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Tripartite Free Trade Area: Diplomatic feat

THE Tripartite Free Trade Area that was signed on June 10, 2015 at the Egyptian holiday resort town of Sharm el Sheikh is a diplomatic feat of epic proportions. It represents a milestone in the history of Africa, alongside events such as the independence of Ghana in 1957 which had a domino effect on the decolonisation of the rest of the African countries.
It is also comparable to the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity on May 25, 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which provided a continental framework for successfully fighting colonialism and mobilising Africa to chart a vision and a template for continental integration to achieve political and economic emancipation, resulting in the formation of the African Union in 2000 and its launch in 2002.
The continental integration template envisages the creation of a continental Customs Union by 2019, and the African Economic Community by 2028.
Following intensive negotiations for three years and a half, the political leaders of 26 African countries launched the Tripartite Free Trade Area, a trading bloc covering half of the continent, at a population of 632 million and a combined GDP of US$1.3 trillion. From there, the leaders headed to South Africa where on June 14, 2015 they launched negotiations for a Continental Free Trade Area to be established indicatively in 2017, building on the tripartite FTA through an incremental and a learning process.
The Tripartite is made up of 26 countries in three regional integration organisations in eastern, southern and northern Africa, namely the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The Tripartite FTA Agreement was signed on the spot by 15 out of the 26 countries. The others said they still needed to complete their internal processes for signing the binding international agreements.
However, 23 of them signed the political Declaration Launching the Tripartite FTA, and setting out a road map for completing work on outstanding issues and for moving into the other areas for deepening the FTA into services, investment, competition policy, intellectual property, and trade competitiveness. (Swaziland signed the FTA and the Declaration five days later on June 15, 2015).
The Tripartite FTA’s much larger market will spur investment in the region and create jobs to achieve important public policy objectives including poverty eradication. Such a large market supports critical levels of investment necessary to achieve and maintain the 6-7 percent economic growth rates advisable for African countries if they are to continue on the growth path that will eradicate poverty in Africa by 2063.
This is  according to the Vision 2063 adopted by African leaders as the long-term goal for the continent, and reach the projected combined GDP of US$29 trillion by 2050, which would be equal to the current combined GDP of the EU and the US.
Through trade and investment, the Tripartite will provide a conducive environment for peace and security in the region, as the people get closer through economic exchanges in an integrated market. Countries and the leaders will become family through regular and structured meetings and other engagements to collectively address priorities and challenges facing them.
Based on improved prospects resulting from the availability of such a large market, the Tripartite will boost financial services including lending for large investment and infrastructure projects.
This large market will support Industrialisation and innovation for new products. Indeed, the Tripartite is based on a developmental approach to regional integration comprising three pillars, namely the Tripartite FTA, industrialisation, and infrastructure.
There are critical lessons the Tripartite teaches. The first one is that African leaders can develop a vision in light of challenges facing the region, adopt a work programme, map out a road map, and achieve the result and goal, on schedule.
When the political leaders met for the first time on October 22, 2008 in Munyonyo near Kampala in Uganda, they agreed to proceed to merge the three regional economic communities progressively, beginning with establishing a single FTA.
The secretariats started the preparatory process, which culminated in the Second Tripartite Summit on June 12, 2011 in Sandton in South Africa, where the negotiations for the Tripartite FTA were launched. And came June 10, 2015, the Tripartite FTA was launched at the Third Tripartite Summit four years on the dot since the last summit. A second lesson is that through a continuous learning process and experimentation, solutions can be found to challenges.
The Tripartite FTA was conceived to address the problem of conflicting policies and regulatory frameworks arising from multiple memberships of the countries in COMESA, EAC, and SADC.
It further sought to address the problem of diminutive markets that can’t support critical levels of investment and rationalise large infrastructure projects.
By providing a single economic space with harmonised trade policies and regulatory framework, the Tripartite FTA solves the problem of multiple memberships, reduces the cost of doing business, and supports industrialisation and cross border infrastructure projects.
In addition, there are lots of lessons learnt through the actual process of the negotiations that will now be institutional memory as the region and the continent continue to integrate.
As the World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said in his remarks before the signing of the Tripartite FTA Agreement, “This is the moment for Africa”.
He called upon Africa to prioritise and improve education, financial services, and infrastructure if the Tripartite FTA was to contribute to poverty eradication.
The developmental approach to integration adopted by the Tripartite, covering market liberalisation, industrialsation and infrastructure, is indeed the way forward, in pursuit of the continental vision of a peaceful and prosperous Africa by 2063.
The author is director of trade, customs and monetary affairs at the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa  (COMESA).