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Africa’s ‘smart reopening’ through technology is urgent for AfCFTA


Olusegun Obasanjo is the former president of Nigeria, the chairperson of The Brenthurst Foundation, and a co-author of ‘Democracy Works: Rewiring Politics for Africa’s Advantage’.

While I commend African states and their governments for rising to the occasion and curtailing fatalities arising from Covid-19 infections, I am concerned that the relaxation of lockdowns and the reopening of these countries might lead to a reversal of the achievement recorded in the past six months unless it is done responsibly.

The world is reopening for social and economic activity following many months of lockdown and other restrictive measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. It is now clear that despite all global efforts, the disease will be with us for a longer time than anticipated. 

Indeed, until a vaccine is found, Covid-19 is expected to continue to spread among populations and affect economic activities, albeit on a diminishing scale. The challenge for governments, especially in Africa, where systems and institutions are not as efficient and effective as those in more advanced countries, is how to control the spread of the disease while allowing much-needed economic activity to provide for and protect livelihoods.

While I commend African states and their governments for rising to the occasion and curtailing fatalities arising from Covid-19 infections in spite of their known infrastructural and institutional challenges, I am concerned that the relaxation of lockdowns and the reopening of these countries might lead to a reversal of the achievement recorded in the past six months unless it is done responsibly. It is critical, therefore, that the continent must continue to cooperate and have a coordinated approach toward reopening. 

At the peak of the crisis, an Africa-wide steering committee to manage the crisis (AFTCOR) was instituted and backed up with a common fund mobilised through the continental private sector. Some of our most renowned leaders were appointed as envoys to ensure that Africa speaks with one voice. And, everywhere, the case was made that the crisis was both the strongest spur and the best opportunity to accelerate the emergence of the single market, through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), and thereby increase self-reliance and resilience.

We are at the most critical juncture of the crisis. Reopening our borders and relaxing lockdown policies in our individual countries requires that we remain vigilant. This is the only way we can ensure that we give our economies a much-needed boost while recovering from the devastation of Covid-19. Already, we were constrained by Covid-19 to miss the much anticipated 2020 start of trading under AfCTFA. We cannot afford to miss the new January 2021 date if we are to make any serious progress with economic recovery in this era of Covid-19. 

I believe that a major threat to AfCTFA trading – and indeed general economic activities on our continent – will be a spike in Covid-19 infections due to cross-border movement as we reopen for trade and business. As we have seen elsewhere in the world, technology plays a critical role in helping us deal with this threat. I am encouraged by the intervention of various AU organs and bodies such as the Africa CDC, the AU Department of Trade & Industry, the African Civil Aviation Commission, the African Organisation for Standardisation, and the Africa Scientific Research and Innovation Council, working in partnership with private sector multi-stakeholder organisations such as AfroChampions, the Africa Tourism Board, the African Economic Zones Organisation and Koldchain BioCordon, among several others, to find technological solutions to some of these challenges. Even more remarkably, all these “public digital goods” platforms have been offered at no cost to African governments and citizens.

These smart solutions, often propelled by digital technologies, such as PanaBIOS, to enable cross-border travel without risking a surge of infections; and the others in the AVIVA framework, designed to allow African governments to cross the January 2021 timeline for start of trading under AfCFTA by moving all outstanding negotiations online, are urgent and critical. As such, they deserve the full support of the member states. Others like TribeID, which aims to transform the capacity of e-commerce platforms to make African SMEs the beating heart of AfCFTA are of huge structural importance if AfCFTA is to become more than just a piece of paper, another Yamoussoukro Agreement – a deal to open African skies, which has not been properly implemented.

Take the problem PanaBIOS is designed to solve for instance: how testing conducted anywhere on the continent can be relied upon for cross-border travel. The alternative is the chaos, confusion and huge inconvenience in time and cost of every African country requiring every traveller to conduct tests on arrival, tests before departure and tests during transit! For Africans in less connected parts of the continent, this could well amount to $500 of tests for a single journey. Just for the “privilege” of travel within one’s own continent? It is precisely problems like these that African cooperation was designed to solve, and Africa’s fast-growing technological capacity equips our leaders to address smartly and effectively.

It is the fervent hope of all Pan-Africanists that this continent shall not “waste this crisis”. That we shall embrace this upcoming reopening to collaborate intensively in order to show the ingenuity, grit and foresight with which the African is blessed. The pandemic must be turned to an opportunity. DM


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