Ministers from across Africa began work Thursday ahead of a weekend summit to formally launch a free-trade agreement hailed by the continent’s 55-nation bloc as “historic.”
Opening the meeting in the Niger capital Niamey, AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat lauded the newly-minted African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) accord.
“(Its) goal is ultimately to create an integrated, continent-wide market. It’s a remarkable achievement, and one that can even be described as historic,” Faki said.
“In spite of the delays, the founding fathers (of the AU) would be happy and bless us from where they are now.”
The AfCTA aims to phase out all tariffs on commerce between African countries -- a goal that backers say could increase trade by more than half.
Sceptics fear a destructive impact for small manufacturers and family farms as borders are fully opened to imports.
Talks on the scheme began back in 2002, culminating in a draft deal that was signed last year and officially began life at the end of May after it crossed a threshold of ratification by at least 22 countries.
On Tuesday, the AfCTA was given a major boost when Nigeria -- the last major African holdout -- announced that President Muhammadu Buhari would sign the agreement in Niamey.
The summit will launch the “operational phase” of AfCTA, but observers caution key details still need to be thrashed out.
They include creation of institutional structures and agreement on where the secretariat should be located; the timetable for scaling back tariffs; and agreement on important but detailed regulations such as rules of origin.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the pact was “a pioneering continent-wide project... a major step on the road to economic integration.”
“We have no other choice than to genuinely free up trade and implement this agreement if we wish to achieve progress... guaranteeing that the people of our beloved continent are the great beneficiaries of its resources,” he said.
At present, only 16 percent of trade by African nations is with continental neighbors.
One reason is that average tariffs on intra-African trade, of 6.1 percent, are higher than on exports to non-African countries.