• Friday, July 19, 2024
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Gold, spices and leather: What intra-Africa trade looked like before AfCFTA

Why Nigeria should leverage the AfCFTA for improved manufacturing

The curse and blessings of geography loom large in the history of trade in Africa. First the blessings. Africa was home to large herds of elephants, many of the most prominent nodes of gold and copper in the Old World, incense prized for their mystical qualities and thinly populated lands that allowed for expansive settlement.

On the other hand, it lacked the deep harbours of Europe. On its Atlantic side, it faced prevailing winds that prevented direct communication with the western hemisphere. Its rivers were prone to seasonal shifts in their depth, and rapids and gullies made them a challenging means of internal navigation. The absence of highly populated, dense urban settlements like in Europe and Asia reduced trade demand. Most fatefully, the presence of swathes of tsetse fly territory across the continent’s interior made beasts of burden like camels, horses and cattle a fitful investment. They could only be used for transportation within certain areas and no further.

Yet, despite the myriad challenges to trade, it persisted and even thrived. Prominent on the mosaics of Egypt are descriptions of trade expeditions to the land of Punt in the Horn of Africa. Some of the greatest trading cities of antiquity and the early modern era were on the coasts of Africa. Carthage, Alexandria, Mogadishu, Kilwa and Old Calabar, to name a few. Also, what more iconic image of African trade exists than that of the Bedouin on his camel, battling the desert sands at the head of a caravan of thousands. Much closer to home, consider the famed brass images of Nigeria’s medieval kingdoms: Igbo-Ukwu, Ife and Edo. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. The closest copper deposits to Nigeria are in Takedda, Niger and Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo. That indicates that a trade route connecting the Nigerian interior with either of those two areas once existed.

At its most basic, intra-African trade functioned according to comparative advantages determined by ecological and occupational specialisations. Dwellers in the salty, swampy mangrove traded maritime products for staples such as yams and goats. Nomads, whether foragers like the San or BaTwa or pastoralists like the Fulani or Tuareg, exchanged products from the hunt or their animals for goods produced by settled populations such as iron implements or grains and tubers.

The next stage was the exchange of vital commodities such as salt, stimulants such as kola nuts, metals like copper, slaves for specialised tasks and animals, camels and horses in particular. Salt is vital for human survival. Yet, in the past, especially in West Africa, the largest population concentration was in the Sahel and Niger Bend regions. As they were far away from the sea, that made them particularly reliant on rock salts mined in the dire conditions of desert mines. The most famous mines at Taghaza were reliant on external trade to import food and replenish its ever-dwindling stocks of mine slaves. The mined salt was shaped into blocks, loaded on camels and then despatched to the major trading cities of the region for onward dispersal to local markets. Such was the importance of salt that the treasury of Gao, later capital of the Songhay Empire, had its treasury filled with blocks of salt.

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Equally vital was the exchange of animals. As mentioned, Africa is blighted by a large tsetse fly territory. They were also known to be peripatetic. That meant that permanent movement was the only way to ensure the survival of herds of animals which were vital to trade and State power such as camels and horses. Desert nomads, like the Beja, were famous camel traders. They traded their camels both northwards and southwards. A contemporary metaphor would be to think of them as the oil refineries that provided the fuel for the locomotion of the locomotives of the era. Similarly, local horses were exchanged to States which needed them for power projection but whose environment made it impossible for them to be maintained permanently there. A perfect example is the Oyo Empire in West Africa. The exchange of animals across ecological environments also made purchasing slaves familiar with animals and their needs logical. In the Oyo Empire, for example, slaves from the horse regions were also imported to care for the animals so vital to the maintenance of Oyo’s might and grandeur.

Finally was international trade. Due to the transportation and demographic constraints already mentioned. Africa was reduced primarily to a source of commodities and an entrepot. It never achieved the demand scale equivalent to the contemporary burgeoning markets of Asia and later Europe. The entrepot cities across history, whether Awdaghust, Timbuktu, Carthage, Alexandria, Mogadishu, Zanzibar or Luanda, were characterised by their sale and import of goods which could either move themselves or were light enough to be transported inland. Hence the importance of gold, spices, leather works, musks and slaves. On the import side, Africans imported slaves, horses, luxury goods and weaponry. The international trade was primarily an inter-elite phenomenon mediated by capital-rich international trading ethnic groups like the Arabs and Jews.

The lubricant for this far-flung trade was human ingenuity operating in conditions of scarcity and the institutions those conditions created. The spread of Islam, in particular, gave the trade a common language and a set of precepts that acted to boost trade. It was in recognition of the importance of Islam to the prosperity of their States that many African monarchs went on pilgrimage. On the flip side, the decline of the Solomonic Empire in the Horn of Africa was due to the isolation and hostility it faced by being surrounded by Muslims, following the Seventh-century blitzkrieg of the Arab conquests.

The early modern era was dominated by Muslim Empires colloquially referred to as the Gunpowder States. They are usually said to be the Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid Empires. That typical description excludes the Saadi State in Morocco, famous for their destruction of the Aviz dynasty of Portugal, at the Battle of Three Kings in 1578, and their destruction of the Songhay Empire, in 1592. The roots of their renaissance lie in trade. Specifically, the exchange of sugar for modern weaponry with Protestant England, at the time estranged from the Catholic European States.

The significance of the trade relations between the Saadi dynasty and Tudor England indicated the beginning of a paradigm shift in parameters of African trade. The Portuguese invasion of Morocco was part of a wider period of European expansion which kicked off the modern era, saw them discover the lands of the western hemisphere, re-establish contact with the African interior and over time, come to dominate the balance of trade in what was, as with the Saadi-Tudor exchange, often a straight swap of commodities for manufactures, especially weaponry. Even sugar, the commodity that underpinned the Saadi rearmament would come to play a wider role when the plantation system, which originated in the European-colonised islands of the Atlantic coast of Africa, was perfected in the Americas. It triggered a process of forced labour relocation that saw Africa lose close to 13 million workers sold as slaves to the Americas.

The long-term result of Africa’s integration into a global trading system was debilitating. The original premier commodity of this new trading era, slaves, led to death, rapine, misery and dislocation. The switch to cash crops brought European rule which although it brought back stability was undermined in its developmental efforts by the racism of the era. Finally, the minerals of the independent era have empowered unresponsive governments and tyrants.

The most fitting explanation for Africa’s weakness vis a vis the other continental trading networks was its lack of regional integration. This was first due to the geographical and demographic challenges outlined above. Second was the absence of common standards outside the areas under Islamic law. The ubiquity of slavery also led to chaos. Third was the absence of large empires or pan-regional institutions that could impose common standards and freedom of navigation. It is not a coincidence that the prosperity of the Medieval-era Maghreb and West Africa occurred under the banner of Islam. Finally, the discovery of the Americas upended the typical economic orientation of the continent. Asia and the Mediterranean region lost their competitiveness to the Atlantic region, an area where African competitiveness was restricted to slaves. All in all, except for brief periods of prosperity, the inherent weakness of the lack of connective institutions and infrastructure are recurrent themes in the rise and fall of intra-African trade.