Dr. Joy Kategekwa, Head of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) regional office for Africa, has told The New Times that the upcoming July 7 Extra-Ordinary Summit of the African Union in Niamey, Niger is a pivotal and a historic milestone in African integration.
The Summit will largely be dedicated to the launch of the operational phase of the AfCFTA as well as its operational instruments.
On Tuesday, the government of Nigeria announced that after extensive domestic consultations, it will sign the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement during the Summit, signaling more hope for bring down barriers in trading, specifically tariffs and import quotas on the continent.
In launching the operational phase of the AfCFTA, Kategekwa said, African Heads of State open the door to a new regime of preferential trade treatment at continental scale in Africa.
Kategekwa said, "This promises to transform the lives of ordinary Africans through jobs, scale in production both upward and horizontally; through new market opportunities demonstrable in eliminated tariffs and enhanced nondiscrimination-based services sector access, making important inroads into the dream of structural transformation and sustainable development in Africa."
"The 'universality' of all of Africa's 55 countries participating in implementing the agreement is a critical condition in bringing to fruition the expected benefits of the AfCFTA."
In this context, she said, news of Nigeria, one of the continent's biggest economies, joining is "timely and welcome."
Andrew Mold, the Acting Director of the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) Eastern Africa Sub-regional office, said: "Without them [Nigeria] on board it wouldn't have worked. Benin will sign up now too. The only issue is going to be Eritrea - and we are holding our annual meeting in Asmara in a few months' time."
The AfCFTA was first signed by African leaders on March 21, 2018, in Kigali.
When the agreement officially came into force on May 30, this year, for the 24 countries that ratified it, only three countries - Nigeria, Benin, and Eritrea had not signed the agreement.
Amb. Albert Muchanga, Commissioner for Trade and Industry, African Union Commission, described Nigeria's expected signing in the next few days as a "good and important development."
The coming into force of the Agreement on May 30, experts said, was a turning point for the continent.
Gains not automatic
Looking ahead, Kategekwa said, and in light of the reality that AfCFTA gains will not be automatic, African governments, more urgently than ever before, must get ready by investing in enablers for stronger productive capacity development in key sectors in regional value chains and beyond.
She added: "This is important in ensuring utilisation of AfCFTA markets. Similarly, a foot on the non-tariff barrier peddle is key to ensure that what is gained in tariff reduction is not lost in rising NTBs."
UNCTAD, she said, is committed to supporting the AU's secretariat and its members to take this agenda forward.
The agreement brings together all 55 AU member states covering a market of more than 1.2 billion people, including a growing middle class, and a combined gross domestic product of more than US$3.4 trillion.
In terms of numbers of participating countries, the AfCFTA will be the world's largest free trade area since the formation, 24 years ago, of the World Trade Organisation, an intergovernmental organisation that deals with the global rules of trade between nations.
Estimates by UNECA suggest that the Agreement has the potential both to boost intra-African trade by 52.3 percent - by 2020 - by eliminating import duties, and to double this trade if non-tariff barriers are also reduced.
Niamey Summit a historical rendezvous
According to Désiré Assogbavi, a policy and political analyst, the extraordinary Summit will be held in the margins of the inaugural session of the Mid-Year Coordination Meeting of the African Union and the Regional Economic Communities (July 8) that replaces the previous mid-year AU Summit, as decided within the framework of the ongoing AU reform process led by President Paul Kagame.
Assogbavi, a Togolese citizen, who is representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to the AU regards the Niamey Summit as a "historical rendezvous."
The Niamey Summit will be one of the most attended AU Summit by Heads of State and other personalities in recent time, he noted.
Beside the launch of the operational phase of the AfCFTA, delegations are expected to launch key operational instruments of the Treaty including the rules of origin portal, tariff concession portals, portal on monitoring and elimination of non-tariff barriers, digital payments and clearing system, and the African trade observatory dashboard.
"The Summit will also consider and approve a set of other decisions coming from the Executive Council as part of the reform of the African Union," Assogbavi said.
The Executive Council of the AU - largely composed of foreign ministers designated by member countries - coordinates and takes decisions on policies in areas of common interest to member states. It is answerable to the Assembly.
On the Agenda of the Executive Council, Assogbavi said, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs will most likely discuss and eventually make decisions on matters including: legal instruments of the new African Union Development Agency - NEPAD including the statutes and the rules of procedures of its governing structures; new statutes of the African Peer Review Mechanism; and the AU budget for 2020.
The current draft budget is around $647m, more than 60 per cent of which will be paid by external partners.