Trade wars? Africa has been a victim of them for years
What Africa needs, a friend of mine is fond of saying, is an African Trump: an "Africa first” leader who is not afraid of rubbing the rest of the world up the wrong way, someone willing to rip up traditional alliances, forgo historic links, forge a united and common purpose among Africa’s diverse nations, and then make their own needs – unambiguously – the priority.It’s a surprising way to frame things, but these are surprising times, and political ideologies are upside down. Protectionism is having a moment in the sun, in a useful reminder of the degree to which our perception is skewed of which countries practise competitive capitalism and which do not.Protectionism is often associated with, and criticised in, the policies of poorer countries. It’s what Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Iran do, and why they are ranked among the least competitive business environments. Yet it is these countries from which Trump now takes inspiration. Indeed, it was India’s fondness for protectionism – imposing 100% duties on US motorcycles while the US had zero duties on motorcycles imported from India – that ostensibly justified Trump’s renewed passion for tariffs on imported steel.
America, with the EU by its side – the narrative goes – is the ultimate free-trade pillar of western capitalism. But this is one of the greatest branding myths of all time. America’s history of protectionism is American history – from the McKinley Tariff of 1890, to Barack Obama’s ban on all foreign iron and steel for infrastructure projects.
And Trump – the businessman many see as the human manifestation of white male capitalism – took things further, campaigning on a platform of not trusting globalisation. "Protection,” said Trump during the 2016 election campaign, "will lead to great prosperity and strength.” He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and is no fan of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). America may be the force behind the establishment of the World Trade Organisation, but Trump has already been a painful thorn in its side, causing mayhem by blocking the appointment of judges, and publicly labelling it "a catastrophe”.
As America turns its back on even the appearance of free trade, global ideology is ever more topsy-turvy. In Britain, remainers such as myself want Britain to stay in the European Union, but we are far from cheerleaders for it. Nothing symbolises the EU’s problematic behaviour better than its own history of protectionism. According to one analysis, of the 7,000 harmful trade measures implemented by countries across the globe since 2009, more than half have come from the EU. If Africa needs a Trump, it’s in no small part because of the ways in which the liberal, rights-loving EU has screwed it. The common agricultural policy (CAP) seriously distorted commodity markets, depressing prices for African maize, sugar and beef and eliminating the competitive advantage many African countries should have had in a free marketplace.
CAP reform, Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), and other initiatives designed to rectify colonial hangovers in the uneven playing field between EU members and African nations will not solve the problem, so long as European producers are subsidised. In this, I find myself uncomfortably in agreement with Brexiteers such as the Conservative MP James Cleverly – whose mother connects him to Sierra Leone, as mine does to Ghana – who describes the use of European tax subsidies to deepen African agricultural poverty as "morally repugnant”. Not only should Africa be a breadbasket for the world, instead of – as it has been since 1973 – a major importer of food, but agricultural growth has a disproportionate effect on poverty, since so many low-income Africans live in rural areas.
Africans can take matters into their own hands, and they are doing. "It’s not up to Brussels – we know the playing field is not level,” Lanre Akinola, editor of African Business, told me. Countries such as Brazil show how dramatically a food importer can turn itself into a major exporter through policy, research and investment in the sector.
Yet there’s no denying that since the global financial crash G20 nations have consistently increased protectionism, with painful consequences for the same African nations they self-congratulate for sending aid to. According to the African Development Bank, the continent’s nations bore the brunt of measures including export taxes and tariff and non-tariff barriers, as well as state aid.
Those who dislike the effects of protectionism on Africa are now advocating African countries do more of it, not less. Ethiopia, with its closed economy, is frequently cited as a role model. In a protectionist world, poor nations looking for growth will inevitably follow suit. Full exposure to the global but unfree market has already been tried and tested, as the disastrous experience of the 1980s programme of structural adjustment resolutely showed. Now African countries are facing unprecedented levels of spiralling national debt.
This all leaves those with liberal instincts in a strange place. On the one hand, free trade is an appealing idea. (I say "idea” because we have never lived in a world sufficiently free of protectionism to know what it would actually be like.) The worst-case scenario is the current one: the brutality of the market for poor countries, and the might of protection – tariffs, subsidies and state bailouts – for the rich. A guaranteed unequal playing field, whose casualties we witness time and time again.
The future is guaranteed to be counterintuitive. There is someone in the White House who calls himself a "blue-collar billionaire”, for goodness sake. The man who should be a case study in what not to do is inspiring imitation in the unlikeliest of places.
Many Africans are quite rightly more focused than ever on the benefits of greater regional integration. The proposed Tripartite Free Trade Area – linking the continent’s three regional trading alliances – is seen by many, including a number of British and American diplomats, as a significant step in the right direction. Britain, leaving Europe, and the US, leaving Nafta, are hardly practising what they preach.The one ray of light in the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of today’s international relations is that the ruthlessness with which powerful nations protect their self-interest is transparent. An African Trump is not to my taste, but it’s no surprise there is a growing appetite for just that.•
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