Nationality motivated non-tariff barriers – the biggest risk to African Free Trade

By Dr Mthandazo Ngwenya, Managing Director: Development Advisory and Impact at leading infrastructure development group, Bigen.


The continuation of individualistic, nationality driven and inspired Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs) is one of the greatest risks faced by Africans in their drive to form one of the largest trading blocks in the world. Following the painful lessons of colonial history, continental strategic planners realised way back in the mid-1900s that a fragmented Africa would always be a weak Africa! The individual countries are too many, too small, lack cohesion, trade little with each other, and are relatively insignificant contributors to global trade volumes. According to a recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report, Key Statistics and Trends in Regional Trade in Africa, the continent has a big domestic market that possesses significant opportunities. However, Africa accounts for only 2.9 percent of world production and 2.6 percent of world trade even though 16.3 percent of the global population is living on the continent.

There are significant economic development gaps between both African and developed countries as well as among African countries. Poverty is still widespread in Africa where 32 out of 48 Least-Developed Countries (LDCs) are located. Intra-African trade has increased in recent years to 15.4 percent. Nevertheless, Asia and Europe are still the main trading partners of the continent.

To address these challenges which have long been identified, the Organisation of African Unity was founded in 1963 and its successor, the Africa Union, in 2001 in Addis Ababa. All part of the architectural grand design – a mechanism to open intra-African Trade. The Abuja Treaty of 1991 established the African Economic Community, a crucial step towards the creation of a tantalising 1.3-billion-person economic super block able to transact $ 3.4 Trillion per year in trade. A real game changer!!

Where are we today?

At the end of May 2022, 43 of the 54 African countries that signed the Agreement Establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in March 2018, had deposited Instruments of Ratification with the Chairperson of the African Union Commission. That represents a 50% increase in ratifications since 30 May 2019 – when the stipulated minimum threshold of ratifications of 22 set in the agreement were achieved. The African Union has 55 member countries of which only Eretria has to date not signed the original agreement.

Having received the required minimum number of deposits, the Operationalisation Phase of the AfCFTA began in earnest in Niger, on the 7th of July 2019 at the Extra Ordinary Summit of the African Union. As of 30 May 2022, up to eighty percent of AU member states have deposited instruments of ratification with more set to deposit their instruments. The expectation is that more than 90% would have ratified the agreement by the end of 2023 – a remarkable achievement by any measure. Based on this analysis, one would postulate that an overwhelming number of African governments and their citizenry, value the implementation of intracontinental free trade policies of the AU.

Having had the great privilege of visiting over twenty African countries in the recent past, I have engaged in multiple – and at times lively debates! – over what actions must be undertaken to achieve united action on trade, political management of global powers, and curbing their disproportionate influence over African affairs.

What then is the problem?

The AfCFTA has shown exceptional potential since its launch in mid-2019 and, despite the Covid -19 impacts, the secretariat has taken form and started the real arduous journey of fulfilling a centrepiece of the African dream. Trade under the AfCFTA was set to start on 1 January 2021, however, at the time of writing, no trade had occurred under the auspices of the new trade regime.

The notion of a free trade area is premised on trade facilitation within the union. According to the definitions provided by the OECD in their 2018 publication, Trade Facilitation, and The Global Economy, when policymakers talk about ’trade facilitation’, they are referring to a specific set of measures that streamline and simplify the technical and legal procedures for products entering or leaving a country for international trade. We have seen individual African countries (or regional blocks) negotiate and ratify agreements on trade-related matters with the US, China, and the EU in, at times, uncoordinated ways. One must question in who’s best ‘interests’ these deals are being negotiated and ratified if done outside the AfCFTA architecture?


What is the way forward?

According to the AfCFTA, Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs) refer to a wide range of restrictive regulations and procedures imposed by government authorities which make the importation or exportation of products difficult and/or costly. It is critical that trade commences soon under the AfCFTA and that individual governments refrain from creating conditions and imposing regulations that only serve to inhibit the free movement of people, goods, and services. This complicates the work of the secretariat and serves only narrow interests at the expense of the African majority.

A lot has been said about the challenges Africa faces. It is, however, an undeniable fact that solutions to the woes of the continent lie in united action and increased integration amongst the countries. We need fewer barriers, not more. This is the only way for our economies to grow so we can start to meaningfully reduce poverty, unemployment, and disease burden and make a meaningful contribution to global trade and production.


Dr Mthandazo Ngwenya

5th September 2022