.

Nkrumah’s presentation at the 1963 Addis Ababa meeting can be extended to this matter and critique that “it has been suggested that our approach to unity should be gradual, that it should go piecemeal. This point of view conceives of Africa as a static entity with frozen problems which can be eliminated one by one and when all have been cleared then we can come together and say, “Now all is well, let us now unite”. Ofcourse there are a number is issues that are to be factored, for instance issues of human trafficking, which became a consequence of free movement of people in West Africa, cannot be downplayed and such highlights the important role of surveillance with regards to perpetrators. However, the conditions that facilitate the trafficking of human beings include economic insecurity and poverty. A united government framed by a Nkrumaist economic paradigm[xviii] has the potential to avert these issues. Integration within the current capitalist framework will pose greater risks for vulnerable populations.

The implementation roadmap provides suggestions in terms of factors that can facilitate the implementation of free movement of persons, right of residence and establishment in ways that also respond to potential security threats. The factors constitute the improvement and strengthening of national civil registration systems, for instance the use of biometric system is suggested. There is also call for strengthening movement control systems by having technology for surveillance, communication, data collection and processing including biometric identification. All of these are issues of ICT and the 4th industrial revolution and Africa relatively lags behind in this case. This also opens up a gap and opportunities for ICT companies in the continent.

However, the questions which arise for me are; which companies will be granted the bid to implement the digitization of border control systems and these surveillance technologies? Are young Africans in the position to offer these services? Are there service providers who are women with women led companies to partake in the concrete implementation of the protocol or will it be an issue of non-African owned companies that will benefit from this process as it could have happened in the Gambia in terms of the biometric system. Others could say that we are indeed faced with an opportunity for Africa to leap frog into the future while addressing our economic and human development challenges. Africa’s unsatisfactory manufacturing industry would get a boost from advanced manufacturing processes and innovations. It is easier to be alarmed and gear up for resistance but “automation, machine learning, mobile computing and artificial intelligence are no longer futuristic concepts, they are our reality.”[xix] Women could benefit greatly from this inevitable process by reducing the burden of social reproductive labour. Robots are envisioned to replace feminised labour such as household work. This should assist working women and in the market, the technology would make their work efficient. However, the idea of the 4th industrial revolution needs to be critically engaged properly to ensure that the risks it comes with are mitigated. Thus far, apart from concerns about environmental impact, I personally welcome the robotization of labour with hope that human beings will have more time to love one another and be happy instead of becoming slaves to labour. This ofcourse would come with radically different politics of redistributive economics. Reverting back to the simple aspects of the 4th industrial revolution, specifically focusing of information technology, African countries need to invest more in equipping young women with skills and remove barriers to entry into the ICT sector and other sciences.

**Mokoena is a PhD candidate in Political Studies at the University of Pretoria and teaches at the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI). She is also a Researcher at CSA&G and the Deputy-Coordinator of the Pan-African Federalist Movement Southern Africa.


[i] See African Continental Free Trade Area accessed from

[ii] See Moosa, F. (2018). Here’s why South Africa did not sign the free trade deal. Daily Vox, 28 March. Accessed from

[iii] See Saygili, Peters and Knebel (2017). African Continental Free Trade: Challenges and opportunities of tariff reductions

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

[vi] See

[vii] Ibid,

[viii] ILO

[ix] ILO

[x] Saygili et al

[xi] See Race, Rights and Rebels

[xii] See African Union Technical Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs (2017). ‘Draft Implementation Roadmap for the draft protocol to the treaty establishing the African Economic Community relating to Free movement of Persons, right to residence and right to establishment produced’ Expert meeting held at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia between 6-11 November. STC/Legal/Exp/11(1) Rev. 1 Annex 9.

[xiii] Mokoena, D. A (unpublished). Political Economy of Industrialization in Africa: Nkrumaism as the way forward.

[xiv] Zondi, S. (2016). The Case for an Afrocentric analysis of regional integration.

[xv] See Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. (2013)

[xvi] See preamble of the draft protocol above

[xvii] ibid

[xviii] Mokoena, D. A (unpublished). Political Economy of Industrialization in Africa: Nkrumaism as the way forward.

[xix] WEForum  The fourth industrial revolution is about empowering people, not the rise of the machines

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