The landmark AfCFTA marked a momentous event in the history of Africa. In particular, the agreement loosens the chains of colonialism and moves the continent towards a unified global presence.
Before the era of European colonialism there is evidence that Africa had developed extensive trade routes, not only throughout the Maghreb but also south of the Sahara. These trade routes allowed commerce to flourish and underpinned the growth of a number of magnificent city-states.
But the European interlopers laboured under the assumption that Africans did not have the ability to create such sophisticated urban centres. Consequently, they invariably overlooked or misinterpreted the evidence of civilisations they encountered.
In 2013, the Afreximbank commissioned the Harvard academic Professor Emmanuel Amanyeampong to author a historic overview of trade in Africa. This brilliant essay begins in the year 1324 when the Muslim king of Mali, Mansa Musa, made the Haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca stopping at Cairo en route.
The ship of the desert
One is that the camel had become the veritable ‘ship of the desert’ and had made trans-Saharan trade viable.
The animal’s origin is thought to have been the semi-arid region of Asia. It was domesticated in Southern Arabia before crossing the Red Sea to Africa in the eighth century BC.
The second fact illustrated by Mansa Musa‘s expedition was the gold was widely recognised as a store of value. The trade in African gold was crucial to the development of Europe’s monetary systems and coinage.
But as well as gold, salt had a similar value as a trade item.
The legendary city of Timbuktu, noted for being a great centre of learning, was transformed by the trade in salt as the commodity was transshipped from the backs of camels that had travelled across the Sahara to river-craft plying the navigable 500 mile reaches of the River Niger between Djenne and Gau. The River Niger became one of the great centres of indigenous trade in Africa.
Far earlier, the River Nile also carried trade goods from the Kingdom of Kush in today’s Sudan northwards to the Delta.
While Egypt will forever be associated with the magnificent pyramids at Giza, Sudan has many more pyramids.
For many years, until about a decade ago, Kush was viewed as an outlier to the great civilization to the north, but it is now known that Kush was a black civilization in its own right and an important trading partner with its northern neighbor.
A similar misinterpretation occurred when white settlers came across Great Zimbabwe at the turn of the 20th century. They could not imagine that such an impressive structure – walls 244m in diameter, 5m thick, and up to 11m high – could have conceived and executed by African, by far the largest single prehistoric structure in sub-Sahara. So a number of outlandish explanations were posited: that it was the work of Phoenicians, King Solomon or the Queen of Sheba.
The reality is that Great Zimbabwe was built by local Africans. It is surrounded by at least 200 remains of gold and copper mines and a settlement, that from the 11th century, attracted traders from the Indian Ocean littoral who had international links as far afield as Egypt, India and Persia. It was also a regional centre for cattle trading.
Just as Great Zimbabwe was falsely credited to others, like the Queen of Sheba, so too was the extraordinary settlement at Eredo in Nigeria’s south-west rainforest near the Yoruba town of Ijebu Ode in Ogun State. First revealed in 1994, it was built in 800-1000 AD in honour of the Ijebu noblewoman Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo. The location is on Nigeria’s tentative list of potential UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Eredo is one of the biggest monuments in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a 100-mile-long wall and moat whose construction involved the movement of rock and earth on a scale greater in volume than that of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
The Eredo, which encloses an area about 25 miles from south to north and 22 miles from west to east, is similar to (but larger than) the Benin royal city of Abomey which also has a surrounding wall and moat.
In size, Eredo was massive, the largest city in the ancient and medieval world.
The examples of Eredo, Great Zimbabwe, Kush, Timbuctu and other cities and settlements, whose whole raison d’etre was trade, is evidence that the continent has long had systems of commerce.