Harare: The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has taken over the chair of a tripartite taskforce in charge of negotiations to establish Africa's largest integrated market covering 26 countries. SADC Executive Secretary Tomaz Salomão took over the chair from the Secretary General of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Sindiso Ngwenya in May to oversee preparations for the launch of a Tripartite Free Trade Area (FTA).
The East African Community (EAC) is the third leg of the tripartite.
Salomão will be chair of the taskforce for the next 12 months after which EAC Secretary General, Richard Sezibera will take over.
COMESA, EAC and SADC agreed at their historic summit held in Kampala, Uganda, in 2008 to jointly work together on "a programme of harmonization of trading arrangements" to promote the smooth movement of goods and services across member states.
The three Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have made significant strides towards establishing an enlarged FTA covering 26 countries in eastern and southern Africa by 2016. If this happens, intra-regional trade is expected to increase sharply and deepen regional integration through improved investment flows and enhanced competition, transforming eastern and southern Africa into one of the most lucrative regions on the continent.
The proposed FTA, also known as the "Grand" FTA, will stretch from Cape to Cairo, creating an integrated market with a combined population of almost 600 million people and a total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of about US$1 trillion.
Speaking soon after assuming the chair at a meeting in Kenya, Salomão urged members of the tripartite to speed up negotiations to establish the FTA, which is viewed as a pilot for similar arrangements in other regions of Africa. "We have to forge ahead and implement all the decisions that have been made by the tripartite Heads of State and Government," Salomão said.
He noted that the ongoing tripartite negotiations involving COMESA-EAC-SADC were being keenly followed by the African Union and other regions that want to learn from the three RECs' experiences.
"If you attend meetings at the African Union or European Union level and other forums, reference to the tripartite is always there, because there is a clear recognition that what we are doing is very important and is founded on a strong and clear agenda despite the challenges we face," he said.
The major challenges being faced by the three RECs in their pursuit of an integrated market include the traditional concerns regarding tariff reductions and the need to set up relevant institutions to cope with the intricacies of cross-border trade. Other constraints include difficulties already being faced by individual RECs in fully implementing their respective regional programmes.
In light of this, Salomão urged COMESA-EAC-SADC to collectively confront their challenges as "trade negotiations are not very easy".
The Tripartite Trade Negotiation Forum (TTNF) involving the three RECs agreed late 2011 to a timetable and format of negotiations to establish the FTA. This was adopted during the first round of negotiations held in December 2011 in Kenya.
It was agreed that the TTNF would meet at least four times per year during the first phase of negotiations, with more frequent meetings of the technical working groups in the various sub-sectors.
The first phase of negotiations is set to be complete within 36 months (June 2013), and will address issues such as tariff liberalisation, rules of origin, customs cooperation, non-tariff barriers, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, technical barriers to trade, trade remedies and dispute settlement.
The second phase of negotiations will focus on negotiating trade in services and trade related issues, including intellectual property rights, competition policy and trade development and competitiveness.
Facilitating movement of business persons within the region will be negotiated in parallel with the first phase.
The "Grand" FTA involving the three RECs is within the framework of establishing an African Economic Community and the overall African Union Vision and Strategy presented in the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action and the Abuja Treaty of 1991.
Africa aims to establish a continent-wide free trade area by 2017, and regional trade arrangements such as the Tripartite FTA are regarded as some of the building blocks of the envisaged African Economic Community.