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Africa’s Historic Pivot

It might not be obvious to the casual observer, but Africa is undergoing something of a revolution when it comes to economic policymaking. Risking recrimination and worse from their traditional Western patrons, the continent’s governments are finally demonstrating a willingness to chart their own course.

ABIDJAN – The year 2018 was marked by tremendous economic and political turbulence around the world. And yet, for future historians, it may well be the year when Africa started to claim its intellectual and economic-policy independence.

The unlikely trigger for what could turn out to be a continent-wide strategic shift was Rwanda’s decision to increase tariffs on imported secondhand clothes and footwear in support of its local garment industry. This provoked an immediate hostile response from the United States, which suspended duty-free status for Rwandan textile exports under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), America’s flagship trade legislation for the continent.

For a small, landlocked African country that relies heavily on trade, this was a big deal. But the fact that Rwanda held its ground confirmed that times have changed. If Rwanda is willing to risk preferential access to the US market in order to develop its domestic garment industry, then it must be confident that it will find alternative markets for its exports.