Grand FTA can’t be delayed any longer
Lusaka- Trade proponents are arguing that the enhancement of regional integration and creation of a grand Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) among the three Southern and East African economic trading blocs cannot be delayed any longer as the global market is yearning for more products from the continent while the groupings need to increase intra-trade among member countries.
In recent years, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) as well as the East African Community (EAC), have been seeking to join forces in fostering regional integration through trade.
Commonly known as the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA), the integrated market will comprise the COMESA, the EAC and SADC. The establishment of a single and enlarged market is expected to boost intra-regional trade and deepen regional integration through improved investment flows and enhanced competition.
In fact, this integrated arrangement will create a combined population of some 625 million people covering half of the member states of the African Union (AU) and a Gross Domestic Product of about US$1.2 trillion.
SADC, COMESA and EAC have agreed to hold the tripartite FTA summit in Egypt to kick start the process, with the gathering scheduled for the end of May 2015. Africa’s longstanding vision is to be an integrated, prosperous and united continent. This vision was supposed to come closer to reality in December last year when the largest integrated market covering 26 countries in eastern and southern Africa (the Grand FTA) was initially earmarked to be established at summit in Egypt.But the summit was deferred to May this year.
It is hoped that when the member states meet, those countries which will be ready to join the FTA and integrate will go ahead and move on while others that are still undecided will be compelled to join later to ensure the process is not delayed any further than has been the case.
COMESA, initiated and embraced the idea of a Free Trade Area in 2000 and has been dealing with various trade barriers including certificates of origin, allowing free movement of people among member states, among others.
But, key proponents of regional integration and the Tripartite Free Trade Area have expressed their displeasure due to delays to kick-off the programme, arguing that it is time to move forward.
“We cannot afford to delay the implementation of the tripartite FTA as well as accelerate regional integration because that is Africa’s dream and desire to break into the European market,” says Cassam Uteem, the former Mauritius president.
Uteem, one of the pioneers of the FTA, argues that it is uncalled for, for any country or indeed all those seeking to be part of the tripartite FTA to “drag their feet because this programme has been delayed long enough”.
“The idea behind this FTA or regional integration in Africa has been the idea and desire of Pan Africanist leaders (including Thabo Mbeki, former South African president) who wanted Africa to grow at the same pace as Europe in terms of trade but is not the case,” said Uteem who led the Election Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) Observer Mission to Zambia’s January 20 presidential by-election.
The statesman commended COMESA for its untiring effort to push for the FTA over 10 years ago and the desire to ensure the three regional groupings are joined, ostensibly to avoid “duplication of efforts”.
The European Union (EU) Head of Mission to Zambia, Gilles Hervio, whose grouping of 28 member states has been instrumental in promoting regional integration and FTAs in Africa, argues that “Africa cannot afford to waste more time than is now”.
“We are and have been keen to see Africa become self-reliant in the growth of intra trade amongst member states while at the same time promoting trade between developing countries and Europe, but Africa seems to be dragging its feet, for reasons not known,” he said.
“There is an open market out there (Europe) looking for goods, products and services from Africa, but, it seems the process is being delayed unnecessarily.”
The EU diplomat attributed Africa’s slowness to redress such shortcomings to lack of political will and refusal by some countries to break the “yoke of sovereignty” where they don’t want to be at the same level with countries deemed to be small economies.
Although Europe had its own problems with regional integration which included failure to adhere to set rules, the organisation has managed to set benchmarks including making the Euro currency accepted as universal in most parts of the member countries.
“Europe had its own problems with regional integration, but at least we made headways in a number of areas, which Africa needs to emulate and foster such programmes,” Hervio says.
“There is no time to waste, it is now or never for regional integration and forming a tripartite FTA for the betterment of African economies.”
Late last year, COMESA, which is spearheading the implementation process as chair of the Tripartite Taskforce, released a statement saying the proposed Grand FTA will be launched in December 2014 during a Tripartite Summit to be held in Egypt.
This followed a series of intense consultations and negotiations that have been going on since 2008 when the three regional economic communities made a commitment to jointly work together in regional integration during their historic summit held in Kampala, Uganda.The commitment shown by the three economic communities has now proved fruitful as the Grand FTA is within sight and becoming a reality.