Africa's FTA stalls due to pandemic - so what next for new bloc?

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Hopes that the AfCFTA would be up and running by this month were dashed by coronavirus.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) was officially revealed to the world last year and promised to represent a tour de force in the arena of global trade.

Gathering 54 out of 55 African nations, it aims to phase out all tariffs on commerce and eliminate customs duties on 97 per cent of products within 15 years. According to the International Monetary Fund, this should boost intra-African trade by around 16 per cent and reduce the continent's dependence on European exports.

The agreement was supposed to take effect on July 1st 2020 - but then came the complications associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

First Africa's markets abroad closed their borders, removing vital links in worldwide supply chains. Then the pandemic reached Africa itself, forcing many of its own nations into lockdown and further disrupting trade.

Understandably, all of this also affected the still-unfinished discussions between member states on the clauses of the free trade deal. The result was an indefinite postponement of the AfCFTA, much to the disappointment of African heads of state.

A new date of January 2021 has been put forward by ambassadors at the Africa Union, but this recommendation has yet to be formally adopted.

The AfCFTA is seen as vital by many economists, with World Bank research estimating the deal would lift 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty by 2035. The Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and Kenya would be the three nations set to benefit most from the free trade zone.

Wamkele Mene is the new secretary-general of the African Continental Free Trade Area Secretariat and he said in an interview with Africa Renewal that his primary focus while coronavirus spreads is to save lives.

However, he added: "We would like to resume our work as soon as the pandemic is contained.  But if for whatever reason the pandemic continues, we are exploring other ways of advancing our negotiations."

He explained that the deal will help to accelerate Africa's development, which will in turn reconfigure supply chains and boost manufacturing.

Indeed, other economists have pointed out that COVID-19 should not represent a reason to stop the progress of the AfCFTA, but rather a reason to make its implementation more urgent in terms of applying critical upgrades to supply chains.

Chairman of Ecobank Transnational Incorporated Alain Nkontchou told the Africa Report he thinks Africa's nations should now use the enforced delay to extend the deal's reach and make its terms even more beneficial, including getting Nigeria to ratify the treaty.

With luck, the pandemic should start to recede soon and Africa might overcome the hurdles in front of the AfCFTA. This would undoubtedly be positive for the economy of Africa, as well as the wider world as it gets back on its feet.