The creation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) in the Rwandan capital of Kigali last month could be the most significant development in global economic affairs since the Treaty of Rome set European nations on the same path 62 years ago.
Or it could be an embarrassing failure.
To begin with, let’s look on the bright side.
CFTA aims to bring together all African countries, comprising 1.2 billion people with a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of more than $4 trillion, into one continental market for goods and services.
This would lead to the free movement of business and money across borders and a massive expansion of intra-African trade.
By conservative estimates the CFTA would add two per cent to Africa’s GDP growth in the largest free trade area (in terms of member States) in the world.
The CFTA is a logical progression from the 17-year-old African Union, whose stated aim is to accelerate the political and socio-economic integration of the continent, with the ambition of eventually developing a customs union, a common market and even a single currency.
Now for a reality check.
Eleven of the continent’s 55 nations have yet to sign up to the deal. Significantly, absentees include South Africa and Nigeria, which together represent 50 per cent of sub-Saharan GDP. Without them the CFTA is dead in the water.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was initially a supporter, but pulled out of the summit at the last moment citing a need for further consultations with trade unions and business.
South Africa’s Minister for Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, said his country supported CFTA but did not sign immediately “for technical reasons”.
So, both might still come to the party.
There is also the question of government capacity. Many of the nations that signed up to CFTA are operating with extremely weak bureaucracies. Corruption is rife in a number of jurisdictions while others suffer from lack of proper training plans and poor leadership.
Even so, in a world where protectionism is on the rise, there are huge benefits for opening up intra-African trade which currently accounts for just 10 per cent of all commerce on the continent — compare this to 70 per cent for Europe and 25 per cent for South-East Asia.
Whether the Treaty of Kigali will one day rank alongside the Treaty of Rome, or whether it will be remembered as a hopelessly utopian project that was quickly discarded only history can judge.
However, a continent that has been fought over, exploited and parcelled up by outsiders, is taking its future into its own hands — and that is a hopeful sign.