By Libby George
LAGOS, May 1 (Reuters) – A blockbuster African trade deal is unlikely to be implemented before early next year, an official said on Friday, after the disruption caused by the new coronavirus made the current July 1 deadline unworkable.
Wamkele Mene, Secretary-General of the African Continental Free Trade Area, told Reuters that while only the heads of state of the 55-member AfCFTA could sanction changes to the deadlines, the cancelled summit between leaders planned for May in South Africa left few options.
“It is only after the summit that you can say we have a new trading date. The next opportunity of a summit is on 2 January 2021,” Mene said.
The continental free-trade zone would, if successful, become the largest since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994, stitching 1.3 billion people together in a $3.4 trillion economic bloc.
Mene’s role is effectively chief adviser to government leaders, who hold the exclusive right to approve all parts of the deal and its implementation.
He has advised them to defer the July 1 implementation deadline due to the extraordinary circumstances.
It would have required nations to liberalize at least 97% of their tariff lines and 90% of imports. Mene is instead advising them to allow free movement of goods, despite borders being closed to human traffic as part of virus containment efforts, and to allow zero duties on 40 specific goods that would help combat the virus, such as soap, disinfectant and personal protective gear.
“The current circumstances simply are not conducive to the comprehensive trade we had imagined,” he said.
On the advice of the African Centre for Disease Control, the final phase of in-person trade negotiations were halted in March. This cut off two months of crunch-time talks over technical details that would have seen hundreds of negotiators spending 17-hour days passing thousands of documents back and forth, whilst translating between the bloc’s four official languages.
Moving these discussions online, Mene said, is unrealistic.
“The technical difficulties are immense,” he said. “I’m not convinced…that doing them over video conference is feasible.”
He said efforts would be redoubled once negotiators could meet in person, and that African leaders are fully committed to the deal.
“What this pandemic has done is underscore the imperative of this objective. When you are overly reliant on a particular trade partner, you are vulnerable,” he said. “The pandemic is slowing us down, but I think this is going to happen.” (Reporting by Libby George; Additional reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Hugh Lawson)