As trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is pushed back from mid-2020 to the start of 2021 as a result of Covid-19, GTR speaks to Wamkele Mene, newly appointed secretary general of the AfCFTA, about the extent to which political will remains to get the deal over the line, and what the agreement will mean for Africa, both economically and politically.


GTR: How optimistic are you that the new trading date of January 1, 2021 will be met?

Mene: It is possible. There is no question in my mind that it was going to be possible by July 1, but for Covid-19. I don’t think anybody could have anticipated the impacts of the pandemic. We had made sufficient progress to have been able to meet the July deadline; however, we lost the months of March, April and May, and it is the nature of trade negotiations to leave the most difficult parts until last.

And so, although there was technical work that is outstanding, I am very confident that we would have been able to resolve all of those outstanding issues, namely tariff negotiations and rules of origin, by the July deadline. This is going to be the same as we go from September onwards. If we are able to resume our work, if the conditions allow, we will resolve the technical work by December in preparation for the new deadline.


GTR: Has the delay resulted in a loss of political will around AfCFTA’s implementation?

Mene: On the contrary, there is even more determination to get it done. The political will has not diminished at all. Heads of states are as determined as ever to get the deal done and to get it implemented. We all realise that this is Africa’s stimulus package. If we are to have an economic recovery in Africa, it will be through intra-African trade on the back of the AfCFTA.


GTR: How would you assess the progress made so far?

Mene: This is probably the biggest economic integration effort to be undertaken since the end of colonialism in Africa, and it comes with its challenges. The biggest challenge is to shift Africa from an economic model of being a supplier of primary products to being a producer of value-added manufactured goods. That is going to be a difficult undertaking. It will take time, but I believe it is possible.

The most difficult part was to develop the legal instruments that enables that market integration to happen. We’ve done it. We now have an agreement on hand and we have 28 countries that have undertaken the commitments to implement the agreement.

I don’t expect that it will be an easy journey. However, I am convinced that we are off to a very, very good start. We have developed a common set of rules for trade and investment in Africa. A single set of rules, which we didn’t have before. This will help us to overcome market fragmentation. This will help us to overcome the inability to achieve economies of scale.

As much as there are challenges, I look at the progress that we have made and I look at the political commitment, and I look at the legal commitments that have been made thus far by the 28 countries that have deposited their instruments of ratification.

Some may argue that it took us Africans long enough. That may very well be the case. It took us some time.

But I think we have a very good foundation for building an integrated market in Africa.

We are not under any illusion that all countries will implement the agreement at the same time. What is encouraging is the range of countries that have deposited the instruments of ratification. We have big countries, such as Egypt. Sophisticated economies, such as South Africa. Small but important economies, such as Rwanda and Senegal. We have least developed countries. This range is a signal of the importance with which all countries in Africa view this market integration effort.


GTR: What will happen on January 1? Which countries will implement the deal?

Mene: Out of the 55 countries in Africa, 54 have signed the agreement. Of those 54 countries, 28 have taken the final step, which is to deposit their instrument of ratification. They are going to implement the agreement on the date upon which we start to trade.

Even within that basket of 28 countries, you may find that some countries will want to move a little bit slower. I don’t think we should see that as a lack of commitment. The agreement makes provision for what we call a variable geometry in implementation. In accordance with this variable geometry, some countries will move slower than the others. On the basis of the legal provisions on the table, that is allowable. But I have a feeling that all countries will implement the agreement from the start and work in earnest towards full implementation.


GTR: What does the AfCFTA mean at a time when the rest of the world is moving towards protectionism and nationalism? Is Africa flying the flag for free trade?

Mene: I would say that this is all the more reason why the next director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) should be African. In the last four years, when the rest of the world has been increasing tariffs, we have been reducing them. When the rest of the world has been increasing barriers to investment, we have been reducing them. We have been the defenders of multilateralism. We took WTO agreements and looked at international best practice. We looked at FTAs from around the world and we have improved on them, which is how we ended up with probably the most comprehensive, the most ambitious and the most far-reaching trade agreement in the world today.

As Africans, we are very proud to have made a contribution to a rules-based trading system. The current multilateral trading system has many imperfections, and as African countries we have been pointing them out since 1994. We have been pointing out the problems in relation to agriculture, domestic support, and competition. We are certainly aware that there are these fundamental weaknesses in the multilateral trading system, but notwithstanding these, we have defended the WTO when others were acting in a manner that is contrary to the spirit and the letter of many WTO agreements.


GTR: What does AfCFTA mean for Africa’s economies? 

Mene: It is not hyperbole to say that from an economic standpoint, this is the biggest thing that has come out of Africa since the end of colonialism. It is something that everybody is looking forward to. African multinational corporations are looking forward to it. Small and medium enterprises are looking forward to it. Young Africans are looking forward to it. We have an unprecedented and, in a sense, very narrow window of opportunity to make this work and to make it work for everybody. Expectations are high, and we are determined to make it work.


GTR: Among the international community there is a little bit of scepticism around the ability of Africa to get this done. What would your response be to that?

Mene: We are determined to prove the critics wrong. When we started negotiations four years ago, they said that we would not conclude them, because we don’t have a history of concluding trade agreements. And we concluded phase one. Then they said that we would not sign the trade agreement, because Africans don’t have a history of signing trade agreements amongst themselves. It has been signed by 54 out of 55 countries. Then they said, it will not be ratified, because Africans do not have a history of ratifying trade agreements. However, 28 countries have ratified the agreement. Now, they are saying that we are not going to implement it because of Covid-19.

The goalposts keep shifting as to why Africans will not be able to do it, and I am very much looking forward to yet again, as Africans, proving the critics wrong. Even with Covid-19, we are going to implement this agreement. All of the 54 signatories are absolutely committed to it.