Going continental: Opportunities and challenges for free trade across Africa

28 October 2014

“The Heads of State and Government (…) launched negotiations for the establishment of an integrated market of 26 countries with a combined population of nearly 600 million people and a total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) [of] approximately US$ 1 trillion”.

With these words, the political representatives of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) sketched out the project of a Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) encompassing their three regional economic communities at the Johannesburg summit in June 2011. Once operational, this tripartite FTA will become a new benchmark for deeper regional and continental integration in Africa.

Since 2011, negotiations for the TFTA have gravitated around the topics of tariff liberalisation, rules of origin (RoO), trade remedies as well as customs and transit procedures, among others. The delegations need to agree on these agenda items before they can enter the final negotiating phase on trade in services and trade-related issues.

Beyond its direct relevance for the negotiating parties, the fate of the TFTA project has a bearing on larger scale integration efforts at the level of the African continent. The African Union envisages the TFTA to become operational by 2016, serving subsequently as a building block for a more comprehensive Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) projected for the indicative year of 2017. After a ministerial meeting held in Burundi on October 24 and 25, representatives from COMESA, the EAC and SADC announced that the TFTA building block will be launched in mid-December during the Tripartite Summit of Heads of State and Government.

Against the background of this ambitious integration agenda, concerns have been raised over the arduous nature of current TFTA negotiations: Specifically, the COMESA-EAC-SADC troika faces notable challenges in harmonising differential RoO which have so far impeded inter-regional trade and the creation of regional value chains.

In light of these challenges and opportunities, the Bridges Africa team has chosen to feature various analyses about dynamic regional integration in Africa, guided by the following questions: How can the TFTA help African countries position themselves with respect to global value chains? Do the current negotiations on RoO need to be re-framed in order to maintain the liberalisation momentum?  Finally, which lessons can be learnt from the TFTA negotiations for the planned CFTA? 

Also, this edition sheds light on the topic of export restrictions on food commodities: How do these policy measures affect food insecure African countries and which options exist for their regulation?

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This article is published under
28 October 2014
Regional integration has been a core element of African countries’ development strategies since their independence. The Africa-wide development agenda, as championed by the African Union (AU), is...
29 October 2014
The largest free trade area in Africa, known as the Tripartite FTA (TFTA), which would span across the continent’s three main regional economic communities (RECs), is set to launch in mid-December at...