SUCCESS AND SUSTAINABILITY OF any trans-boundary trade arrangement will rest heavily on national and regional security. Good governance and peace within nations should therefore be important markers or indices for success in regional trade. Post-independence Africa, for the most part, has experienced pockets of hostilities, skirmishes, wars and sectarian crises at different times, sometimes spanning over years. Libya, for instance, has just announced a tenuous ceasefire after a year of intense fight between a genuinely recognised government and a force that wants to overthrow it. Mali’s democracy has just been disrupted by a military intervention. And, if Sudan’s opportunism of military intervention in 2019 is anything to go by, Mali’s return to civilian rule may not take hold in another one year. The insistence of Cote d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara to put the patience of his country to the test by announcing his intention to run for third term has stoked protest and resistance. If Ouattara chooses the path of defiance, spill over effects in form of trade-disrupting social tensions may arise as Cote d’Ivoire stands the chance of a return to another avoidable civil war, as a previous one necessitated the temporary movement of the headquarters of African Development Bank (AfDB) from Abidjan to Tunis. Chances are that any other civil strife may lead to its relocation once again. Peace and safe trade corridors are desirable, and indeed indispensable, in a continent that desperately wants to promote intra-regional trade.
The reality of Africa’s security problems warrants a hard look at the unintended consequences of continent-wide free trade. Policy or political decisions may directly or inadvertently provide a leeway for insecurity depending on how they are framed, implemented or communicated. In a continent that depends mostly on old-fashioned border security systems, more sophisticated and nimble methods for breaching border security have enabled smugglings, robberies and insurgencies at unprecedented scales in many regions. Problems of insecurity also follow the laidback policies on trade across borders, such that, improperly defined regional trade policies create loopholes easily exploited by armed miscreants where commerce corridors could turn to insurgent routes or safe havens. The trans-border movement of small arms and the amplified spectre of insecurity as a result of infiltration by external terrorist networks, such as ISIL or Al Quaeda, are consequences beyond trade that Africa will have to deal with and so have to build into their overall response strategies for anticipated emergencies. About a fortnight ago in Mozambique, a repeat attack by Islamist insurgents led to fatalities and temporary capture of a strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia in the tense province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique, in furtherance of a series of assaults begun since 2017.
Africa is the new beautiful bride for many international interests – business, military, religious, global expansionary ambitions and environmental observers who see the many assets that are not even noticed or valued by Africans themselves. Any of these interests could be – or may have been – penetrating Africa under false pretences. The Belt and Road Initiative of China, for instance, has Africa on its radar. Japan is still an active player in Africa and Russia is making an inroad. The Middle East looks at Africa’s food production potential. France has not fully let go of its former colonies for pecuniary reasons. India’s growing influence on Africa’s economy is all too obvious. The onus is on the African Union (AU), the sub-regional economic blocs and various countries of Africa to fashion out pragmatic strategies on how to find a delicate balance between regional and national security on the one hand and the trade promotion on the other as trade can be used as façade for moving ammunitions across borders as well as recruitment and movement of mercenaries. A general assumption under regional trade liberalisation regimes is that of relaxation of cross-border immigration requirements in form of visa-on-arrival policy or elimination of visa requirements in certain circumstances, as well as more liberal approach to movements of goods. These are easily abused in terror-prone areas. Overhauling and coordinating the regional security architecture will therefore require much groundwork.
Health emergencies have become real threats to global economy and need no longer be treated as tangential to trade matters. Coronavirus pandemic, experience over the past half year has shown, has led some countries to adopting some trade-restricting measures in attempts to protect specific strategic sectors of their economies. Regional integration and associated economic cooperation therefore has expanded frontiers of consideration in pragmatic intervention approaches. In addition to the frenzy of national lockdowns and restrictions of movements, trade disrupting decisions have followed in some instances. A number of countries have decided to hoard food, limiting the exports of key staple food commodities to protect domestic supplies. In late March 2020, Viet Nam, the third largest rice exporter in the world, temporarily froze registration of new rice-export contracts, although it later removed all export restrictions. To understand the transmission effects of such decisions under a pandemic, trade restrictions on major internationally-traded staples, such as rice or wheat, could drive up prices and increase hunger in importing countries. Widespread hunger could lead to restiveness and chaos, which could be exploited by anarchists to foment trouble. The poor usually bears a greater brunt of negative consequences of international trade and AfCFTA cannot be an exception. Since many countries in Africa depend on such major staples, a continental trade framework should include import-dependent and food-related security considerations.
