June 12, 2020 / 7:54 AM / 2 months ago

Africa free trade zone could launch on Jan 1, says official

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) could begin operating on January 1 next year, after the COVID-19 pandemic made its original launch date untenable, the official charged with overseeing the bloc’s establishment said on Thursday.

But speaking during a webinar organised by the Africa CEO Forum, AfCFTA Secretary-General Wamkele Mene said the new target date would be subject to the disease’s spread on the continent.

“We have made a recommendation that in the next six months the free trade zone could start trading but subject to the pandemic itself,” he said.

The trade deal had been due to be implemented from July 1.

The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts there will be a steady increase in COVID-19 cases in Africa until a vaccine is developed.

Mene, who is essentially an advisor to government leaders on the AfCFTA, said most African nations are either in partial lockdown or have closed their borders, complicating the establishment of the trade bloc.

“It is not credible for us to say that we are trading from July 1 when we know that trucks at borders are lined up 40 to 50 kilometres,” he said.

The continental free-trade zone, once implemented, would be the largest new economic bloc since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994. It will bring together 1.3 billion people in a $3.4 trillion economic partnership.

The onset of the pandemic halted negotiations and trading between member countries during April and May and this made the July 1 date impractical, Mene said.

He added that he hoped member countries would conclude negotiations on tariffs over the next six months.

Reporting by Promit Mukherjee; Editing by Catherine Evans, Joe Bavier, Kirsten Donovan

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