On 21st March 2018, 44 of the African Union’s 55 member states signed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which seeks to remove tariffs on 90 percent of continental trade. This was a significant step forward in increasing intra-African trade, which lags behind other regions, and could act as an important foundation for the diversification of African economies. Currently, as a percentage of total African exports, intra-African trade accounts for less than 20 percent, whilst in Europe and Asia such trade accounts for over 50 percent. The African Union has projected that implementation of the agreement could increase intra-African trade by more than 52 percent and it has put specific emphasis on diversifying away from extractive industries. This should provide a growing number of investment opportunities for both African and foreign investors. The agreement also has the potential to trigger investment in much needed cross-border infrastructure, opening up land-locked countries in the continent’s interior. Although the AfCFTA is in its early days and, at the time of writing, still requires ratification by at least four more country governments to come into force, it is symbolic of Africa’s economic growth and has the potential to act as a strong foundation for local economies.
While it is not possible to point to a single event that showed US disengagement with Africa, the Trump administration’s approach to the continent throughout 2018 revealed Africa’s peripheral position in US foreign policy. From allegedly using derogatory language to describe African countries, to sacking his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, during his trip to the continent, President Donald Trump showed his disdain towards Africa. As any discussions during Tillerson’s trip to Africa were effectively undone by his sacking, the Trump administration’s primary diplomatic engagement with the continent in 2018 was through Melania Trump’s visit on behalf of USAID. The fact that this trip is mostly remembered for the First Lady’s decision to wear a colonial-era pith helmet on a safari in Kenya, not only revealed the lack of diplomatic weight attached to it, but also a disregard for Africa’s history on the part of the current administration. Although this approach has not caused a rift between the US and Africa, it would have certainly reinforced the continent’s close alignment with China and reoriented countries towards other outside powers, diplomatically, economically and militarily. Turkey, Russia and the UAE are just a few examples of the countries which have recently increased their engagement with Africa and are likely to take advantage of the US disengagement with the continent.