The real battle of intellectual property rights will be a tough one for AfCFTA as it will require a harmonisation of 54 countries’ legal structures, with all the diversity of situations and realities. The increased attention of the world towards Africa will lead to aggressive adventures by external vested interests that will only have to be matched or surpassed by forward-thinking Africa. Trade related aspects of intellectual property rights will be central to any meaningful continental commerce. Availability and enforcement of international framework on intellectual property rights (IPRs) agreements based on provisions for access to and use of technology are crucial to intra-African trade as developing economies as well as trade between Africa and elsewhere in settlement of trade disputes between countries. In particular, and without having to re-invent the wheel, agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will be relevant to AfCFTA. This is an area that should be of interest to strategic global platforms that focuses on Africa – including the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Teff, an Ethiopian grain crop, also known as dwarf millet, is comparable to maize in Mexico or rice in China in terms of culinary significance. Its international relevance began in a benign diplomacy and business alliance but progressed to intellectual property infringement in a subsequent fight against biopiracy. The teff patent controversy underscores the agricultural products patenting’s capacity to do immense damage to trade in African and other developing countries. Injera, the fermented pancake that Ethiopians eat with their meals, made from teff, a popular staple grain in Ethiopia and Eritrea, has become a culinary sensation in Western countries as a low-glycaemic-index and gluten-free alternative to the traditional wheat. Until just recently, an obscure Dutch agronomist held the patent for making anything imaginable out of teff flour, choking Ethiopia’s ability to market the grain, particularly on the international turf. The European Patent Office granted a monopoly on a wide range of products made from teff in Europe, squeezing Ethiopia out of position to utilise its own teff genetic resources — through partnership with other foreign companies — in Europe and wherever else the teff patent might be approved. The hard won victory for Ethiopia did not come from the suit it deliberately filed.
The controversial patent, which led to a legal tussle over ownership of teff was originally filed in 2003. Ethiopia, in May 2018, took the case to the International Court of Arbitration in Paris. Another case, one that ultimately won Ethiopia the needed justice, was not instituted by Ethiopia but by one Dutch company suing another for patent infringement, which ended up voiding the litigant Roosjen’s patent as declared by Dutch patent office, corroborating a court at The Hague. The court ruling, which invalidated the patent, was issued in November 2018. Fitsum Arega, the Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States, referring to the judgment as “great news,” expressed the hope that “we can learn from this that our national assets must be protected by Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia.” On a continental scale, the intellectual and legal structures to position Africa for trade must therefore be vigorous and dynamic. As a continent that is heavily dependent on agricultural commodities exports – mostly as cash crops – the use of intellectual property occupies a central place as trade moves up the ladder of value chains. Hitherto, the dominant genetic resources have been treated as public goods and research on them has been generally funded and promoted by philanthropy and some countries’ governments supporting research institutions.
It is important to avoid the research outputs from becoming objects of exploitation by shrewd capitalists who could turn them to economic weapons against the growing population and teeming African poor that depend on small and medium scale farmers. In reality, more patent controversies are to be expected in the future, especially arising from the anticipated gains from crop patenting by big multinational private companies. Increasing fund constraints on the part of Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centres will most likely diminish their roles in genetic conservation and genetic research. It may also restrict their sentinel roles in movement of genetic resources. For a secure future in food production and trade, Africa needs to hedge against biodiversity loss beyond mere dependence on the Svalbard global seed vault that has proved vulnerable with its minimal flooding after the 2017 melting of permafrost in the Arctic’s snowy stronghold of world’s seeds, although the seeds were not affected. This should send a strong cautionary message to individuals and governments in countries where activities that exacerbate erosion of crop genetic resources are actively practised unabated. Legal systems to serve as deterrent should be in place.
With more involvements of multinational corporations in genetic research, Africa needs to set up safeguard measures to prevent strategic resources from being poached. The dependence of Africa’s future food security on these resources makes them a central security issue that must be treated as an integral part of African continental trade. Discussions on potential landmines in bilateral and multilateral international trade agreements and relevant protection measure must be part of the overall African trade strategies to avoid losing precious assets on the altar of trade. Africa’s quest for free trade must thus be done with great care and alertness.