Building capacity to help Africa trade better

How relevant is the Protocol on Relations between the RECs and the AU?


How relevant is the Protocol on Relations between the RECs and the AU?

How relevant is the Protocol on Relations between the RECs and the AU?

Since the 1980s, the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have been identified as a key element in African regional integration.[1] This approach continues in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), albeit with new aspects being added. The most important ones are probably that only REC Free Trade Areas (FTAs) qualify as AfCFTA building blocks,[2] and that those of them “which have attained among themselves higher levels of regional integration than under this Agreement, shall maintain such higher levels among themselves”.[3] These RECs will continue to exist and function alongside the AfCFTA.

This Blog discusses another and older feature of the RECs, their role as building blocks of the African Union (AU) and its different programmes and activities. The framework for this relationship has been described as follows:

The RECs are closely integrated with the AU’s work and serve as its building blocks. The relationship between the AU and the RECs is mandated by the Abuja Treaty and the AU Constitutive Act and guided by the: 2008 Protocol on Relations between the RECs and the AU; and the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation in the Area of Peace and Security between the AU, RECs and the Coordinating Mechanisms of the Regional Standby Brigades of Eastern and Northern Africa.[4]

We are taking a look at some of the principles and procedures mentioned in the 2008 Protocol on Relations between the RECs and the AU and will refer to certain provisions in this document. The Secretary General of COMESA has now also signed this Protocol, an act said to “consolidate relations” between COMESA and “the mother body”. The signing ceremony took place on 4 February 2022 at the AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa.[5] Other RECs that have already signed the Protocol are the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CENSAD) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This Protocol entered into Force on 10 November 2021, after it was signed by the Chairperson of the AU Commission and the Chief Executives of 3 RECs. According to Article 33 of the Protocol, it shall enter into force when signed by the Chairperson of the AU Commission and by the Chief Executives of at least 3 RECs.

The Parties to this Protocol are the AU and the RECs, not individual Member States.[6] Only signature is required, no ratification is involved. Unlike other African integration instruments, this Protocol does not mention the 8 officially recognised RECs. It defines a REC as “a regional grouping of African states organised into a legal entity by treaty, with economic and social integration as main objective”.

The Protocol applies to the “mechanism established by the Parties in the implementation of measures in the economic, social, political and cultural fields including gender, peace and security”, intended to fulfil the responsibilities placed on them by the AU Constitutive Act, Abuja Treaty, and this Protocol.[7] The objectives include, among other things, the formalisation, consolidation and promotion of closer co-operation among the RECs and between them and the AU through the co-ordination and harmonisation of their policies, measures, programmes and by establishing a coordination framework. It must also accelerate the integration process and shorten the periods provided for in Article 6 of the Abuja Treaty; ensure harmonisation of their cooperation with potential donors and international financial institutions; ensure that gender is mainstreamed into all the programmes and activities within the relationships among the RECs and between the RECs and the AU.[8]

How have the Parties to this Protocol attained these objectives and what concrete results have been achieved? Over time there have been important adjustments to the African strategy on economic integration on the continent. This has been and continues to be a member-driven process. The REC Member States have been the main actors in subsequent developments such as the adoption of Agenda 2063 and the AfCFTA Agreement. The former encapsulates Africa’s “new path for attaining inclusive and sustainable economic growth and development[9]. African heads of state and government signed the 50th Anniversary Solemn Declaration during the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the formation of the OAU /AU in May 2013. This declaration is said to mark the “re-dedication of Africa towards the attainment of the Pan African Vision of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena. Agenda 2063 is the concrete manifestation of how the continent intends to achieve this vision within a 50 year period from 2013 to 2063”.[10]

Lack of space does not permit a detailed analysis of what has happened in the different phases and plans for African economic integration. It seems safe to conclude that adjustments and refinements have occurred over time. The main focus is now on the AfCFTA. The AfCFTA formula of a continental preferential trade arrangement for trade in goods and services, as well as associated disciplines (e.g. investment, competition and intellectual property rights), in parallel with the REC FTAs, is the new chapter in this narrative.

[1] See the Blog in this Newsletter on “The meaning of building blocks for African integration is defined by the applicable legal instruments and subsequent practice.”

[2] Art 5(b) AfCFTA Agreement.

[3] Art 19(2) AfCFTA Agreement.

[4] https://au.int/en/organs/recshttps://au.int/en/organs/recs

[5] https://www.comesa.int/comesa-signs-au-protocol-to-consolidate-relations

[6] Art 1 AU-REC Protocol.

[7] Art 2 AU-REC Protocol.

[8] Art 3 AU-REC Protocol.

[9] https://www.tralac.org/resources/by-region/14352-african-union-agenda-2063.html

[10] Ibid.

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.

Trudi Hartzenberg

Trudi Hartzenberg is the Executive Director of tralac. She has a special interest in trade-related capacity building. Her research areas include trade policy issues, regional integration, investment, industrial and competition policy.

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