ANALYSIS | AfCFTA:  Media engagement as the missing link

For African media to play its natural role of enlightening, sensitizing and educating African citizens about the import of the landmark trade pact, the promoters of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) must, as a matter of urgency, incubate and roll-out a sustained media campaign to bridge the wide gap that currently prevails between AfCFTA and the media. 

 

 

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is the world’s largest Free Trade Area (FTA) after the World Trade Organization (WTO), is one of the most crucial milestones in Africa’s stride towards regional integration since the creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963.

 

The AfCFTA journey

The Agreement establishing the AfCFTA was presented to the African Union heads of state and government for signature in March 2018 at Kigali, Rwanda, where 44 out of 55 member states signed the Agreement. The AfCFTA seeks to create a single continental market of 1.3 billion people with a combined GDP of US$3.4 trillion, bringing together the 55 member states of the AU. Likewise, the AfCFTA remains the second-fastest ratified treaty in the history of the AU, after the treaty establishing the Union itself, i.e., the AU Constitutive Act.

To say the AfCFTA, a flagship project of Agenda 2063, has great potential for transforming Africa’s economic future would be an understatement! Under the Agreement, African exports are projected to record gains of between US$40 billion and US$56 billion, just as intra-African trade will increase by between US$50 billion and US$70 billion by 2040. Forecasts also show the African online retail business reaching US$75 billion by 2025.

Further estimates show AfCFTA would lift 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty, boost the incomes of nearly 68 million Africans living on less than US$5.50 a day, and enhance wages for women by 10.5%. All these are but the tip of the iceberg of the immense opportunities the AfCFTA brings to African people, including women and young people.

To this end, the AfCFTA Secretariat, in October 2022, launched the Guided Trade Initiative (GTI), which became possible after the creation of necessary instruments for the commencement of trading under AfCFTA rules, namely the e-Tariff Book, the Rules of Origin (ROO), the AfCFTA Adjustment Fund as well as the Pan-African Payments and Settlement System (PAPSS).

Eight countries, namely Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Rwanda, Tanzania and Tunisia, are taking part in the GTI, trading only in goods. In his remarks at the inaugural AfCFTA Business Forum (ABF) in April, Mahamadou Issoufou, former president of the Republic of Niger and AU Champion of the AfCFTA, said there are currently plans to launch the second phase of the GTI with a larger number of countries, which will also include trade in services.

 

The missing link

No doubt, significant investment has been made by the AU, its member states and partners in bringing to life the long-held dream of a Single African Market. To enlighten stakeholders, many national, regional and continental consultations with the private sector, women and youth have been held. Yet, the obvious missing link in these consultations is the media, on whose shoulders the responsibility of explaining the trade pact to African citizens lies.

Notably, there have been a few press briefings by the AfCFTA Secretariat and a couple of training workshops by the AU Commission, ECA, ECOWAS and tralac, among others. Yet, this is merely scratching the surface, since the AfCFTA is such a huge undertaking! The fact that SMEs, women and youth traders are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this milestone FTA calls for a more intensive, robust, and strategic engagement with the media at continental, regional, national and subnational levels.

This is even more necessary considering the level of misinformation and disinformation about AfCFTA, which has reduced many African citizens to skeptics about the all-important pact. Even before the AfCFTA came into force, some skeptics had concluded it would never see the light of day. They simply cannot fathom the idea of African nations coming together to establish a free trade area in the face of rising economic nationalism and trade protectionism around the world.

As Aristotle says, nature abhors a vacuum. Thus, if stakeholders in the AfCFTA process do not effectively engage the African public, whose enterprise, skills and innovation is desired to make the AfCFTA dream a reality, they are ultimately surrendering the power to shape the narrative to afro-pessimists and cynics who do not believe anything as grand as the AfCFTA can come out of Africa.

 

Way Forward

As much as we may deride the pessimism of Africans and non-Africans alike about the AfCFTA, one must accept the fact that not all the pessimism about the trade pact is out of place. Surely, there are genuine concerns about the treaty’s capacity to significantly boost intra-African trade and bring about Africa’s economic transformation, particularly what some pundits consider “cut-and-paste EU-style regional integration”.

Indeed, the AfCFTA has many hurdles to cross! However, just as the trade pact is still a work in progress, many of the concerns of its critics, such as infrastructure, free movement, human capital and financial resources, are simultaneously being addressed. Equally important to the success of the pact is the mass mobilization of African citizens through awareness campaigns. Effective media engagement may succeed in converting AfCFTA’s skeptics into advocates.

Thus, the promoters of the trade pact must, as a matter of urgency, incubate and roll-out a sustained media campaign to bridge the wide gap that currently prevails between AfCFTA and the media. For the media to play its natural role of enlightening, sensitizing and educating African citizens about the import of the landmark pact, its promoters need to pay more than cursory attention to media engagement.

This should include regular press briefings and interviews with strategic media outfits covering the vast spectrum of traditional and new media channels. Beyond the news media, they must explore the entertainment media and its unmatched reach in proselytizing the AfCFTA message. Visual arts, theater, music, the arts and film represent very potent tools for AfCFTA advocacy.

 

 

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