Africa: Free Trade Zone Launch Moved to January Over Pandemic Lockdowns

Women - most widowed or otherwise made vulnerable by the Boko Haram insurgency - are producing facemasks using the traditional Ankara fabric, to protect the population from the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria’s conflict-affected Northeast. Initial training for the women by professional tailors in Maiduguri, was supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Commencement of trade under the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) has been pushed to a tentative date in January next year. The African Union Commission's original date of July 1 is considered untenable due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

AfCFTA's Secretary General Wamkele Mene said African governments are currently focusing on the fight against the pandemic, saving lives and livelihoods. Mr Mene said the market at the moment is not conducive for the launch considering more than 42 countries out of 55 countries in the continent are in lockdown and the containment measures are complicating intra-trade as observed in borders where trucks queuing for more than 50 km waiting to deliver essential goods.

WIDE CONSULTATION

Addressing private sector players in a webinar organised by Africa CEO's Forum on Thursday, Mr Mene said the decision to push the date forward was made after wide consultation.

"Suspension of the implementation of AfCFTA from July 1 was not my decision but that of African Union Heads of States. I advised the assembly on the reality, facts, science and data on the ground on the situation of Covid-19. The decision of the new date, which also depends on how quick the pandemic is contained, was widely consulted and involved the private sector," said Mr Mene.

The secretary general, appointed by the AU in March to oversee the implementation of the agreement also said the postponement was as the result of the pending negotiations which were halted by the pandemic.

"The Covid-19 crisis was not expected and its impacts are inevitable; we lost March and April which were critical on AfCFTA implementation. During that period, we had intended to complete some pending technical elements, such as rules of origin -- products made in Africa -- for some sensitive sectors, the exchange of tariff concessions on goods trade and commitments on trade in services which are critical in the negotiations," said Mr Mene.

SPURRING GROWTH

He added, "We would like to resume trade as soon as borders reopen and we are working closely with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention who are advising us on how we shall start engaging when the conditions are conducive and the pandemic is behind us."

The AfCFTA secretariat said in order for the continent to recover from the crisis and to spur growth, there was a need to implement the continental trade agreement since it is an opportunity to develop Africa intra-trade.

Mr Mene said due to the pandemic, African exports are expected to decline from 53 per cent in 2019 to less than 30 per cent this year due to travel restrictions abroad due to Covid-19 containment measures.

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RARING TO GO

When the process resumes, there are more than 250 different negotiations on trade expected to be tabled with each country and region expecting to negotiate for the best preferential trade tariffs in the market which will create a single continental market for goods and services. Member countries have been cautioned against engaging in third party trade deals and instead focus on making the AfCFTA a success. Concerns are being raised now that the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) agreement is coming to an end in 2025 and already the US has started engaging in bilateral agreements with some countries.

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