Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa. Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi/African News Agency/ANA
JOHANNESBURG - In the cross-hairs of Africa's intractable development challenges is an uneasy and shifty interplay of its regional policy position, political economy and intentional ignorance.

A glimmer of hope that has to be seized and driven ruthlessly with all the necessary support systems is the signing of the Africa Free Trade Area in Rwanda - for Africa needs trade and not aid.

It is for this reason that I have allotted a number of columns to this hope-arousing historic occasion.

The AfDB Statistics Office is responsible for co-ordinating the International Comparison Programme (ICP), a fundamental dataset for trade. They have convened an advisory panel of experts. We met in Abidjan last week to discuss the ICP for Africa. The Africa Free Trade Area has inspired us although not without experience-based caution. In fact, the evidence is tellingly disappointing given the state of intentional ignorance, which will once again wipe out the aspirations of Africans.

Success of the Africa Free Trade Area hinges on a functional relationship among the pan African institutions of the African Union, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) and the African Development Bank, including the sub-regional system, which should be science-based and sensible in terms of political economy.

However, this is more easily said than done. Africa has often witnessed starts and stops with rare flashes of hope.

The Africa rising narrative, which has somewhat dissipated and lost shine, displays the rickety nature of the development architecture of Africa.

While the political economy is crucial I would like to bring to the fore Africa's intentional ignorance as a key catalyst of its development deficits both in politics and economy.

Thirteen years ago after the signing of the Yaoundé Declaration on Statistical Development in Africa, a forerunner to the Africa Symposium for Statistical Development (ASSD), and 10 years after the Accra Declaration that ensured that statistics is at the centre of Africa's development architecture, efforts towards key instruments that should inform Africa of its convergence show fundamental cracks and debilitating regression.

That by itself leaves the aspiration for Africa's free trade hollow.

The key questions the political leadership of Africa must ask technocrats, who prepared the base documents to make the declaratory commitment, are the following, among other things: to what extent are the recommendations and political commitments on Africa Free Trade Agreement science based?

Where are the facts and the individual products including quantities and current market consumption of those products?

Those who submitted the documents to the political principals will have hardly heard about the ICP, let alone applied the rich statistics in it.

As such they have no statistical base to lead their heads of state in these kinds of decisions. This is the tragedy of Africa - technocrats leading political masters into hollow agreements, however tantalising the idea. When we met last week in Abidjan, we had a very frank assessment of Africa's deliberate exercise of indulging intentional ignorance.

While at its inception in 1968 Africa hardly participated in the ICP, by 2005 more than 40 African countries participated and in 2011 a record 49 participated. Spurred by this success, as African statisticians we committed to running the programme annually, although at a thinned level and peaking every five years. Alas, not all countries kept to this commitment, thus intentionally choosing ignorance against knowing.

Among them is Nigeria, the biggest economy on a purchasing parity price gross domestic product adjusted level.

With such a glaring omission of a big economy how can West Africa in the first instance have a science-based choice on types of consumption products that would undergird trade in Africa?

These big data gaps are significant and undermine the modelling exercise that Africa needs to resolve when it comes to trade.

It is not uncommon that when ministers of economy, planning and finance meet they make an interesting spectacle when they engage on trade.

Four years ago they convened in Abuja. At the time many countries were eager to go for car manufacturing but most of them were neighbouring nations.

Better Informed

If these ministers had taken the time to look at consumption versus expenditure both intermediary by industry as well as final household consumption as contained in the ICP across African countries, they would have informed themselves better about what might work for both their respective economies and the continent.

This would allow them to understand as well the vexed economics of value add in global value chains and multinational inputs. Without a statistical framework that is temporally coherent, frequent and Africa wide, a free trade zone in Africa will soon degenerate into a pipe dream.

There are additional political problems now arising that will impact negatively on agenda convergence.

In their wisdom, led by minister Trevor Manuel, the Conference of African Minister’s responsible for Planning, Economy and Finance was jointly held between the Uneca and the AU in order to foster the integration of agendas.

The African Development Bank would be invited and participate in full.

After successfully hosting these meetings over years, the two institutions have now signed divorce papers and at the heart of it is the Morocco-Sarawi issue. This must be a serious cause for concern and sanity has to prevail. Ministers and heads of state need to take charge to ensure these meetings are theirs and they have to enforce the integration and joint meetings. It was painful to witness the collapse of this meeting in Dakar, Senegal, in 2017.

Separation of institutions leads to separation of agendas and will not benefit African citizens.

The cross-hairs in the development agenda of Africa need to be confronted and the dreadlocks should be amputated.

If not, the declarations will come and go.

Africa has no choice when it comes to matters of development and cannot gamble with the future of its citizens through hollow declarations.

Dr Pali Lehohla is former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

-BUSINESS REPORT