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Kampala summit to decide the future of trade blocs

The East African, Nairobi

Kampala Summit to Decide the Future of Trade Blocs

13 October 2008

By Julius Barigaba, Nairobi

The first ever tripartite summit of the East African Community, the Common Market for East and Southern Africa and the Southern Africa Development Community takes place in Kampala this week.

The summit will bring together 23 states from the three regional trade blocs under the mandate of the African Union as the first step towards taking integration beyond the existing regional economic communities.

"The background to this summit is that the African Union accords regional economic communities a significant role as building blocks for the eventual integration of Africa," said Julius Onen, EAC’s Deputy Secretary General in charge of projects and Programmes.

Mr Onen last week met diplomats accredited to Uganda from the various countries that make up the three trade blocs.

Besides the host Uganda, EAC member countries Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi will be in attendance as well as Comesa states Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, the Comoros, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius, Malawi, Sudan, and Swaziland. SADC members South Africa, Mozambique, Lesotho, Namibia and Botswana are also expected.

Current EAC summit chairman, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, and South Africa’s new president who is also SADC chairman, Kgalema Motlanthe, have confirmed attendance, along with their host President Yoweri Museveni.

This is the first time that the three blocs meet following last month’s approval in Nairobi by Comesa of a proposed merger with the SADC.

The proposed merger comes at a time when the region is making efforts to do away with multiple memberships, considering for instance that EAC member countries also have overlapping memberships in both Comesa and SADC — with Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi in the former, while Tanzania subscribes to the latter, having quit Comesa a few years ago.

The move could well spell the beginning of an integration process across the Eastern and Southern African market of more than 500 million people.

Trade within the 400 million strong Comesa market alone last year stood at $7.8 billion driven mainly by the bloc’s Free Trade Area, which now covers over 13 countries.

A merger between Comesa and SADC could see the biggest economies — South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Libya — take up and benefit from even bigger chunks of the market.

Mr Onen said that the first areas of collaboration were for the participating countries to establish a Free Trade Area and allow free movement of labour. Officials within Comesa, EAC and SADC are agreed that the continued existence of the three trade blocs is an irrelevance, considering that the memberships of these blocs overlap, an issue that last year complicated trade negotiations between the EAC and the European Union as the two attempted to reach an Economic Partnership Agreement.

The rules require that the East African Community — which is a Customs Union — can only sign a trade agreement with another partner as a Customs Union.

Considering that the EAC has been implementing its Customs Union for three years now and with the Comesa Customs Union set to take off in December this year, it is expected that harmonisation of trade rules, manufacturing standards and investment rules with SADC Customs Union—proposed for 2010 — will take centrestage when senior officials meet on Tuesday and Wednesday this week to prepare the tripartite accord, to be approved by on Thursday.

The document will explore harmonisation of the different Customs Unions and other trade related issues to be approved by the summit on October 22.

The diplomats, meeting ahead of the summit, agreed that among other things, a proposal on Free Trade Area and free movement of people across national borders be adopted.