The signing on Wednesday in Kigali of the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) paves the way for a months-long process of consultations and ratification which seeks to turn Africa into a modern, fully-fledged single market.
Following the signing of the historic agreement by 44 African countries, it is now up to governments to engage their respective domestic stakeholders, particularly parliament, to see to it that the treaty is ratified expeditiously.
Ratification means the country has fully committed to the protocol.
During this week's 10th Extraordinary African Union Summit, African Heads of State and Government agreed that 22 ratifications will be enough for the trade deal to come into force.
Prudence Sebahizi, the head of the CFTA unit at the African Union Commission, said that ratification will be proof of complete buy-in and readiness by the African nations to implement the agreement.
"The process of ratification is the domestication of international treaties into national laws," he said.
It was agreed that countries have 180 days following the signing of the framework to ratify it.
The African Union Commissioner for Trade, Albert Muchanga, told The New Times that the ratification process will also see a series of national awareness campaigns to, among others, enlighten parliamentarians to ensure speedy approval.
In a major boost to ratification efforts, Afrochampions, a network of African business leaders, has committed $1 million to facilitate the process of raising awareness about CFTA across the continent.
Muchanga noted that, with 11 countries yet to adopt the framework, there will be a second window for signing during the next African Union Summit to be held in Mauritania in July this year.
Addressing Wednesday's AU summit, African Union Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called on member states to "summon the required political will for the African Continental Free Trade Area to finally become a reality".
"The time is no longer for hesitation. I, therefore, call upon all the Member States to sign and ratify the Free Trade Area Agreement. Our ambition must be to ensure its entry into force before the end of this year," said the AU Commission chief.
For my part, he said, "I intend, in the next few weeks, to appoint emissaries to carry out, under the authority of President Issoufou and in coordination with the private sector, the required outreach towards all concerned stakeholders."
President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger is spearheading the CFTA adoption process.
In the meantime, countries are expected to develop a list of 90 per cent of products that won't be protected (from competition) from the onset, the sensitive products that would be protected for a certain period, and the products that are to be temporarily exempted from liberalisation.
The schedule of concessions, negotiators said, will allow for a window for countries to protect their critical infant and emerging industries.
To further facilitate the adoption and ratification process, the Heads of State and Government are required to set up a secretariat for CFTA.
CFTA is hitherto operating as a unit under the Commission of Trade and Industry of the AU Commission. The unit is headed by Rwanda's Prudence Sebahizi.
Article 13 of the agreement, among other things, tasks the assembly on setting up the CFTA secretariat, its nature and budget. If implementation commences before this is done, the African Union Commission will serve as the interim secretariat.
The body will be independent of the AU Commission, reporting directly to the Heads of State and Government.
Should all the African countries come on board and the deal is ratified by all the states, it will make Africa - a continent of 55 countries with a population of over 1.2 billion people and Gross Domestic Product of over US$3.5 trillion - the largest single market in the world.