The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the operational phase of which was launched at the 12th Extraordinary Meeting of the Summit of Heads of State and Government of the African Union, held on July 7, 2019, in Niamey, Niger, is a crucial step in the continent’s economic integration process.

Beyond the theoretical argument suggesting increased interdependence through the necessary stability that promotes trade, what contribution can the AfCFTA make to a more stable and prosperous Africa?

Lancement de la phase opérationnelle de la Zlecaf, Sommet de Niamey, 2019 (© Ambassade du Niger au Mali)

A priority of Agenda 2063

The AfCFTA, like the initiative “Silencing Arms by 2020”, is one of the flagship projects of the first 10-year implementation plan for Agenda 2063. In this sense, it aims to “promote and achieve inclusive and sustainable socio-economic development, gender equality and structural transformation” (Art. 3 of the agreement establishing the AfCFTA) on the continent. It is therefore in direct line with one of the seven aspirations of Agenda 2063. However, in order to achieve this goal, legal certainty, as well as the physical security of economic operators, are favorable conditions for the development of trade.

A recent study by the Economic Commission for Africa shows that the AfCFTA could increase the value of trade between African countries by 15 to 25% by 2040. Moreover, this same study highlights the fact that the scenarios considered certainly underestimate the potential of the AfCFTA and its possible effects on the structural transformation sorely needed on the continent, if complementary trade facilitation measures are also adopted. Without a doubt, border security, encouraged by the strengthening of customs cooperation provided for in the agreement establishing the AfCFTA, represents a tremendous opportunity to facilitate trade. Also, among its many provisions relating to customs cooperation, the Agreement provides in particular for a reciprocal commitment to maintain special surveillance of entry into, stay in and exit from their territory, of persons suspected of being involved in illegal activities, goods suspected of being trafficked illegally and border areas suspected of being used to carry out illegal cross-border commercial activities there.

In this sense, and in addition to the individual liberalization commitments made by the States Parties to the Agreement (there are 27 of them, according to the African Union database to date), the latter therefore undertake to promote and strengthen their cooperation at borders in order to ensure the security of border areas, facilitate the activities of economic operators at the border and guarantee the rule of law.


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International arms trade in Africa

The AfCFTA, which is scheduled to begin tariff reforms on July 1, 2020, will reduce import tariffs on most goods manufactured in Africa. However, the ongoing negotiations have not yet made it possible to determine exactly which products are subject to liberalization and which are excluded from it. In this context, although no decision had yet been taken on this subject, some delegations expressed the view that arms and ammunition should be excluded from the scope of the liberalization of the AfCFTA.

Situation of the legal intra-African trade in arms and ammunition

The discrete and opaque market for arms and ammunition (within the meaning of Chapter 93 of the Harmonized System classification) has increased dramatically over the past twenty years in Africa. The vast majority of weapons legally purchased in Africa on international markets come mainly from outside the continent. However, although less spectacular than the growth in imports from the rest of the world, the growth in intra-African imports of arms and ammunition has been generally sustained over the past two decades (see Figure 1).

Imports of arms and ammunition to Africa | Source: Calculations from Trademap (ITC)
Imports of arms and ammunition to Africa | Source: Calculations from Trademap (ITC)

In particular, in 2018, South Africa and Sudan held the lion’s share of arms exports, accounting for more than 60% of African arms exports to the rest of the continent (see Figure 2.2). On the import side, member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) absorbed the largest share of African imports, accounting for almost half of total African imports of arms and ammunition (see Figure 2.1). The top ECOWAS countries include Nigeria with almost all African imports coming from Sudan, followed by Burkina Faso with Côte d’Ivoire as the main supplier, and Ghana with marginal African arms imports.

Distribution of African imports/exports of arms and ammunition | Source: Calculations from Trademap (ITC)
Distribution of African imports/exports of arms and ammunition | Source: Calculations from Trademap (ITC)

Illegal trafficking estimated at 100 million small arms on the continent

The African Union estimates that approximately 100 million small arms and light weapons are illegally circulating on the continent. It is primarily these weapons that fuel ethnic conflicts or are held by non-regular armed forces, thus generating insecurity and even facilitating the activities of cross-border criminal networks.

With the implementation of the agreement establishing the AfCFTA and the widespread collaboration of border administrations as provided for in the provisions on customs cooperation and trade facilitation, it is to be expected that the latter’s mutual assistance will bring about a positive change for the pacification of the least stable regions of Africa.

Finally, the latest African regional trade agreement is a complementary tool in the continental institutional architecture. The agreement provides for the coexistence of the AfCFTA with other pre-existing regional trade agreements, including ECOWAS, the Eastern African Community, the Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. Agreements, far from merely trading agreements, are also often the legal basis for much broader regional cooperation than the simple removal of customs barriers to trade. Therefore, although one of the goals of the AfCFTA is to lay the foundations for the creation of a continental customs union, it is currently an initiative to support the economic integration of African countries where no preferential trade agreement previously existed. In this sense, it could contribute to strengthening the institutional fabric of surveillance and mutual assistance in order to strengthen security at the most porous borders of our continent.


Also read: Who are the most important arms exporters to Africa?

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