Africa is getting a free trade zone, but when?

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            African Heads of Government met at the 25th Summit of the African Union (AU) and agreed to the creation of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) with a 2017 implementation date.[1] Some trade experts, however, believe that this timeframe is unrealistic.[2] Trudi Hartzenberg, director of the Stellenbosch, South Africa-based Tralac Trade Law Centre, said in an interview: “The indicative date is really a political decision, but realistically the negotiation will take much longer … what may be possible is some kind of framework agreement by 2017, and then the more detailed provisions on specific substantive issues will take much longer.”[3] To support her contention that a 2017 implementation is unrealistic, Hartzenberg cites, among other reasons, a lack of impetus to liberalize import tariffs, slow regulatory reforms and harmonization, and countries’ reluctance to enter into investment protection agreements.[4]

African Union Flag
The Flag of the African Union. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

            The vision for the formation of an African Continental Free Trade Zone predates the existence of the African Union itself, tracing its roots back to the Abuja Treaty of 1991.[5] The Abuja Treaty, signed into law by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), envisioned an economically integrated Africa with free trade, a central bank, and a common currency.[6] Covering an area with a combined economy worth more than $2 trillion, the potential benefits of the CFTA are numerous.[7] It is estimated that the removal of tariffs on intra-African trade alone could raise their share in total African trade from 10.2% to 15.5% from 2010-2022.[8] Most of this increase in trade would impact the manufacturing sector, given that intra-African trade has relatively higher industrial content than trade between African countries and the rest of the world, but there is also a great opportunity for regional agricultural trade.[9] Trade in agriculture faces a higher rate of protection than non-agricultural sectors, so eliminating tariffs to intra-African trade in agriculture would greatly help regional agricultural trade to increase.[10]

             While some trade experts remain skeptical about the implementation date of the CFTA, the optimism of the AU is understandable in light of the recent inception of the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA).[11] The TFTA, adopted on June 10, 2015, brought together three of Africa’s largest Regional Economic Communities (RECs): the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the common market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the East African Community (EAC).[12] The TFTA, representing 48% of the AU membership and 51% of the continent’s GDP, has demonstrated a large-scale free trade zone among heterogeneous nations is possible in Africa.[13] 

            The CFTA has the potential to add to the success of the TFTA exponentially, but the question remains: “when?” Joanmariae Fubbs, chairwoman of the South African portfolio committee on trade and industry, commented: “I do think we ought to make a start and perhaps that date will provide the driver to the timeline, to pressurize it.”[14] Perhaps this is the best answer we are going to get.

[1] The Continental Free Trade Area: Making it Work for Africa, UNCTAD (Dec. 15, 2015), [].

[2] Rene Vollgraaf, Africa Free-Trade Bloc Implementation Date May be Too Optimistic. Bloomberg Law, [].

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] See Policy Paper, UNCTAD, Building the African Continental Free Trade Area: Some Suggestion on the Way Forward, UNCTAD/DITC/2015/1 (2015), [].

[6] Abuja Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community, Organisation of African Unity, Jun. 3, 1991, 30 I.L.M 1241,

[7] See Vollgraaf, supra note 2.

[8] See UNCTAD, supra note 5.

[9] See UNCTAD, supra note 5, at 3.

[10] See UNCTAD, supra note 5, at 2-3.

[11] See Sara Canals, Toward a Unified African Market, South Sudan News Agency, (Jan. 20, 2016) [].

[12] Soamiely Andriamanaajara. Understanding the Importance of the Tripartite Free Trade Area, Brookings Inst. (Jun. 17, 2015), [].

[13] David Luke & Zodwa Mabuza, The Tripartite Free Trade Area Agreement:  A Milestone for Africa’s Regional Integration Process, ICTSD, (Jun. 23, 2015)’s [].

[14] Vollgraaf, supra note 2.  

Posted by George H. Ricks on Mon. April 4, 2016 4:00 PM
Categories: Africa, African Union, Free Trade

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