The launching of the Tripartite Free Trade Area on Wednesday 10 June 2015 is a historical milestone that will be remembered for having taken the African continent to another level of integration.
The tripartite arrangement of the Common Market for Eastern for Eastern and Southern Africa, East African Community and Southern Africa Development Community (COMESA-EAC–SADC) is thus the most exciting trade and infrastructure development in Africa at the moment. It provides the foundation of the Continental Free Trade Area promoted by the Africa Union (AU) Commission and its partners which is set for launching in 2017.
The main reason why the three Regional Economic Communities (RECs), decided to launch the Tripartite Programme in 2006 was to remove some of the inconsistencies and costs in regional integration brought about through overlapping memberships. Thus the Tripartite is not a new legal structure neither is it a new REC. It is an attempt to merge the Regional Organizations into the African Economic Community.
There are benefits which accrue from countries being members of more than one REC. Among them, is the achievement of economies of scale. Through developing its large internal market, Africa and producers in the continent will be in a position to compete globally.
Tripartite countries account for half (26) of the Membership of the AU with a Gross Domestic Product of $1.2 Trillion, a population of 625 million and a combined landmass of 17 million square kilometers. COMESA alone brings to the tripartite table 19 Member States, a population of over 490 million, an annual import bill of around US$150 billion and an export bill of US$82 billion.
The tripartite strategy consists of designing and implementing the Tripartite FTA, the preparation of a Trade and Transport Facilitation Programme elaboration of a regional industrial development programme, the design and implementation of trade and transport infrastructure projects along corridors and free movement of business persons across the RECs.
The Tripartite Free Trade Area builds on the FTAs that are already in place in COMESA, EAC and SADC. Its roadmap presupposed that the countries would need to engage in negotiations. It also recognized that there are Preferential Trade Areas and FTA trading arrangements already in place among them. This means that not all the countries would need to negotiate with each other.
Significant progress has been made in implementing the Tripartite FTA and negotiations on trade in goods have advanced to allow for the launch of the TFTA. About 90% of the 26 countries in the Tripartite are already in a Free Trade Area. The proposal that has been adopted by the Tripartite Summit is that those countries that are in a FTA should extend the preferences they offer to first, members of their regional FTA and secondly, to members of other regional FTAs.
For example, all COMESA members implement the COMESA FTA and offer the same preferences to non-COMESA FTA members on a reciprocal basis. EAC and SADC States do the same; and COMESA Non-SADC and EAC members offer SACU (a customs union comprising of Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland), Angola and Mozambique duty free, quota free market access for all originating goods on a reciprocal basis.
If this is done full TFTA will be arrived at for all the countries in the Tripartite in a relatively short period. It is also possible to implement the TFTA at variable speeds given that some countries may achieve a tariff phase-down to zero tariffs on originating goods faster than other countries, subject to negotiations.
It is safe to draw the conclusion that the Tripartite Free Trade Area is more of an opportunity than a threat. But to realize that opportunity we need to work together for the common good. It is not a zero-sum game, what is good for our neighbour can be good for all of us. The challenge is to get this message across to the general public, civil servants and private sector. The counterfactual to the Tripartite Free Trade Area is a steady spiral downward, another generation of missed opportunities and continuing to bump along the bottom.
ED’s Note: Sindiso Ngwenya is the Chairman of the Tripartite Task Force and Secretary General of COMESA