There was giddiness in the Rwanda capital Kigali, last week as African Union leaders signed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
The chairperson of the Africa Union Commission Moussa Faki gushed on Twitter: “Incredibly proud of our Union as 44 out of 55 member states signed the #AfCFTA, 43 signed the Kigali Declaration and 27 signed the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Right to Residence and Right to Establishment, sealing the deal of continental economic integration!”
In the headlines about AfCFTA, that little bit on the protocol on free movement of persons and right to residence was mostly missed.
If all of the AU’s 55 members sign up, and then it’s ratified at all national levels, AfCFTA would be a market of 1.2 billion people, and a gross domestic product of $2.5 trillion. But if you have been an African long enough, you would be wise not to bet on all that happening.
For now, though, the biggest thing about AfCFTA is not that tomorrow all borders will be thrown open to African commerce, and all will be honky dory.
Rather, that the idea of a common African free trade, is no longer academic or dreamy pan-Africanists. It has given permission to those willing to take the risk, to put a toe in the water.
It is like that advert for toothpaste on TV. This beautiful young lady takes her boyfriend to meet her family. He is nervous like hell, fearing they might reject him. They hug and embrace him because, well, he has good breath! It’s not the moral most people would take away from the advert.
One would imagine that the main lesson is that if you want your girlfriend’s hand in marriage, you have to pluck the courage to show up before her parents or guardians to ask for it.
A small change in how we think about what is possible in Africa, can mean a lot.
Three years ago, I was involved in a project to develop a pan-African video game. The request was that it be a story that touches all African countries, be educative, but fun.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story that developed was an obstacle course, where you could traverse the continent, say from Cape Town to Alexandria, and your success would ultimately be based on your knowledge of the continent.
If you chose to go through countries where border officials take bribes for visas and you are charged burdensome taxes, or routes where the police shake down travellers at roadblocks, you could arrive at your destination short of money or having overspent, both of which would cost you points.
There was also, inevitably, the routes that would land you in regions where there was rebellion and you could get killed, or kidnapped for ransom. There were endless obstacles and perils.
Because of the classic problems involved in doing pan-African work, as AfCFTA will find out, the game was only built halfway before it got overwhelmed by Africa.
But if it had been completed, the idea it was structured around would have collapsed in Kigali last week. No pennywise investor would have put their money in a 2020 version of the game. I think that’s remarkable.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africapaedi.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3