EAC as the yardstick to measure AfCFTA prospects

Ethiopia’s ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was received with much applause as a significant step towards effecting the agreement.

This is a year after the initiative was launch in Kigali in March 2018.

Now only one country remains to ratify the agreement, which could be any time now, completing the required 22 ratifications for AfCFTA to enter into force.

This one country could either be Egypt, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Togo, or Sierra Leone. Each one of them is set to ratify following approval from their respective parliaments.

With the agreement coming into force being so imminent, one can almost feel the jubilation; it may be expected the moment of reaching the 22 ratifications will be received with much fanfare.

The gaze is already on the future and how the AfCFTA will be implemented. Remember that a foundation already exists, with the regional economic communities (RECs) expected to be the building blocs for the continental free trade area.

The AfCFTA is, really, an REC writ large leading some observers to hold the view that if the East African Community, the most successful of the RECs, can make it, there is no reason AfCFTA should not.

It is a measure of its accomplishments – both the good and the questionable – that EAC has become something of a yardstick with which the AfCFTA’s future prospects are being measured.

First, the EAC is the most integrated of the five regional economic communities. Some of its major achievements include a common passport, customs union and common market.

Though some of the RECs are not quite there yet, these EAC accomplishments are testament that continental integration is possible, bloc by regional economic bloc.

But, as the idiom has it, a chain is as strong as its weakest link. As long as even one of the regional blocs has some way to go to attain EACs the level of integration, it means the AfCFTA may take that much longer to be fully realised.

Being the most visible for its accomplishments, and therefore any hiccups that may shadow the successes, it is arguable the EAC example offers a template of how the process might pan out implementing the CFTA.

Despite being the fastest growing economic regions in the world, the past couple of years have been rather bumpy in the East African Community. It has been awash in the media of perceived protectionism and existence of non-tariff barriers (NTBs), contrary to the custom union and common market protocols.

It is debatable about which one – protectionism or NTBs – is the most pernicious but either of them affect trade flows, reducing the benefits to be gained from the regional integration process.

A report by the UN Economic Commission for Africa related to the regional meeting in November 2018 in Kigali assessing AfCFTA implementation in Eastern Africa touches on these concerns. It terms them as risks, noting the “signs of rising trading tensions between Partner States of the East African Community (EAC), which has been resulting in declining levels of intra-regional trade.”

It is such observations giving credence to the view that the ups and downs experienced in the EAC could be the pulse giving an indication on how integration could play out on the continent as AfCFTA rolls out.

Perhaps worse, what would it mean for the AfCFTA should the EAC, or any of the other RECs, fail in their project to ensure borderless regions?

Yet, it is not so much the RECs but the individual countries. Where the RECs may fall short, the finger may be pointed at the individual countries within them.

Nevertheless, even with the perceived misunderstandings, the process towards full integration continues apace as witnessed in the EAC Council of Ministers and heads of the body’s organs meeting in Kigali to brainstorm, plan and strategize on how better the bloc can deliver on its objectives and mandate.

Serious questions however remain, with one of them relating to the delayed implementation of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), even in the East African skies.

What about the African passport unveiled at the same time as the AfCFTA with the signing of the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons?

As the AfCFTA entering into force is imminent, the questions mean that more still needs to be done, including issues such as competition, provisions for investment, intellectual property and e-commerce in the free trade area that remain to be ironed out.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.