There had been a collective cry for years from across Africa since the late 1950s from pan-Africanists, intellectuals, the media, governments and the business community in Africa.
Africa knew what it wanted, went the defiant cry. It was a strong, confident continent of people from legendary pre-colonial kingdoms like Astanti, Mali, Buganda, Zulu and Ethiopia.
This strong, confident Africa did not wish to be treated with pity by the West and other world powers. The international economic and trade system created after World War II was slanted heavily in Africa’s disfavour.
All that Africa wants, said these voices, is trade, not aid. Just lower the trade barriers, remove the subsidies that you, the West, gives your producers, allow African goods access to the Western markets.
Once African goods and entrepreneurship gained a foothold in the affluent markets of the West, you would see what the sons of the soil were capable of doing.
In the 1960s, the European Economic Community (EEC, forerunner to the European Union), came up with a trade arrangement to address this problem facing the Sons of the Soil from Africa.
In 1963, EEC member states and 18 African countries signed an agreement in the Cameroonian city of Yaoundé, in which a selected number of goods, most of them agricultural, from these 18 African countries, would be given preferential trade access to the EEC market.
The Yaoundé Agreement, which was renewed in 1969, was replaced by a new one in 1974, called the Lomé Convention, signed in the Togolese capital Lomé between the EEC and the African nations.
By this time, the Black nations of the Pacific and the Caribbean had joined this trade arrangement, which was now called the EEC-ACP treaty (for EEC-African-Caribbean-Pacific).
In 2000, the ACP-EU agreement was renewed yet again, signed in Benin’s capital of Cotonou.
It was the same treaty, only renewed and signed in different West African states Cameroon, Togo and Benin.
All through the 1970s to 1990s, these African countries saw their share of global trade decline, become more indebted than before and their infrastructure decline close to the point of collapse.
The negligible fruit, flower, fish, beverages and other agro-livestock products to the European markets were not able to earn enough revenue to develop these countries.
Fifteen years ago, on May 18, 2000, a Congressional act was signed in the United States. It was called the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (much better known to most in Uganda as AGOA).
AGOA was, basically, America’s effort to do what the European Union had been trying (and failing) to achieve since the early 1960s – trade, not aid, with Africa.
15 years later, how has AGOA fared?
Like the ACP-EEC and ACP-EU agreements since 1963, AGOA has been a failure in overall terms.
It had provided for 6,000 different kinds of products from sub-Saharan Africa to enter the United States duty-free.
So far in the last 15 years, AGOA has come down to only three African countries. Of the African exports to the US under AGOA, 80 per cent are from Angola, South Africa and Nigeria.
And the reason Nigeria and Angola are high on the list is because of their petroleum, a full 67 per cent of the AGOA exports from Africa.
Of the remaining 33 per cent, South Africa alone takes up 23 per cent and the remaining 37 African countries make up the 10 per cent.
In terms of other products besides oil, South Africa is the only country that exports meaningfully to America under the AGOA terms.
Then, 68 per cent of the $20 billion in exports from the United States to Africa in 2011 were to Angola, Nigeria and South Africa.
AGOA, in other words, has ended up as a trade agreement between America and South Africa, Angola and Nigeria, not a trade partnership between Washington and the 40 sub-Saharan African countries signed up to it.
To add insult to injury and demonstrate just how incompetent Africa as a continent and as a people we are, AGOA was designed to be a one-sided trade deal; meaning, African products would enter the US duty free but US products to Africa would still be taxed.
We need to remember that over the last 15 years, China has come into Africa and invested heavily in upgrading its infrastructure, establishing factories and assembly lines in several, building new airports, highways and bridges.
Despite China coming in to strengthen Africa, the continent’s AGOA exports to the United States are actually in decline. In 2011, Africa’s AGOA exports were $68.2 billion; in 2012 they declined to $43.1 billion; in 2013 down to a further $34.8 billion; and last year, 2014, it was $23.2 billion.
In that sense, AGOA was like a football match where the US agreed to field a team of three men, without a goalkeeper and Africa was allowed to field 40 teams, but the African teams still failed to score a single goal.
In Uganda, when AGOA failed miserably the natural reaction from the media, civil society and the political opposition was that this was yet more proof of the incompetence and dishonesty of the NRM government.
In most other African countries, the blame was heaped on the ruling president or his party. But the bigger picture was that this was a continent-wide failure.
Our inability to meaningfully trade with Western Europe since the early 1960s despite the ACP-EEC preferential trade concessions and the failure over the last 15 years to take full advantage of the AGOA terms, shows just how deep the crisis of Africa is.
To some Afro-sceptics like me, this is no surprise at all. I am one of those who has been writing the longest about the fact that we are inadequate people.
It shows that even if we had presidential term limits all across the continent, the freest and fairest elections, the best of UPE, we would still be a helpless people.
I see it all around our Ugandan society: We don’t know what we want, don’t know how to appreciate talent, don’t know how best to spend our income, don’t know how to plan, can barely think, of course find it difficult to read books or anything longer than 400 words, have childish goals as our life dreams and on and on.
Aggregate all this incompetence and inadequacy into societies and nations and I am not in the least surprised that we have failed dismally with AGOA. It would have been a total shock to me if we had, as Africa, managed to get it right.