Under discussion since 2012, the Continental Free Trade Area (ZLEC) project officially became a reality on Sunday, July 7 in Niamey with the start of its first operational phase.
Meeting on Sunday in Niamey, the 31 Heads of State of the African Union (AU) present laid the foundations for the world’s largest free trade area: taken as a whole (33 million km2), ZLEC represents a common market of 1.3 billion inhabitants, with a combined GDP of 2,500 billion dollars – the equivalent of French GDP. « Despite the delays, the founding fathers would be happy and bless us where they are now, » said African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, referring to the tutelary figures of pan-Africanism (Kwame Nkrumah, Sékou Touré, Gamal Abdel Nasser). A logic of integration which, in a global context of growing protectionism, goes against the rest of the world.
In concrete terms, the first operational phase of the ZLEC will involve the creation of five technical tools: « rules of origin », « lists of tariff concessions in trade in goods », « online mechanism for monitoring and eliminating continental non-tariff barriers », « pan-African platform for payments and digital settlements » and « African Trade Observatory ». The meeting of African leaders in the Nigerian capital also endorsed the accession of the last recalcitrant countries, Benin and Nigeria. As for Eritrea, the last state on the continent not to have ratified the project, it has indicated through its ambassador to Ethiopia, Semere Russom, that »[it was ready to sign the free trade agreement] » and that »[t]he AU will soon send a group of experts to discuss the issue with our relevant ministries ». It was also agreed that the headquarters and Secretariat of the organization will be located in Accra, Ghana.
However, the ZLEC is far from being unanimously accepted. For its supporters, it represents a unique opportunity to accelerate African integration, with intra-African trade now accounting for only 17% of the continent’s total exports, compared to 59% in Asia and 69% in Europe. In its latest report on economic development in Africa, published at the end of June, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated that the advent of the ZLEC could result in a 33 per cent increase in intra-African trade.
On the other hand, critics of the project point to the lack of complementarity of African economies and weak infrastructure, and fear that unrestricted imports could harm operators in small countries, who are less armed than their peers from the continent’s heavyweights (South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya…). A debate that only time can decide.