Business Reporter

THE United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) says proper management of the interface between continental and regional free trade regimes is critical in generating win-win outcomes towards continental integration agenda.

Such continental and regional free trade regimes include the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), as well as the East African Community. Zimbabwe is part of the 21-member Comesa trading bloc and in February this year, the country officially joined AfCFTA. However, because of specific development challenges facing Zimbabwe, the country had earlier signalled implementation delay while taking care of industrialisation gaps. Experts have tipped Zimbabwe to be one of the top beneficiaries of the free trade area.

UNECA director for capacity building development, Dr Stephen Karingi, said the successful implementation of AfCFTA would depend on how smoothly or otherwise, it is interfaced with pre-existing regional economic communities (RECs) and free trade areas, among other related instruments. He was delivering a keynote address to the opening of the 7th Comesa Annual Research Forum on Monday.

“One of the main objectives of the AfCFTA is to accelerate regional and continental integration through the consolidation of the multiple and overlapping trading regimes, embodied in pre-existing RECs FTAs, such as the Comesa,” said Dr Karingi in a statement issued by Comesa.

The three-day research forum began on Monday under the theme: ‘Harnessing Intra-Comesa Trade through the interface with AfCFTA’. However, as law scholars have already argued, he said some wording in the AfCFTA agreement suggest that this relationship is likely to be more complex.

“Although this is not what was originally imagined, it now needs to be properly analysed and understood,” noted Dr Karingi. He cited Articles 5 and 19 of the AfCFTA, which are intended to help navigate the complexity of the relationship with pre-existing intra-African trade instruments. Article 5 for example, does not only recognize ‘RECs’ Free Trade Areas as building blocks for the AfCFTA, it also points to the need to leverage their best practices. Dr Karingi further noted that some RECs, individually or collectively, have made great strides in some dimensions of integration, way ahead of what is presently envisioned in the AfCFTA with four African Union-recognised RECs having FTAs that have achieved higher levels of integration than the AfCFTA at the time of its entry into force. He observed that the AfCFTA could lean on the progress that RECs such as Comesa have made in important areas of integration including the Comesa Investment Area, Comesa Competition Policy, Comesa’s progress on the issue of Intellectual Property Rights, and the Comesa Digital FTA.

“The AfCFTA can also benefit from Comesa’s experience in building trade supporting institutions, such as in the areas of trade finance, trade insurance, regional payment systems, and in the context of simplified trade regimes,” said Dr Karingi. It has been observed that by safeguarding the achievements of RECs, the AfCFTA has in the short run allowed for some level of flexibility on the co-existence of a web of connected, yet distinct, trade regimes, which would be consolidated at some later stage. This, Dr Karingi, said requires careful and thoughtful management – backed by evidence-based research, which the Comesa forum provides. In her address, Comesa secretary general, Ms Chileshe Kapwepwe, noted that since the 1950s, there has been a proliferation of regional integration agreements (RIAs), making them the centerpiece of many questions of global governance. She said the capacity building interventions in research and training carried out by Comesa were aimed at enhancing not only the capacity of the Comesa secretariat but also the capacity of the member States in economic and trade policy analysis and research, as well as trade negotiations. The Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) assistant secretary-general, Mr Escipión Oliveira Gomez, said the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that no country or region can go it alone. He urged strong collaboration with regional economic communities towards implementation of innovative initiatives to promote integration.