How Africa Is Bucking the Isolationist Trend

The Continent Is Promoting Free Trade and Free Movement

African leaders pose for a group photograph during an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, January 2013. Tiksa Negeri / REUTERS

The world seems to be moving away from multilateralism. The United States has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris agreement on climate change, attacked the World Trade Organization, and threatened to start several trade wars. The United Kingdom is negotiating a messy exit from the European Union. But one place is bucking the trend. Over the past decade, Africa has moved rapidly toward regional integration. A series of initiatives, including the launch of the African Union Agenda 2063 (a shared road map for the integration and socioeconomic transformation of Africa by 2063), the promised African Union passport, the new Single African Air Transport Market, closer integration by most of the region’s economies, and the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) reveal the strength of Africa’s regional and continental institutions.

Yet despite this progress, some observers remain pessimistic about the prospects for African integration. They point to past initiatives such as the Organization of African Unity and the Lagos Plan of Action, which looked good on paper but did not go far in practice, to suggest that today’s progress will be equally fleeting. They are misguided. Progress has accelerated in recent years and polls show the continent’s people generally support the idea of integration. Challenges remain, but the prospects for cooperation in Africa are rosier than they have ever been. Even a little progress, moreover, will do a lot of good for millions of people. 


Across Africa, governments and regional bodies have begun to implement policies to allow the free movement of people, which is critical for fostering international business. Africans can now travel without a visa or obtain a visa on arrival in at least 30 of the continent’s 55 countries. In 2016, in what may prove to be the most important development, the African Union launched the African passport, which is intended to allow visa-free travel throughout the continent. Although it is currently available only to high-ranking African officials, the AU has vowed to extend

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