Photograph — African Union

Implementation of the African continental free trade agreement has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, a senior official of the area said this week, adding to the long list of economic programmes and projects disrupted by the ongoing pandemic globally.

The agreement, expected to birth the world’s largest free-trade zone, was scheduled to come into effect July this year. “The Covid-19 situation has caused a major disruption. Governments are now engaged in a fight against the pandemic. It is obviously not possible to commence trade as we had intended on 1 July under the current circumstances,” Secretary-General of the AfCFTA, Wamkele Mene said.

“I think that’s the responsible thing to do,” Mene continued, “I don’t think it would be appropriate when people are dying to be focused on meeting the 1 July deadline. Instead, all governments should be allowed to concentrate their efforts on fighting the pandemic and saving lives at home.”

The AfCFTA looks to establish a single continental market for goods and services as well as the free movement of businesspeople and investments. Member countries will remove tariffs from about 90 percent of the 200 traded items on the continent in a bid to make them more affordable for consumers.

With a potential market of more than 1.3 billion people, the free trade agreement has the capacity to bring about over $3.4 trillion combined gross domestic product and constitute the largest new trading bloc since the creation of the World Trade Organisation in 1994.

Though already in force legally, several details of the agreement still need to be deliberated on in phases as part of the process, with an initial July deadline set to start trading of goods and services under the new tariff. But the African Union can longer have its May meeting in South Africa to finalize the agreement, as earlier planned, due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A new date will be announced by the AU assembly for the implementation of the agreement, Mene said, with reports suggesting the new commencement date might be January 2021. “The political commitment remains, the political will remains to integrate Africa’s market and to implement the agreement as was intended,” the top official added.

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