African leaders launch a continental free trade zone

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari signs an agreement ahead of the lauching of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), during African Union summit in Niamey, Niger July 7, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 07 July 2019

African leaders launch a continental free trade zone

  • Measure expected to create a $3.4 trillion economic bloc
  • Members have committed to eliminate tariffs on most goods

NIAMEY: African leaders met on Sunday to launch a continental free-trade zone that if successful would unite 1.3 billion people, create a $3.4 trillion economic bloc and usher in a new era of development.
After four years of talks, an agreement to form a 55-nation trade bloc was reached in March, paving the way for Sunday's African Union summit in Niger where attendees will unveil which nation will host the trade zone's headquarters, when trading will start and discuss how exactly it will work.
It is hoped that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) - the largest since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994 - will help unlock Africa's long-stymied economic potential by boosting intra-regional trade, strengthening supply chains and spreading expertise.
"The eyes of the world are turned to Africa," Egyptian President and African Union Chairman Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said at the summit's opening ceremony.
AfCFTA "will reinforce our negotiating position on the international stage. It will represent an important step."
Africa has much catching up to do: its intra-regional trade accounted for just 17% of exports in 2017 versus 59% in Asia and 69% in Europe, and Africa has missed out on the economic booms that other trade blocs have experienced in recent decades.
Economists say significant challenges remain, including poor road and rail links, large areas of unrest, excessive border bureaucracy and petty corruption that have held back growth and integration.
Members have committed to eliminate tariffs on most goods, which will increase trade in the region by 15-25% in the medium term, but this would double if these other issues were dealt with, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates.
The IMF in a May report described a free-trade zone as a potential "economic game changer" of the kind that has boosted growth in Europe and North America, but it added a note of caution.
"Reducing tariffs alone is not sufficient," it said.
DIVERGENT INTERESTS
Africa already has an alphabet soup of competing and overlapping trade zones - ECOWAS in the west, EAC in the east, SADC in the south and COMESA in the east and south.
But only the EAC, driven mainly by Kenya, has made significant progress towards a common market in goods and services.
These regional economic communities (REC) will continue to trade among themselves as they do now. The role of AfCFTA is to liberalise trade among those member states that are not currently in the same REC, said Trudi Hartzenberg, director at Tralac, a South Africa-based trade law organisation.
The zone's potential clout received a boost on Tuesday when Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, agreed to sign the agreement at the summit. Benin has also since agreed to join. Fifty-four of the continent's 55 states have signed up, but only 25 have ratified.
One obstacle in negotiations will be the countries' conflicting motives.
For undiversified but relatively developed economies like Nigeria, which relies heavily on oil exports, the benefits of membership will likely be smaller than others, said John Ashbourne, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.
Nigerian officials have expressed concern that the country could be flooded with low-priced goods, confounding efforts to encourage moribund local manufacturing and expand farming.
In contrast, South Africa's manufacturers, which are among the most developed in Africa, could quickly expand outside their usual export markets and into West and North Africa, giving them an advantage over manufacturers from other countries, Ashbourne said.
The presidents of both countries are attending the summit.
The vast difference in countries' economic heft is another complicating factor in negotiations. Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa account for over 50% of Africa's cumulative GDP, while its six sovereign island nations represent about 1%.
"It will be important to address those disparities to ensure that special and differential treatments for the least developed countries are adopted and successfully implemented," said Landry Signe, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Africa Growth Initiative.
Regulations governing rules of origin, removal of non-tariff barriers and the development of a payments and settlements system are expected to be unveiled at the summit.


Oil falls below $57 on virus impact and OPEC+ delay

Updated 19 February 2020

Oil falls below $57 on virus impact and OPEC+ delay

  • Contagion ‘is spooking market players,’ analysts say after Asian shares fall and Apple issues warning

LONDON: Oil fell below $57 a barrel on Tuesday, pressured by concerns over the impact on crude demand from the coronavirus outbreak in China and a lack of further action by OPEC and its allies to support the market.

Forecasters including the International Energy Agency (IEA) have cut 2020 oil demand estimates because of the virus. Though new cases in mainland China have dipped, global experts say it is too early to judge if the outbreak is being contained.

Brent crude was down 82 cents at $56.85 a barrel in mid-afternoon trade after rallying in the previous five sessions. US West Texas Intermediate crude fell 70 cents to $51.35.

“Risk aversion has returned to the markets,” said Commerzbank analyst Carsten Fritsch.

“OPEC+ has shown no sign yet of reacting to the virus-related slump in demand by making additional production cuts.”

The virus is having a wider impact on companies and financial markets. Asian shares fell and Wall Street was poised to retreat on Tuesday after Apple said it would miss quarterly revenue guidance owing to weakened demand in China.

“This has spooked market players and triggered a sharp pullback in risk assets,” said Tamas Varga of oil broker PVM.

The IEA last week said that first-quarter oil demand is likely to fall by 435,000 barrels per day (bpd) from the same period last year in the first quarterly decline since the financial crisis in 2009.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its allies, including Russia, have been considering further production cuts to tighten supply and support prices.

The group, known as OPEC+, has a pact to cut oil output by 1.7 million bpd until the end of March.

The next OPEC+ meeting next month is set to consider an advisory panel’s recommendation to cut supply by a further 600,000 bpd. Talks on holding an earlier meeting in February appear to have made no progress, OPEC sources said.

As well as OPEC+ voluntary curbs, support for prices has come from involuntary losses in Libya, where output has collapsed since Jan. 18 because of a blockade of ports and oilfields.