Wamkele Mene: Regardless of the delay within the begin date, Africa is absolutely dedicated to AfCFTA
The start of trading for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which was originally scheduled to start July 1, 2020, has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but in this exclusive interview with Omar Ben Yedder and Stephen Williams, his newly elected Secretary General, Welcome Mene, stresses that the continent remains fully committed to the AfCFTA, an important component of the African recovery strategy
We could have expected to speak to Wamkele Mene from his office at AfCFTA headquarters in Accra, Ghana. However, the AfCFTA Secretariat has been prevented from moving to its permanent home due to border closings due to the Covid-19 pandemic and is temporarily staying with the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Nonetheless, the work continues to prepare the continent for this very important initiative which is designed to greatly promote trade and industrialization within Africa.
The paradox is that while AfCFTA is a wholly-owned African development initiative, it has been slowed down in living memories by the worst global pandemic. This pandemic has derailed all plans, including the scheduled start date of AfCFTA trading on July 1st.
Mene explains: “With the borders closed, there are no flights, around 42 African countries have put in place lockdown and containment measures, and most importantly, governments are sensibly and responsibly focused on fighting the pandemic. For governments across Africa, this is and should be their priority today. The African Union is working hard to coordinate a pan-African fight against the pandemic. “
There was debate about whether the AfCFTA should continue on its schedule, but as Mene clarifies, there were too many obstacles to overcome, including technical obstacles such as hosting a virtual meeting in the four official African Union languages in order to maintain the strict confidentiality of AfCFTA ensure negotiating documents and planning meetings taking into account the six different time zones across Africa and the need for regional consultations prior to negotiations. He says the decision to start trading will be considered by the assembly of heads of state.
“Based on a trade response, we are also discussing which other trading instruments could be available to each individual country, but also at the pan-African level to combat the pandemic.”
Already at the beginning of the pandemic, the AfCFTA Secretariat examined with the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention what can be done at the continental level to get goods to where they are most needed. “We agreed that we really had to give the trade corridors a wider meaning, so we put together a list of the most important goods – soaps, germicides, personal protective equipment, etc.,” says Mene.
“It contains around 45 products and we have presented it to the trade ministers with the recommendation that these products may be transported through the trade corridors and that there should be a moratorium on tariffs on these essential products to combat the pandemic, at least for the period of the pandemic .
“Of course, these issues relating to tariffs on products are subject to the determination of the national government. However, we consider it very important that every government in Africa operates the trade corridors agreed by the heads of state and, secondly, we consider it very important that these essential goods are allowed to move on the basis of the customs moratorium for a limited period of time. “
Interestingly, he also points out that once the AfCFTA negotiations are over, “it is very likely that some of these products would have been subject to zero tariffs anyway. We can agree on a zero obligation so we can fight the pandemic. The trade ministers largely supported.
“Of course there is concern that the products are made in Africa and that they have to comply with our rules of origin. For example, the company that makes Dettol is in Nigeria. The same company makes soap and has another plant in South Africa. This is the type of economic activity that we believe will have an impact on the fight against the pandemic. “
Mene is absolutely convinced that the African Union has a very coordinated strategy to fight the pandemic.
“It is headed by the President of South Africa, His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa, as head of the Assembly of Heads of State of the African Union. From a pan-African coordination point of view, we see a very significant advance centralized in the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “
Africa is an outlier in many ways in this regard. “When you look at the efforts of the World Health Organization, the G20, I think they are all laudable, but it is regrettable that we do not have the same objective in all countries around the world to fight the pandemic as we do Trying to respond to the 2008/2009 global financial crisis was a perfect example of global solidarity and coordination. “
Look to the future
Many are expecting a global recession after Covid-19, and Mene is no exception. However, he clearly believes that regional trade and greater regional integration will be a solution to getting out of this potential economic downturn.
“The feeling I got from the trade ministers meeting [in May]And I pointed out in my opening address to the meeting that if you look at what is happening in countries around the world, they have the monetary and fiscal space to provide very significant economic aid packages, ”he says. “The US and the European Union have trillions of dollars to bring growth and dynamism back into their economies. This option is not available in many African countries. “
“When we look at a post-Covid-19 world, when we look at recovery, the only tool we have that can promote such recovery is to implement the AfCFTA in a way that we can significantly improve the intra Increase – African trade and that we implement the agreement to improve our investor profile. We need to implement the trade and investment rules we have agreed to so that we become a much more attractive investment destination.
“If we can negotiate intellectual property rights in a few months, then, if Covid-19 allows, we must also examine whether we can use our intellectual property regime to support industrial development in Africa.
“The pandemic crisis is an opportunity for us to redouble our efforts and look at our industrial development strategy from an implementation standpoint and really move quickly to implement this agreement.”
Resolve differences of opinion
With so many countries being parties to the AfCFTA, it seems inevitable that disagreements will arise after Covid-19, and the Secretariat plays a central role in resolving such disputes by providing a sophisticated dispute settlement mechanism.
It is based on the protocols of the WTO for the settlement of disputes, but with significant improvements “so that we do not end up in a dead end like the situation in the WTO Appellate Body,” comments Mene.
To clarify, he says that the AfCFTA dispute settlement body is an independent body that works independently of the secretariat and was set up by the agreement itself.
“It works independently – the jurors are chosen by the parties to the dispute. They must adhere to certain rules and opinions on standards, whether they are minimum standards of conduct as judges or minimum qualifications that they must meet.
“There will be a court of first instance, a dispute settlement body and a body. It will decide the matter and the dispute. If you do not like the result, you have the right to appeal the result to a complainant.
“It’s very similar to the WTO. The only role of the Secretariat is to ensure that the AfCFTA’s dispute settlement mechanism as a whole has adequate resources to function properly.
“As the Secretariat, we need to be neutral and simply provide the resources necessary to resolve the disputes, but the agreement stipulates that the Secretary-General, that is, me, will serve well in resolving a dispute before it becomes a formal dispute.
“The complainant’s decisions will be enforced and complied with as this improves the countries’ investor prospects. If there is a perception that as a particular country you are not adhering to the rule of law, and in this case not adhering to the rule of African investment law or African trade law, which affects your foreign investments.
Mene makes one final point: “All Heads of State are still very committed to this agreement and we will continue to be there. The political commitment to this is still there.
“I have certainly not heard a single minister or head of state say that the pandemic will slow us down beyond the temporary delay.
“I want to reassure everyone that we, as Africans, are even more determined to ensure that we get back to work, and do so with renewed vigor, when the conditions are right, when the time is right. I don’t want people to get discouraged or read this in a way that suggests engagement has decreased. It has not.”