This year's African Union summit, held in Addis Ababa on January 28-29, produced some international agreements worth celebrating.
The meeting concluded with major decisions on key economic issues:
- Africa will have a single air transport market.
- There will be a special meeting, held in Kigali, Rwanda in March 2018, for the purpose of establishing a continental free trade area.
- In connection with this area, protocols will be developed to allow for the free movement of peoples.
If these decisions are fully implemented, they will have a significant impact for Africa's nations and people.
With a successful single air transport market, it should be possible for passengers to travel from any country in Africa to any other country in Africa in a single day. This notion may seem trivial to those of us in the Western hemisphere, where the development of a robust air market led to an explosion of economic growth and opportunity. For Africans, it has remained a longstanding dream. Africa is 3.5 times larger than the United States, so rapid travel connections among African countries may not be fully available beyond sub-regions in the short term, but the establishment of a single market constitutes an excellent and necessary beginning.
The establishment of a continental free trade area is another significant decision for economic development. The prospect of an Africa-wide market with over one billion people is quite attractive to investors. So far, Africa's experience in the establishment of common markets has not been very positive. Several such markets at the regional level have been in existence for decades, the most important being the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) covering francophone countries using the common CFA currency, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the East African Community (EAC).
Yet despite the existence on paper of free trade rules in these sub-regions, non-tariff barriers have inhibited most trade among African nations until now. An Africa-wide free trade community will require real implementation, rather than signatures on paper. If this can be realized, it will provide major incentives for investors looking to build production facilities in Africa, and numerous benefits for people across the continent.
African Conflict Situations
AU member heads of state also discussed ongoing conflict situations in Libya and South Sudan. They limited themselves to the encouragement of ongoing conflict resolution efforts by AU and UN mediators, without coming up with any new initiatives.
The outlook for resolutions to these crises, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - which a recent report in The Lancet referred to as a "mega-crisis" - is grim. Economic reforms such as those agreed upon by AU member states at the January summit are crucial to African prosperity, but they may be lost to the wind among violence and instability. This summit was a missed opportunity to forge a stronger consensus for action in the countries most desperate for help. The AU, UN, and regional organizations must redouble their efforts in the year to come.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame Elected AU Chair for 2018
One of the most significant decisions taken by the AU Summit was the election of Rwandan President Paul Kagame to be the organization's Chairman for the year. Kagame is an energetic leader who will not be happy with just having the title. He will be pushing the AU to fulfill their resolutions. Since the Single Air Transport Market was his proposal, it is likely to be fully implemented during his tenure.
The Corruption Theme
Fighting corruption was the overall theme of the summit meeting. The heads of state made no official statement about corruption, except to appoint Nigerian President Buhari as Africa's "head of the anti-corruption movement." Buhari is a good choice because he has made a major effort in his own country to reduce what has been a very high level of corruption. This has been demonstrated very significantly in Nigeria's national oil company, the NNPC, where allocations for crude liftings are now based solely on transparent bidding.
President Trump's Message to the Summit Was Conciliatory
President Trump sent a very friendly and respectful letter to the AU summit, expressing a desire for fruitful relations between the United States and Africa and a promise to send Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on an extended goodwill trip to the continent in March. This appears to have pleased African leaders to the point of eclipsing suspicions created by the President's alleged insulting remarks of several weeks earlier. Reports indicate that while AU member states were considering requesting an apology from Trump, his letter caused them to reconsider.
While Africans were justifiably offended by the remarks, Trump's letter confirmed what African heads of state already understood - there is a great difference between Trump's brash nature in domestic politics and the substance of American policy abroad. Trump and his deputies will continue the friendly bipartisan approach to Africa supported by presidents from both American parties for decades. The reforms agreed upon at the January AU summit create myriad opportunities for Americans and Africans to build a future of shared prosperity together.