Southern African News Features                                           SANF 11 No 15, June 2011
Tripartite Summit to launch grand FTA negotiations
by Kizito Sikuka

After many years of planning and coordination, Africa can now move another step closer to its long-conceived goal of a united African Economic Community.

The continent is expected to make this giant stride at the forthcoming 2nd Tripartite Summit of southern and eastern African leaders scheduled for South Africa this weekend.

At the Summit, the leaders are set to formally launch negotiations to establish a grand Free Trade Area that would encompass 26 countries in three Regional Economic Communities (RECs), namely the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA), East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The creation of a single FTA would ensure a combined population of approximately 700 million people and a Gross Domestic Product of US$625 billion.

This would open borders to literally half of the continent, spanning the entire southern and eastern regions of Africa – from Cape to Cairo.

The deal seeks to facilitate the smooth movement of goods and services across member countries, boost intra-regional trade and expand business options and trade opportunities.

The FTA would serve as one of the building blocks of an African Economic Community, which has been a longstanding vision of the continent’s leaders, since 1963 at the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and was eventually agreed in writing decades later when the leaders approved the African Economic Community Treaty in 1991.

Thus, the creation of a grand FTA would become a new benchmark for deeper regional and continental integration in Africa.

According to a statement by the host nation South Africa, the Summit is expected to review the implementation of various joint programmes, particularly in infrastructure development given that the success of a larger open market depends on a vibrant and reliable infrastructure base.

"The summit will give further impetus on infrastructure development, supporting industrial development and diversification to build production capacity among the member states in order to take advantage of a larger more open regional market," reads part of the statement.

Some of the major infrastructure projects earmarked by the three RECs include those along the North-South Corridor, which traverses eight countries in southern and eastern Africa.

An initial US$1.2 billion was raised in April 2009 to upgrade regional infrastructure including over 8,000km of road and 600km of rail, as well as upgrading ports and energy transmission lines.

Significant progress has been made in meeting some of the targets with the launch of the Chirundu One-Stop Border Post between Zambia and Zimbabwe in 2009 being one of the indicators.

However, there is need for more efforts in areas such as energy generation and transmission as well as road infrastructure to ensure that the process of deeper integration is fully achieved.

On economic development, the Summit is expected to find ways of ensuring that the region maintains its recovery from the global financial downturn that affected most of the world since 2008.

"The summit aims to build on the improved economic development prospects and potential in Africa, promote social and economic development, reduce poverty and inequality and deepen integration to compete more effectively in the global economy," the statement adds.

The 2nd Tripartite Summit is scheduled for 12 June in Johannesburg. The inaugural summit was held in October 2008 in Kampala, Uganda where leaders agreed on a programme of harmonization of trading arrangements to promote the smooth movement of goods and services.

SADC leaders are expected to take advantage of the Tripartite Summit to review the political situation in Zimbabwe.

At their Extra-Ordinary Summit held in Namibia in May, SADC leaders agreed that they would discuss the political situation in Zimbabwe on the sidelines of the Tripartite Summit.

Zimbabwe political parties in a SADC-brokered inclusive government have failed to agree on some of the implementation issues in the Global Political Agreement which gave rise to the present power-sharing arrangement.

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