AfCFTA: The underlying principles, objectives and benefits,

The Agreement (the “Agreement”) establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (the “AfCFTA”) has continued to generate discussions following the commencement of trading under the new economic bloc. The Agreement was signed on 21 March 2018 at the Extra-Ordinary Summit of the African Union held in Kigali Rwanda and came into force on 30 May 2019 after the Gambia became the 22nd State to ratify it.

The overarching objective behind the AfCFTA is the elimination or reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers amongst the 54 Countries that agreed to be members of the bloc by providing a single market for goods and services, facilitated by movement of persons in order to deepen the economic integration and prosperity of the African continent.

Nigeria signed the Agreement on 7th July 2019 and after initial dilly-dallying, ratified it in November 2020 leading to the formal deposit of the Instrument of ratification before the 05 December 2020 submission deadline. Paradoxically, Nigeria (34th member State to ratify the treaty) who was at the forefront of developing and negotiating the AfCFTA Agreement later became jittery at the point of ratification. The initial hesitation has been explained on the basis that prior consultation with the manufacturing community and other stakeholders was needed before ratification.

COVID-19 pandemic delayed the phase 2 negotiations and commencement of trading under AfCFTA which was earlier scheduled to start on 1st of July 2020. Trading eventually kicked off on 1st January 2021 and it is too early to assess the impact of trading yet particularly as some countries are yet to ratify the treaty. The AfCFTA has been lauded as a game-changer and ambitious project capable of lifting over 30 million people out of poverty on the continent, through trade liberalization and economic integration in line with the Pan African Vision (Agenda 2063) of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa.

In terms of structure, the main Agreement is divided into 7 Parts and 30 Articles. In addition, there are Protocols, Annexes and Appendices which equally form part of the AfCFTA Agreement. Three of these Protocols are (i) the Protocol on Trade in Goods (ii) the Protocol on Trade in Services, and (iii) the Protocol on Rules and Procedures on the Settlement of Disputes. Article 8 of the Agreement is to the effect that the Protocols, Annexes and Appendices shall, upon adoption, form integral of the Agreement.

The Phase Two Negotiations for both Trade in Goods and Trade in Services include (i) the Protocol on Investment (ii) the Protocol on Intellectual Property and (iii) the Protocol on Competition Policy as well as the associated Annexes and Appendices. As common with most treaties, the AfCFTA Agreement is expected to be organic as future amendments and updates are possible, provided that any additional instruments deemed necessary are to be concluded in furtherance of the objectives of AfCFTA and shall upon adoption, form an integral part of the Agreement.

Modelled after the principles of the World Trade Organization/General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and General Agreement on Trade in Services (WTO/GATT/GATS), the AfCFTA has some of the trappings of custom union and common market even though one of the AfCFTA objectives is the creation of Continental Customs Union at a later stage. Conceptually, economic integration is broadly classified into five stages, viz: free trade area, Custom Union, Common Market, Economic union (single market) and Political union.

One key feature of Custom Union being the acceptance of a unified external common tariff against non-members. The European Union presents a unique example of the Customs Union through the instrumentality of the Union Customs Code which applies a uniform tariff system for imports from outside the EU. Unlike the Custom Union, the AfCFTA under its rules on Most-Favoured-Nation Treatment allows member States to conclude or maintain preferential trade arrangements including different tariff arrangements with Third Parties provided that such trade arrangements do not impede or frustrate the objectives of the Protocol on Trade in Goods. By default, WTO member countries trade based on conditions laid down under GATT.  It is in a bid to address the tariff and non-tariff barriers existing under the WTO, that some regions have opted for more favourable trade deals as seen in Europe, Asia, North America and now Africa.

As with any WTO-based trade treaty, there are key non-exhaustive underlying principles that underpin the AfCFTA. Some of these principles will form the subject of our discussions in subsequent publications. These include (i) the Most-Favoured-Nation Treatment and (ii) the Rules of Origin. Whilst the former mandates the State Parties to accord preferential treatment to one another, the latter spells out criteria for goods that will be eligible for preferential treatment under the AfCFTA. Equally important is the Anti-dumping and Countervailing Measure which provides trade remedies and remedial actions against imports that are detrimental to local industries. In relation to the Trade in Services, the Most-Favoured Nation exemptions afford State Parties a margin of leeway to exclude certain sectors or sub-sectors from their Schedule of Commitments and limit market access to those sectors or sub-sectors.

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