Kampala — The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) says negotiations for the tripartite free-trade area (FTA) are behind schedule by a year, as countries push for leadership of the process.
Negotiations for the COMESA, Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the East Africa Community (EAC) tripartite FTA were launched in June 2011 to start with a six to 12 month preparatory phase and actual negotiations to commence in July 2012.
In a statement issued recently in the Zambian capital Lusaka, the regional block's senior trade advisor James Musonda said negotiations for the tripartite FTA are behind schedule by some 12 months.
Musonda said negotiations on substantive issues of the FTA will start at the next meeting of the negotiators to be hosted by Zambia this month in Livingstone.
He said the Livingstone meeting will be the sixth negotiating session out of an agreed total of 10 sessions.
"The Livingstone meeting is, therefore, being seen as a make-or-break session for the negotiations, and it is proposed that the negotiations must be based on a draft text of a tripartite FTA agreement prepared by experts from the COMESA, EAC and SADC secretariats in 2009," he said in a statement that was also published in the Zambia Daily Mail.
The architecture and design of the tripartite FTA in terms of trade preferences, product coverage, simplification of trade procedures and documentation through trade facilitation are currently being negotiated.
Musonda said the text was subjected to extensive national and regional consultations and involved both the public and private sectors jointly and separately.
The heads of states and Government of 26 countries in eastern and southern Africa met in October 2008 and agreed to establish Africa's grand FTA.
The road map of heads of state is to expeditiously establish the tripartite within the timeframe 36 months set for the negotiations.
"It remains to be seen if the negotiators of the 26 countries will live up to the expectations of the general populace of the region and match the ambition and aspirations of the political leadership.
The outcomes of the Livingstone meeting will tell,' he said.
Musonda said the tripartite FTA will bring with it significant opportunities for business persons in Zambia and other countries as a result of the enlarged single market.
"Competition is likely to increase, but Zambian business stands to benefit by taking a more outward rather than inward looking posture...being defensive will not serve Zambia's interests as the economy is very small with a GDP [gross domestic product] of just under US$20 billion or 1.6 percent of the tripartite economy and a population of 13 million equivalent to 2.2 percent of the total tripartite population," he said.
Musonda said creation of the tripartite FTA will establish Africa's grand FTA with a total population of about 600 million people and a combined output of goods and services of more than US$1 trillion.
He said the tripartite FTA is driven through three pillars namely market integration, infrastructure development and industrial development.