The COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area

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  1. When the Heads of State and Government of COMESA, EAC and SADC met in Kampala on 22 October 2008, they conveyed in their communiqué a palpable sense of urgency in calling for the establishment of a single Free Trade Area covering the 26 countries of COMESA, EAC and SADC. These are 26 out of the 54 countries that make up the continent of Africa. The political leaders requested the secretariats of the three organisations to prepare all the legal documents necessary for establishing the single Free Trade Area (FTA) and to clearly identify the steps required – paragraph 14 of the Communiqué. After a period of intensive work since then, the three secretariats have delivered. At their meeting on 9 November 2009 in Dar es Salaam, the Chief Executives of the three secretariats cleared the documents for transmission to the Member States for consideration in preparing for the next meeting of the Tripartite Summit. It is expected that when the Tripartite Summit meets, in April or May 2010, the Heads of State and Government will clearly pronounce themselves on the way forward with establishing the single FTA.
  2. The main document is the draft Agreement establishing the Tripartite Free Trade, with its 14 Annexes covering various complementary areas that are necessary for effective functioning of a regional market. There is a report explaining the approach and the modalities. The main proposal is to establish the FTA on a tariff-free, quota-free, exemption-free basis by simply combining the existing FTAs of COMESA, EAC and SADC. It is expected that by 2012, all these FTAs will not have any exemptions or sensitive lists. However, there is a possibility that a few countries might wish to consider maintaining a few sensitive products in trading with some big partners, and for this reason, provision has been made for the possibility of a country requesting for permission to maintain some sensitive products for a specified period of time.
  3. To have an effective Tripartite FTA, various complementary areas have been included. The FTA will cover, promotion of customs cooperation and trade facilitation, harmonisation and coordination of industrial and health standards, combating of unfair trade practices and import surges, use of peaceful and agreed dispute settlement mechanisms, use of simpler and straightforward rules of origin that recognise inland transport costs as part of the value added in production, relaxation of restrictions on movement of business persons taking into account certain sensitivities, liberalisation of certain priority service sectors on the basis of existing programs of the three organisations, promotion of value addition and transformation of the region into an information- and knowledge-based economy through a balanced used of intellectual property rights and information and communications technology, development of the cultural industries on the basis of the rich cultural heritage in the region particularly in the arts, development of sector strategies to increase productive capacity and link producers to buyers and consumers. The Tripartite FTA will be underpinned by robust infrastructure programs designed to consolidate the regional market through interconnectivity (facilitated for instance by all modes of transport and telecommunications) and to promote competitiveness (for instance through adequate supplies of energy).
  4. Regarding the steps required, or the road map, the proposal is that there should be a preparatory period for consultations at the national, regional and Tripartite level from early 2010 up to June 2011. Member States will use this period to carefully work out the legal and institutional framework for the single FTA using the draft documents as a basis. It is expected that each organisation will discuss the Tripartite documents, and that the Tripartite meetings at various levels will deliberate and reach concrete recommendations. By June 2011, there should be a finalised Agreement establishing the Tripartite FTA, ready for signature in July 2011. When signed, Member States will have about six months up to December 2011, to finalise their domestic processes for approving the Agreement (for instance, ratification) and for establishing the required institutions and adopting the relevant customs and other documentation and instruments. It is proposed that once this process ends, the Tripartite FTA should be launched in January 2012. Throughout the preparatory period, strong sensitisation programs will be mounted for the public and private sectors and all stakeholders including parliamentarians, business community, teaching institutions, civil society, and development partners. In COMESA, all the key meetings since December last year have considered the status of progress on Tripartite matters. The Tripartite is now a standing agenda item for meetings of the Committee on the Customs Union, the Trade and Customs Committee, the Intergovernmental Committee and the Council.
  5. The main benefit of the Tripartite FTA is that it will be a much larger market, with a single economic space, than any one of the three regional economic communities and as such will be more attractive to investment and large scale production. Estimates are that exports among the 26 Tripartite countries increased from USD 7 billion in 2000 to USD 27 billion in 2008, and imports grew from USD 9 billion in 2000 to USD 32 billion in 2008. This phenomenal increase was in large measure spurred by the free trade area initiatives of the three organizations. Strong trade performance, when well designed, for instance by promoting small and medium scale enterprises that produce goods or services, can assist the achievement of the core objectives of eradicating poverty and hunger, promoting social justice and public health, and supporting all round human development. Besides, the Tripartite economic space will assist to address some current challenges resulting from multiple membership by advancing the ongoing harmonisation and coordination initiatives of the three organisations to achieve convergence of programs and activities, and in this way will greatly contribute to the continental integration process. And as they say, the more we trade with each other, the less likely we are to war; for our swords will be plowshares.

 

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