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Africa launched its free trade zone in January. Here’s what Africans think about economic integration.

31 Mar 2021

Originally published on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, where our biweekly Afrobarometer Friday series explores Africans’ views on democracy, governance, quality of life, and other critical topics.


By Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny and Jaynisha Patel


The pandemic is reshaping how citizens and nations understand their position in a changing world. A shrinking global economy and growing support for nationalism has heightened pressure on governments over the past year to reallocate resources locally and bring supply chains closer to home.


For Africa, these moving parts present development opportunities as well as challenges, underscored by the recent launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Bringing together 54 countries and more than 1 billion people, the AfCFTA will be the world’s largest free-trade area, with a combined GDP between $2.2 and $3.4 trillion. Proponents believe the boost in intra-Africa trade could help lift 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty by 2035 and foster interdependence, greater inclusion and peace.


So what do Africans think about this? Since the skills, knowledge, and labor of ordinary citizens will form the lifeblood of the AfCFTA, their perspectives on free trade and movement, development and external influences can inform relevant, pragmatic policy choices in participating countries.


But Afrobarometer surveys conducted in 18 African countries in late 2019 and early 2020 show that many Africans are as interested in independence as in inter-dependence —

and many eye the free movement of goods and people with skepticism. In practice, crossing borders remains difficult, especially for low-income Africans.


Opening for business?

Africans are split between support for restrictive trade policies that protect local industries (47%) and a preference for open international trade (49%), as shown in Figure 1. Support for free trade is highest in Uganda (70%), Burkina Faso (63%) and Mali (61%), while protectionism dominates in Tunisia (70%), Lesotho (63%) and Botswana (62%).


Figure 1: Open trade vs. protection of local producers | 18 countries | 2019/2020

Percentage of respondents who agree/agree very strongly with the following statements: 

1: In order to develop, our country must rely on trade with the rest of the world, including by opening our borders to foreign imports.  

Or 2: In order to develop, our country must rely on local production and protect local producers from foreign competition. Source: Afrobarometer.


The promise of ready access to consumer goods draws clearer support. A majority (58%) of Africans want to allow foreign-owned retail shops that will ensure a wide choice of low-cost goods. Still, almost four in 10 citizens (38%) want trade in consumer goods to be reserved for nationals.


Many Africans say it’s not easy to cross borders

A successful free trade area depends not only on broad political support for open-market policies, but also on the practical ability to freely move people and goods, as well as tolerance for living and working alongside foreigners. While most Africans (83%) say they welcome immigrants as neighbors, in some countries — most notably South Africa — the presence of immigrant populations has been met with xenophobic sentiments and even violence.

Overall, only a modest majority (55%) of Africans favour free movement of people in their region to trade or work in other countries. A significant minority (41%) instead want their governments to limit cross-border movement to protect nationals from external competition. Support for free movement is highest in Lesotho (75%) — which has a long history of temporary migration for work — and Uganda (73%), while a similar proportion in Botswana (68%) prefer restricting cross-border movement.

And in practice, freedom of movement is far more constrained. Two-thirds of Africans say it is difficult in their region to cross borders for work or trade (Figure 2), compared to just 21% who say it is easy. There are notable regional differences. Large majorities in five West African countries say crossing borders is difficult: Gabon (82%), Mali (82%), Guinea (81%), Burkina Faso (78%) and Côte d’Ivoire (76%). Far fewer report difficulties in three southern African countries: Botswana (41%), Angola (43%) and Namibia (52%).


Figure 2: Difficulty crossing borders | 18 countries | 2019/2020 

Afrobarometer’s survey asked: In your opinion, how easy or difficult is it for people in [this region] to cross international borders in order to work or trade in other countries, or haven’t you heard enough to say? 


A preference for self-reliant development

When it comes to national development, Africans tend to lean toward autonomy. Across 18 countries, two-thirds (64%) say development should be financed using domestic resources rather than external loans, even if it means raising taxes (Figure 3). Majorities support self-reliance in 15 of the 18 surveyed countries, led by Gabon (82%), Tunisia (78%) and Mali (77%). Only in Ethiopia and Cabo Verde do narrow pluralities prefer relying on external resources.


Moreover, while Africans see the influence of China and the United States as a good thing (59 and 58% positive, respectively, vs. just 15 and 13% negative), 58% also believe their government has borrowed too heavily from China. Nor do majorities welcome strings attached to foreign assistance, such as the promotion of democracy.


Figure 3: Funding own national development vs. reliance on external loans|18 countries | 2019/2020

Percentage of respondents who agree/agree very strongly with the following statements:

1: It is important that as an independent nation, we finance development from our own resources, even if it means paying more taxes.

Or  2: We should use external loans for the development of the country, even if it increases our indebtedness to foreign countries and institutions. Source: Afrobarometer.



Who can help build regional bonds?

Capitalizing on the opportunities offered by the AfCFTA will require political will as well as technical expertise. If popular support for key principles and practices of open trade is modest, with high variability across countries, national governments may find it hard to implement the kind of regional and continental integration envisioned by the AfCFTA.

As the originator of the AfCFTA, does the African Union have the status to build a constituency in support of its goals? While many in Africa aren’t very familiar with the A.U.’s work, among those who do voice an opinion, perceptions are overwhelmingly positive: 50% of Africans say they think the African Union plays a “somewhat positive” or “very positive” role in their country, compared to just 13% who see its influence as negative. This suggests a foundation of goodwill and receptivity to the A.U.’s voice in support of the AfCFTA.

Similarly, the continent’s key regional inter-governmental bodies enjoy 5-to-1 positive ratings (55 vs. 11%), presenting openings for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), East African Community (EAC), Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), and Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) to help boost free trade in Africa.


Afrobarometer surveys suggest that citizens welcome international collaboration when they see it as beneficial, as in their favorable perceptions of Chinese and U.S. influence as well as their approval of foreign-owned retail shops. The newly launched AfCFTA may have just begun to make that case.


Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny is knowledge translation manager for Afrobarometer. Find her on Twitter @JAppiahNyamekye.

Jaynisha Patel is project leader for the Inclusive Economies project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, based in Cape Town, South Africa. Find her on Twitter @jayni_sha.