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26 African states sign free trade area agreement

Business Daily Africa

26 African states sign free trade area agreement

By George Omondi

10 April 2009

Twenty six African countries seeking to merge their economies into a single trading bloc that controls a combined wealth of $ 624m and a market of 527m people moved to a definitive stage after their leaders approved plans to establish a free trade area early this week.

This effectively means Kenya and her new partners in the expanded bloc are inching closer towards ending the African Union’s dominance over continental policy matters as the expected bloc’s wealth and population would now represent 58 and 57 per cent of the AU’s combined wealth and population, respectively, making it even stronger than west Africa’s influential ECOWAS bloc.

The new bloc is also likely to end the rough manner that blocs such as the EU have been riding over weaker sub regional groupings and states. For instance, civil rights groups have been putting pressure on African governments not to bind their countries in trade deals such as Economic Partnership Agreements with EU which the west normally hands to weaker partners in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion.

Remote areas

A joint communiqué, released following the Tripartite Summit concluded in Lusaka, Zambia, on Wednesday, said the leaders agreed on a FTA encompassing member states of the three Regional Economic Communities (RECs) - EAC, Comesa and Sadc with the ultimate goal of establishing a single customs union.

The meeting, which came as a follow-up to the Kampala tripartite meeting of October last year, agreed to establish infrastructure networks to link the regional economies and enhance trade.

For a start, the 26 countries pledged to channel joint investments towards rehabilitating the northern corridor which serves a total of 8 countries. “The infrastructural development must be prioritised as a key catalyst in the quest to open up remote areas in Africa.

Through efficient flow of traffic and information we will be able to boost trade and accelerate the process of integrating the continent’s National Economies,” President Kibaki, who currently chairs Comesa bloc, told the Lusaka gathering.

The idea to merge the RECs was first broached in Kigali in 2005 and has since been followed up by other bi-annual meetings held under chairmanships of the chief executives of the various blocs.

Road map

According to an earlier communication by Kenya’s East African Community ministry, the three RECs which have been negotiating a framework for the establishment of a pan-regional FTA had given themselves up to April to come up with a road map for the merger.

At the Kampala meeting, all the leaders of the 26 countries were issued with a draft memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the inter-regional cooperation and integration for their perusal before it was signed into a binding agreement this month.

The MoU binds all the political leaders to liberalise trade among their economies, cooperate in custom and establish an FTA among other programmes.

It also obligates the leaders to design joint programmes for agricultural development and food security, and to collaborate with other members in preparation of common regional positions and strategies in both multilateral and international fora.