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SADC Today Volume 11 No.2, October 2008
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SADC COMESA EAC Joint summit to tackle overlapping membership

by Munetsi Madakufamba

THE CHALLENGE of overlapping membership among African regions comes under scrutiny in October as leaders of three trade blocs meet to find common ground on trade, customs and infrastructure development.

Uganda hosts the joint summit of SADC, the Common Market of East and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the East African Community (EAC) on 20 October.

Membership overlaps exist SADC, COMESA and EAC, and all three organisations plan to create customs unions, a situation that presents technical challenges as a country cannot belong to more than one customs union.

Eight SADC members -- the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe -- also belong to COMESA, while Angola is a member of the Economic Community of Central African States and the United Republic of Tanzania belongs to the East African Community.

With Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland being members of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), only one out of the 15 SADC Member States is a member of a single Regional Economic Community and that is Mozambique.

Yet SADC, COMESAand EAC either plan to create customs unions or have already declared one.

Since all SACU members belong to SADC, it does not present much of a technical problem as the SACU arrangement automatically falls away with the creation of a SADC Customs Union.

However, real problems exist between SADC countries' membership to either COMESA or the EAC. The tripartite summit will address some of these challenges and possibly recommend a framework that would allow for the creation of a bigger FTA and Customs Union.

SADC began this process with the launch of a Free Trade Area (FTA) at the 28th Summit held in South Africa in August, marking a major achievement in its 28-year history. Formed in 1980 and transformed in 1992 to the present Southern African Development Community, SADC has embarked on several ambitious regional integration projects, in areas such as trade, infrastructure, food security, human and social development, as well as politics, defence and security, all intended to bring about economic prosperity, peace and security to its 250 million citizens. Trade has been singled out as the intervention with the greatest potential to address southern Africa's biggest challenge - poverty.

SADC plans include the launch of the FTA as the initial step in the trade integration trajectory, moving incrementally to establish a Customs Union in 2010, a Common Market by 2015 and a Monetary Union by 2016. A regional central bank and a common currency are expected in 2018.

Thus by launching the FTA on SADC Day, 17 August, southern African leaders demonstrated their will to deliver a better life to the millions of citizens as acknowledged by the host, South African President Thabo Mbeki who took over the rotating SADC chair at the twoday Summit in Johannesburg.

"The challenge facing our region during this era is to do extraordinary things so as to build the Free Trade Area and consolidate its gains for the mutual benefit of the region's economies and development," Mbeki said.

A key challenge facing the region is infrastructure development. Better road and rail networks are necessary to facilitate the cross-border flow of goods and services. Current road and rail networks do not adequately support effective intra-regional trade.

An Infrastructure Master Plan is being developed to address this shortcoming.

While the FTA directly addresses the question of tariffs insofar as it allows for 85 percent of traded goods to be duty free, Member States still need to tackle the challenge of non-tariff barriers such as restrictive entry border requirements which are counter to the spirit of free trade.

Other challenges are on the supply side of trade where the private sector would be called upon to improve productivity if they are to remain competitive in the regional market.

Such competition, while it may have negative implications on employment in smaller and weaker economies, is likely to bring in cheaper alternatives, from the consumer's point of view.

The FTA was established through the SADC Trade Protocol whose implementation began in the year 2000.

To date, 11 out of 15 SADC Member States are applying the protocol meaning that as many as 170 million people in those countries will immediately benefit from the new economic dispensation.

Malawi is expected to come on board once current constitutional challenges affecting the budgeting process are over. Angola and the DRC have asked for more time before they join the FTA, and Seychelles, which rejoined SADC at the Summit, will be expected to begin formalities soon to become a member of the FTA.

Member States are expected to harmonise their national trade policies with all the provisions of the Trade Protocol if the FTA is to be successfully implemented.

The 19-member COMESA, which launched its FTA in 2004, plans to declare a customs union by December this year. The EAC declared its customs union in 2005.

In any case, regional economic communities are building blocks of the envisaged African Economic Community (AEC).

If the three sub-regions, spanning from Cape to Cairo, can find common ground regarding trade arrangements, that would constitute a major breakthrough insofar as the African Union is seeking a smooth and faster route towards the AEC.

Not only do Member States face problems with multiple memberships when it comes to trade, but a plethora of challenges in other areas.

In the case of SADC, COMESA and the EAC, overlaps exist in other areas such as infrastructure as well as challenges arising from time and financial obligations as regards membership contributions, attendance at meetings as well as implementation of several other regional integration programmes.

Thus the tripartite summit will seek to find a joint approach to implement regional telecommunications networks based on the COMESA Comtel Project, the SADC Regional Information Infrastructure Project as well as a harmonized approach to the implementation of the NEPAD Broadband East African Submarine Cable (EASSY) Project. The latter will facilitate connectivity with North Africa, the Oceanic Islands and the rest of the world.

The three sub-regions are expected to discuss how best to accelerate the implementation of inter-connector projects under the auspices of the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) and the East African Power Pool.

A Tripartite Task Force involving the three trade blocs has been holding meetings for more than a year in preparation for the joint summit. 

This article may be reproduced with credit to the author and publisher.

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