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Africa’s Tripartite Free Trade Area gains ground with six more countries poised to ratify the agreement

SIX more countries have shown interest in ratifying the Tripartite free trade area agreement, or TFTA – a COMESA-EAC-SADC initiative that seeks to foster free trade among countries in the three economic blocs.

According to Christopher Onyango, Director of Trade and Customs at the COMESA Secretariat, the six countries – Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Malawi, Lesotho and Comoros – have advanced their internal negotiations and could soon sign the agreement.

Onyango was speaking during a meeting of senior officials of the Tripartite initiative, in Nairobi.

“We are engaging and strategically approaching all the remaining member states … by mid this year we can have the three or more remaining to bring the countries required to 14 for the agreement to enter into force,” he revealed.

With the free trade area targeting 29 countries, a simple majority is required to set the program in motion.

Despite being signed into acceptance eight years ago, only 11 countries have ratified the agreement. These include Egypt, Eswatini, South Africa, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Members of the 29 countries are in the process of negotiating mechanisms to actualize three key pillars of the TFTA – including Market Integration, Infrastructure Development and Industrial Development.

While the far more ambitious AfCFTA, which seeks to bring the entire continent under one customs area, continues to shape up, intra-African trade remains relatively low. The latest Mo Ibrahim Index report 2022 estimates it at 13% of all African trade.

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However, with Afcta and other free trade agreements such as TFTA charged with liberating trade across borders, momentum seems to be building to make free markets in more of Africa, a reality.

“The immediate target is to secure the three remaining ratifications by the first quarter of 2023,” said Alfred K’Ombudo, the Principal Secretary in Kenya’s State Department for Trade, in a recent meeting of trade experts from seventeen countries under the COMESA-EAC-SADC.

Through the harmonization of trade policies, elimination of taxes and a general boost to trade and investment, the economic integration of COMESA-EAC-SADC would create a conducive environment for AfCFTA’s rollout, officials believe.

COMESA-EAC-SADC countries cover 57% of Africa’s population and contribute a gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $1.3 trillion to the continent – about 60% of AfCTFA’s GDP.

Despite the delays, Patson Malisa, Deputy Presiding Officer of the AU’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) believes “the Tripartite FTA remains a relevant building bloc to continental integration and the Afcfta in particular.”

In an interview, Zodwa Mabuza, Principal Regional Integration Officer at the African Development Bank, said the TFTA should learn from AfCFTA and move fast.

In her view, all the free trade arrangements should be embraced since they have a common goal of deepening intra-African trade.

“All these processes will ultimately contribute to the establishment of the African Economic Community as espoused in the Abuja Treaty,” she explained.

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Mabuza is optimistic TFTA could take off soon because “all that is needed are three more ratifications to make the agreement effective since all the instruments of implementation are already in place.”

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates in the EAC alone, the current untapped intra-African export potential amounts to US$21.9 billion.