Southern African News Features                                           SANF 11 No 32, November 2011
Tripartite Summit to launch grand FTA negotiations
by Kizito Sikuka
First round of negotiations to establish a grand Free Trade Area covering 27 countries in eastern and southern Africa are scheduled to start in December.

This follows the adoption of negotiating principles, modalities for negotiations and a roadmap for negotiating that were agreed at the 2nd COMESA-EAC-SADC Summit held in South Africa this year.

Chairperson for the Tripartite Taskforce, which is spearheading the implementation process, Sindiso Ngwenya said a lot of ground has been covered to begin negotiations.

“Pursuant to the roadmap decided upon by the Summit, it is now planned that the first round of negotiations for the Tripartite Free Trade Area will take place in Nairobi, Kenya on 8-9 December,” Ngwenya, the COMESA Executive Secretary, said.

“It is envisaged that the negotiations for establishing the Tripartite would be completed within the timeframe of 36 months (or three years) as decided by the Tripartite Summit in June.”

According to the roadmap adopted at the 2nd Tripartite summit, negotiations for the grand FTA will be conducted in different phases.

The first stage – the preparatory phase mainly involves the disclosure and exchange of all relevant information including applied national tariffs and trade data and measures. This stage should also see the adoption of terms of reference and rules of procedure for the establishment of a Tripartite Trade Negotiating Forum.

The preparatory phase is expected to last between six to 12 months, after which phase one of the negotiations will commerce.

At this stage, negotiations will cover core FTA issues of tariff liberalization, rules of origin, customs procedures and simplification of customs documentation, transit procedures, non-tariff barriers, trade remedies and other technical barriers to trade and dispute resolution.

Phase two of negotiations is expected to cover trade in services and trade related issues including intellectual property rights, competition policy, and trade development and competitiveness.

This Tripartite framework involving the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was born out of a realization that the regional integration processes of the three regional communities were similar and in some cases identical.

Thus, it was deemed prudent for the three RECs to co-operate and harmonize their trade, infrastructure and other regional integration programmes.

The establishment of a grand FTA is expected to boost intra-regional trade by creating a wider market, increased investment flows, enhanced competitiveness, and the development of cross-regional infrastructure.

Its creation would ensure a combined population of approximately 600 million people and a Gross Domestic Product of about US$1 trillion.

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

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 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.

Some of the major infrastructure projects planned 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.

COMESA-EAC-SADC initiated their joint cooperation programme just three years ago in Kampala, Uganda at their 1st Tripartite Summit, where leaders agreed on a programme of harmonization of trading arrangements to promote the smooth movement of goods and services across member states.
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