Building capacity to help Africa trade better

The AfCFTA must cope with global and continental challenges alongside existing structures: How will it do so?


The AfCFTA must cope with global and continental challenges alongside existing structures: How will it do so?

The AfCFTA must cope with global and continental challenges alongside existing structures: How will it do so?

The AfCFTA is not only a trade deal. It is also a flagship project of the AU and must advance political and developmental aims to “deepen the economic integration of the African continent in accordance with the Pan African Vision of ‘An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa’ enshrined in Agenda 2063’.”[1] And it must be capable of dealing with an evolving and challenging external environment.

The global conditions into which the AfCFTA will arrive once the tariff schedules and rules of origin are finally agreed, have changed rather dramatically since the launch of the AfCFTA negotiations in 2015. Covid 19 has had devastating consequences for many sectors of the economies of countries in Africa and beyond. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has its own difficulties. Ministerial Conferences were cancelled, the Appellate Body stopped functioning and plurilateral agreements gained momentum. Multilateral efforts to adopt binding agreements to deal with carbon emissions, green energy technology, climate change, sustainable development and public health issues gained momentum but showed mixed successes. The AfCFTA State Parties (through the Council of Ministers) will have to address these issues; they do not yet figure as AfCFTA priorities.

Will this be feasible? What needs to be done by whom? There are no supranational institutions in the AfCFTA. New initiatives will have to be launched through the AfCFTA institutions provided for in the form of the Council of Ministers (COM), Committee of Senior Trade Officials and the Secretariat. The latter is the permanent administrative arm of the AfCFTA.

The COM has wide-ranging powers but ultimately decisions are taken on the basis of consensus; the State Parties must agree on new initiatives and action plans. They will be guided by national and regional needs and economic development plans and by the realities of trading patterns that have developed over decades. The prolonged AfCFTA negotiations on tariff schedules and rules of origin demonstrate how complex it is to agree on a continent-wide trade regime.

The AfCFTA is designed to be member-driven. As an institutional arrangement it will not be the sole actor when it comes to continental advancement and integration. The AfCFTA shall be governed by the “preservation of the acquis and best practices in the RECs, in the State Parties and International Conventions binding the African Union”.[2] The RECs’ Free Trade Areas are the building blocks of the AfCFTA. “Building on the acquis of the existing REC FTAs” means that what has been achieved and agreed before, remains in place and underpins new developments.

The AfCFTA thus foresees the co-existence of a new continental arrangement with several African Free Trade Areas and Customs Unions. Those Regional Economic Communities (RECs) with their own integration agendas will pursue their specific strategies on deeper integration, as well as other disciplines considered to be necessary for local needs. Examples are regional environmental programmes, energy, water, policing, nature conservation, political cooperation, etc.[3] But they must also support and advance continental integration and governance. The AfCFTA needs a master plan for making this possible.

The AfCFTA Agreement mentions long-term objectives regarding the formation of a “single African market”,[4] but does not contain a practical formula for its implementation. Specific decisions will have to adopted to anchor these bold initiatives. Individual Governments will have to support such future steps. That too will entail a member-driven process.

For the immediate future there is a more urgent challenge; to ensure all State Parties have the capacity to improve trade governance at home and at their borders. This will require tailor-made projects about domestic and regional reforms. The AfCFTA Secretariat can play an important role in ensuring that these initiatives get off the ground and that action plans will be coordinated. State Parties lacking the necessary capacity and domestic structures should receive special support. They need to cope with new global challenges too.

There are important avenues in the AfCFTA, but they must be activated. The AfCFTA Agreement provides for the possibility of additional legal instruments “within the scope of this Agreement deemed necessary”.[5] Several ones (for E-Commerce, Women and Youth and even additional services sectors) have been mentioned. Public health should be added to this list. The AfCFTA is not an event, it is a process. Political leadership and solidarity will be very necessary.

[1] Art 3 AfCFTA Agreement.

[2] Art 5 AfCFTA Agreement.

[3] SADC, for example has a Protocol on Trade, Finance and Investment and more than 20 additional ones.

[4] See Art 3 AfCFTA Agreement.

[5] Art 23 AfCFTA Agreement.

About the Author(s)

Gerhard Erasmus

Gerhard Erasmus is a founder of tralac and Professor Emeritus (Law Faculty), University of Stellenbosch. He holds degrees from the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein (B.Iuris, LL.B), Leiden in the Netherlands (LLD) and a Master’s from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He has consulted for governments, the private sector and regional organisations in southern Africa. He has also been involved in the drafting of the South African and Namibian constitutions. He grew up in Namibia.

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