At the second UBA Africa Day Conversations the other day, some African leaders in government, business, and multilateral institution spoke exhaustively about what Africa needs to do to recover quickly from the economic effects of COVID-19. UBA’s Group Chairman Tony Elumelu recommended long-term solutions, which include a stimulus package, closer collaboration between the public and the private sectors including mobilising domestic resources and funding. President of African Export-Import Bank, (AFREXIMBANK), Prof. Benedict Oramah urged that the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) be hastened to build continent-wide supply chains that will foster growth, a view shared by U.S. Senator Chris Coon. The Secretary-General of the African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) Group of States, George Chikoti, spoke for ‘‘improved governance, and strong agricultural growth, including high productivity.”
There is nothing new in these suggestions that have not, at least, in the last four decades been well articulated, analysed and concluded at various fora – lectures, symposia, conferences, discussion panels, economic summits, and more. If words can develop a continent, Africa will, arguably, be the most advanced in the world. Apparently, everyone in and out of government knows what to do to grow and develop the African economy. But the gap between talk and action is as wide as ever. There is ample evidence to prove a lack of political will to do the needful – for the rather baffling reasons that only the political leaders themselves can say.
Take good governance, for instance. Forty years ago this April, the then Organization of African Unity (OAU) acknowledged the driving importance of sound, transparent and visionary political leadership to economic development. In the preamble to the Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa (1980-2000), a landmark blueprint for Africa’s economic development, the heads of state and government that approved the document stated that, “we recognize the need to take urgent action to provide the political support necessary for the success of the measures listed in the document to achieve the goals of rapid self-reliance and self-sustaining development and economic growth…’’ But the deterioration of the continent in economic and most aspects, except population, indicates that Africa’s political leaders have failed their own agreement. This is what is termed failure of leadership. It is a shame!
Take economic integration too. The political leaders committed themselves “individually and collectively …to promote the economic and social development and integration of our economies… and to establish national, sub-regional and regional institutions, which will facilitate the attainment of objectives of self-reliance and self-sustainment.”
Elumelu observed that no financial system can develop without a strong domestic sourcing and funding for growth. He is right. Indeed, the preamble to the Lagos document complained long ago that, “the effect of unfulfilled promises of global development strategies has been more sharply felt in Africa…Indeed, rather than result in an improvement in the economic conditions of the continent, successive strategies have made it to stagnate… thus, Africa is unable to point to any significant growth rate, or satisfactory index of general well-being in the past 20 years.”
In response to these disappointments, the plan was designed to address the myriad obstacles to development including “human resource development,” “to eliminate illiteracy,” “achieve self-sufficiency in food production and supply,” “implement completely, the programmes of the United Nations Transport and Communications Decade for Africa,” “realise the sub-regional and regional internally located industrial development,” “develop indigenous entrepreneurship, technical manpower and technological abilities to enable our people assume greater responsibility for the achievement of our individual and collective development goals.”
Since 1980, even earlier in some cases, sub-regional economic groups such as ECOWAS in West Africa, have been created all over the continent-with varying degrees of effectiveness. AFREXIMBANK’s Oramah is right to have advocated a speedy implementation of the continental trade agreement AfCFTA. This is the latest, on a continent-wide level, that came into force late May 2019, for the first 24 (out of the 55) African Union member states that ratified the agreement. This is a remarkable step that, if fully backed by the required political will, (and this is ever the obstacle in Africa) grants tariff-free movement of people and capital, and up to 90 per cent of goods and services within a continent with an estimated 2020 GDP of $2.6 trillion. AfCFTA is touted as possibly the largest trade block when it becomes fully operational as conceived by its longsighted creators. Armed with a 1.27 billion population, a consumer spending power estimated at $1.4 trillion, this agreement may boost intra-Africa trade from a meagre 16.6 per cent in 2017 according to World Economic Forum sources, to 52 per cent by 2022 according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
In 2014, the African Union (AU) came up with another detailed document titled ‘‘Agenda 2063’’ for what is described as “a shared strategic framework for inclusive growth and sustainable development” and outlined in “The Seven Aspirations.” Agenda 2063 is a 50-year economic development plan for Africa that is as thoroughly conceived as imaginable. Given the way the Lagos Plan of Action has gone – or not gone – the success of the agenda too remains anyone’s guess.
This newspaper believes, with endless proofs that the continent has everything – human and material – it requires to become a global economic powerhouse – except, alas, good leadership, the main trouble with Africa.
It is useful that leading Africans continue to speak up for a better continent. But too much has been said for too long but with too little result. Enough of rhetoric; action is required. If and when its political leaders live up to the trust reposed in them by the people, think up and act on original development plans such as the Lagos Plan of Action, and deliver good governance that the ACP’s Chikoti urges, this continent will earn its place of respect in the world. The responsibility to achieve this lies squarely on the shoulders of Africa’s political leaders. They can choose to fulfill it or betray it. Before COVID-19 and beyond it, the economic development of Africa is not in word but in deed. And so the time has come to migrate from rhetoric to action.