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The Africa Continental Free Trade Area: A Blessing or a Time Bomb for Gambia?

On 2nd April, The Gambia became the 22nd state to ratify the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the minimum threshold expected to approve the deal poised to become the world’s largest by number of countries.

According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), AfCFTA which creates a single continental market for goods and services as well as a customs union with free movement of capital and business travelers, covers  more than 1.2 billion people and a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion. Signed in March 2018 by 44 African countries in the Rwandan capital Kigali, the agreement is meant to create a tariff-free continent that can grow local businesses, boost intra-African trade, rev up industrialization and create jobs, according to its founding members.

However, the low exportation power of local products of small countries like The Gambia and the failure of the ECOWAS free trade policy have cast doubts on the effective implementation of AfCFTA. But a Gambian technocrat is upbeat.

African leaders gathered in Rwanda to sign AfCFTA

 “This is a very laudable initiative as far as we are concerned. We know that this is one of the key flagship projects of the African Union and it is about creating single market for the African continent,” said Ousman Bojang, the principal economist at the Ministry of Trade, Industry, Regional Integration and Employment.

“As a member country, we participated in the negotiation and went ahead to sign the agreement. we hope that it will give great benefits to our productive sector and private sector to take advantage of the market.”

According to Bojang, the agreement would support The Gambia in terms of accessing wider regional markets. “We are looking at the regional market of 1.2 billion people. So the agreement is creating market for our products and we will advocate for product diversification to access those markets. It will also create jobs for those enterprises producing those products.”

Momarr Taal, an entrepreneur who founded a mango exporting company Tropingo Foods, gave thumps-up to the deal. “This has been in works for a very long time and on paper, everything looks like it should be very positive for businessmen like me and those citizens who would want to do more on the continent.”

But when it comes to the implementation, Taal was cautious. “I believe that a lot more have to be done than just signing documents, as long as our borders are far from free. It costs a lot of money to move goods between the borders here, especially between Gambia and Senegal.”

Momarr Taal

He frowned at the ECOWAS free trade treaty that failed to yield any success in terms of facilitating free movement of goods and services across the region. “So in order for us to have confidence in this new treaty we also need to be able to see things changed within our sub region where we have had this treaty for a long time.”

Taal told The Chronicle that Gambians should look at the agreement as an opportunity to access bigger markets on the continent. “The opportunity to gain is bigger in their markets (referring to big countries with big economies) than is for them in our market. If you look at Nigeria for example, we want to enter Nigerian market. There is more for Gambian companies to gain than is for Nigerian companies to gain in Gambian markets.”

For prominent economist and social commentator Nyang Njie, “the free trade deal is a good deal for the whole of the continent because it opens up opportunities for each and every country.” But he warned that “the cavalier is each country must be ready to accommodate the opportunities that come in with free trade policy.”

Nyang Njie

He questioned the Gambia’s readiness for the treaty and argued that the country didn’t have the skills set as it relates to labour. “For example, today The Gambia cannot export quality labour to Nigeria to do work. Today The Gambia cannot export quality labour to South Africa, but on the contrary, South Africa and Nigeria can abundantly export labour to come to The Gambia and do work. Therefore, it’s a net gain for others and not The Gambia because The Gambia hasn’t prepared itself to make the most out of the arrangement.”

He challenged The Gambia to revisit its education system to be able to graduate labour force instead of just mass graduation of lawyers and doctors.

According to him, the Gambia Technical Training Institute (GTTI) and the universities should be graduating students who would create demand-driven labour market for the country.

“The market today is not asking for lawyers or accountants. It’s asking for tile men, plumbers, electricians, tailors, mechanics and farmers and we are not doing this. Therefore we are having a deficit in labour which is filled by others who have surplus in labour. That’s why Gambia cannot benefit from this free trade arrangement until and unless we re-adjust and re-align our labour market needs to fit the labour market demand.”

During the National Assembly debate ahead of the ratification of AfCFTA, parliamentarian Sidia Jatta of Wuli West described the then bill as an excellent idea but raised concern that “the serious implications are such that the whole enterprise will be meaningless unless we take charge of those serious concerns.”

He argued that the Gambia’s trading system of re-exporting the imported goods to elsewhere from Europe had killed the local businesses. Jatta suggested The Gambia could have created infrastructures to add values to local produces for exportation instead of re-exporting foreign made goods or merely exporting raw materials.

“We have not done that for 50 years and this is not peculiar to The Gambia. It is a generalized problem in Africa. Now we are talking about free trade area. If we continue to do what we have been doing throughout our lives here, it means that we are going to continue to promote European industries to the detriment of values of our continent.”

Another lawmaker Muhammed Magassy described the agreement as important but warned the political leaders that its implementation would require political will.

“The implementation cannot be done without the commitment of the executive and the political leaders. We will give our support to this agreement. We will adopt it and ratify it but if it comes to the level of implementation, we are seeking for your cooperation, commitment and political will so that it is implemented for the intended purpose it is meant for.” 

Rwandan President Paul Kagame addressing colleagues during the AfCFTA talks in Kigali

Some of Africa’s economic giants are yet to ratify the agreement. Nigeria, which initially supported the AfCTFA negotiations, has been holding off on signing the agreement. Authorities in Abuja said they were re-evaluating the deal’s impact.

Meanwhile, the agreement will officially come into force in July during the next Extraordinary Heads of State and Government summit in Niamey, Niger.

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