Tuesday, October 19, 2021

We should also open our borders to Africa

This week all eyes on the African continent were firmly fixed at the African Union (AU) Summit in Kigali, Rwanda where a crucial free-trade treaty was signed.

The Chairperson of AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat was quoted by the Rwandan newspapers as having described this past Wednesday as a “historic day”, which marks a new step in Africa’s march towards greater integration and unity.

This surely was a historic day. Not just because over 40 African countries became signatories to Africa’s free trade dream but also because Botswana was counted amongst the few countries that said “NO” to the treaty ÔÇô atleast for now. The reasons? We are yet to hear from the Trade Minister Vincent Seretse on his return from Kigali.

While we remain on the dark on the reasons that Botswana advanced not to sign the historic treaty, neighbouring South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday said that his government needed more time to consult relevant stakeholders about the continental free trade area treaty before signing it. We can only hope and guess that is the same reasoning we have not to sign the crucial agreement. Our fear is that given the attitude of the outgoing President Ian Khama towards AU and other international bodies like United Nations, Botswana might have other unreasonable thoughts on the treaty. We hope that we are wrong and that Minister Seretse did not sign because just like our neighbours, maybe we need to consult the people of this country.

As we all might be aware, the trade agreement is aimed at deepening African economic integration, promoting agricultural development, food security, industrialisation and structural economic transformation through single-air continental transport market with free movement of persons, capital, goods and services.

For a country like ours where industrialisation has remained elusive, we need to be strategically positioning ourselves for any opportunity that may arise to not only industrialise but also diversify our economy.

To this date, Botswana’s growth and overall macroeconomic outlook remain critically dependent on value addition in the diamond sector.

At the same time, Botswana’s private sector continues to be narrow and shallow, characterized by weak inter sectoral diversity and production links, and high dependency on public expenditure.

Notwithstanding implementation of a succession of policies for economic diversification over the years, the domestic economy remains heavily dependent on the mining sector, particularly diamond mining.

From what we gathered in media reports from Kigali, this new continental trade agreement has the potential to create a unified market of U.S. $1.2 billion and a GDP of over U.S. $25 trillion.

As it stands, from where we stand, it seems countries with larger manufacturing bases, such as our neighbour South Africa, Kenya and Egypt, are more likely to benefit “immediately”. This however does not mean we should not find ways in which our country can also reap something from it particularly on well established sectors like beef production and minerals such as coal and diamonds.

As Rwandan President, Paul Kagame said on Tuesday, a day before the historic signing, the creation of one African market through the Continental Free Trade Area symbolises our progress toward the ideal of African unity, but that is not the only reason why it is so historic. African workers adding value in Africa. Services offered by African professionals using the latest technologies. Manufactured goods that are “Made in Africa”. Botswana should not be left out of this important change. Botswana cannot afford to be left behind. We should not make a mistake of isolating ourselves from our African sisters and brothers.  Our attitude or rather the attitude of our outgoing President has always been that we can go on our way. That has been wrong and this has been proven by key economic studies and surveys.

The aspiration of “the future we want” and the Agenda 2063 for a just, prosperous and responsive world where everyone can enjoy their rights and live with dignity and hope can only be realized if African countries, including Botswana make conscious efforts to integrate population. It is our believe that the treaty that was signed by some African countries is the beginning of achieving such aspirations.

From what we gathered in news reports from Kigali, this treaty could create tens of thousands of jobs and significantly reduce unemployment among the continent’s youthful population. This surely speaks to Botswana. Our youth unemployment rate is at an alarming rate and as such we need to act swiftly.

Just recently, a report compiled by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) reminded us of how this country does not have the luxury of long-term planning to maximise its first demographic dividend.

As part of their recommendations, the economic think tanks who compiled the report cautioned Botswana government and all development actors “to act with urgency and implement game-changer interventions”.

It is our submission that as part of the broader strategy, the minister responsible for Trade should upon his return from Kigali should kick-start a debate regarding the continental free trade agreement with his fellow legislatures, academics as well as the youth of this country. This would inform his submissions when he finally meet his SADC and SACU counterparts to make a proposal on how the southern African region can maximise the benefits that come with free trade treaty. As indicated above, we remain hopeful that Minister Seretse decided not to sign the treaty because he first needed to consult Batswana and our neighbours.

The #Bottomline however remains that once we have familiarised ourselves with the agreement, and made our two-Thebe amendments to it, we should not just sign it but also ensure that its implementation take place.

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