16 Feb African leaders to re-initiate free trade zone discussions
Three years ago, amid a blaze of optimism, African leaders officially launched a new continent-wide free trade area after 17 years of haggling.
But as the leaders travel to Addis Ababa for the annual African Union summit this weekend, transforming the blockbuster pact into reality remains a tough ask.
The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), billed as the biggest free trade accord in the world in terms of population, gathers 54 out of 55 African countries, with Eritrea the only holdout. Two days of talks under the theme “Acceleration of AfCFTA implementation” open on Saturday.
AfCFTA’s plan is to boost intra-African trade by 60 percent by 2034 by eliminating almost all tariffs, creating an economic bloc of 1.3 billion people with a combined gross domestic product of $3.4 trillion. African countries currently trade only about 15 percent of their goods and services with each other, compared to more than 65 percent with European countries.
If fully implemented, AfCFTA would lift 50 million Africans out of extreme poverty and raise incomes by nine percent by 2035, according to the World Bank. But implementation has fallen well short of that goal, running into hurdles including disagreements over tariff reductions and border closures caused by the Covid pandemic.
Backdrop of crises
This year’s summit comes at a “delicate moment” for Africa, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, citing Ethiopia’s nascent peace process, conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sahel region, South Sudan and jihadist insurgencies in Somalia and Mozambique.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions that followed “have rattled African economies and left many in deep distress”, ICG adds, with food prices shooting up. While Europe’s internal market is knitted together by energy pipelines, motorways, railways and flight routes, Africa is playing catch-up, with decrepit infrastructure and corruption handicapping the process.
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