It was not a smooth ride to the signing of what has been termed as a historic agreement which could boost intra-Africa trade.
Despite about 30 months of negotiations since the process picked pace, there remained contentious issues that were not easily agreed to by all states.
The last three contentious issues saw African foreign affairs ministers’ sessions go late into the night, as they sought to find a lasting solution.
However, compromises were reached hours to the signing of the agreement.
Among the most contentious points was the number of ratifications required to effect the agreement.
Initially, it was agreed that 15 ratifications would be enough for the agreement to come into force.
However, ahead of the signing, a section of countries said that 15 countries out of 55 were too few as some regional economic communities such as the Southern African Development Community had enough membership to adopt the deal and bring it into force.
This opened up a debate whereby some parties argued that letting few countries make the call would probably affect the impact of the agreement.
Eventually, deliberations saw the number required for implementation pushed to 22 countries to ensure a bigger continental impact.
How will the CFTA secretariat be structured?
Countries also spent considerable time arguing about article 13 of the agreement, which details the setup of the secretariat that will have oversight over the implementation of the agreement.
The autonomy of the secretariat from the African Union Commission was a contentious point. Some preferred that the secretariat operates as a unit under the Trade and Industry Commission and serving under the Commission.
However, some argued that, under the Commission, its effectiveness in oversight and monitoring implementation would be affected.
After lengthy discussions it was finally agreed that the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government would set up the secretariat, determine its nature and budget.
The organ will also be autonomous of the African Union Commission and will report to the Heads of State and Government Assembly. Unlike other organs of the African Union, it will be funded fully by the African Union.
The Assembly will also determine the location of the secretariat, which might not necessarily be Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AU has its headquarters.
The last issue of contention was the admission of reservations in the signing of the agreement.
Some nations had initially said they would sign the agreement on condition that reservations to implementation of sections of the treaty were allowed.
This, they said, was in the interest of their economies and to avoid significant disruptions. The counter argument, however, was that if reservations are allowed, countries would only implement convenient sections of the agreement which risked rendering the whole document ineffective.
Finally, it was agreed that there would be no reservations and all signatories would be required to implement the document as it is.
The agreement is conscious of aspects that previously constituted a source of concern for certain countries, thus a decision was arrived at that there was need to protect sensitive sectors and infant industries by giving an allowance for certain products to be ‘liberalised’ at a slower pace and for limited products to be temporarily exempted from the liberalised market.
Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou championed the negotiations to set up the world’s largest trade zone. Speaking at the African Union summit in Kigali on Wednesday, President Paul Kagame, currently the African Union Chairperson, commended President Issoufou for “so ably leading the Continental Free Trade Area process.”
“Trade agreements cover many complex details. Behind the scenes, (AU) Commission staff, ministers, and technical experts put in countless days and nights of hard work. This effort has paid off and we thank you,” Kagame added.
The CFTA agreement was signed by 44 African States while 47 nations signed the Kigali Declaration.
The Kigali Declaration is a political statement committing countries to the CFTA. It is, however, not binding as it is not a legal instrument.