A report by policy and advocacy think tank, AfroChampions shows that the rollout of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) may hit a snag because of the global outbreak of the novel Coronavirus pandemic.
It said the preliminary assessment conducted so far suggests that the continent as a whole had a commitment and readiness level of below 50 percent arguing that, Africa that was looking forward to opening its borders to a new trade revolution starting July 2020, now has almost all of its borders shut in order to fight the pandemic.
AfroChampions is predicting that COVID-19 will likely worsen some countries’ commitment and preparedness to implement the AfCFTA and therefore expects that AfCFTA country commitment and readiness rankings be revised in the months ahead.
The findings also note that there is a significant temporary reduction in the levels of intra-Africa trade as a result of border closures and lockdowns.
AfroChampions noted that borders may take long or a while to re-open adding that the situation will be even more devastating for informal cross-border trade, which is the source of daily livelihoods for many in Africa, particularly for women and youth.
“COVID-19 is already destroying much of the African private sector. AfroChampions early surveillance indicates some of the continent’s strongest companies and businesses are already in severe financial stress. Without an industrial rescue plan COVID-19 could further de-industrialize Africa”, the report said.
How COVID-19 is impacting AfCFTA preparedness according to AfroChampions:
The March 2020 opening and operationalization of the Accra AfCFTA Secretariat has delayed. AfCFTA Secretary-General has been sworn in but is without the full complement of secretariat teams due to disruptions to recruitment and staffing.
Fast-moving AfCFTA negotiations have slowed down as negotiating teams cannot travel. Consequently, various meetings of ministers and senior officials necessary for crucial deliberations, decision-making and approvals have stalled.
The highly anticipated July 2020 start of AfCFTA Trading timeline is at risk in light of the above. COVID-19 firefighting means there is significantly reduced attention span for AfCFTA issues among governments, policymakers and the private sector.
How to salvage and keep AfCFTA on track amidst COVID-19 disruptions
In the view of AfroChampions, AfCFTA negotiations should continue via online and video-conferencing platforms. If done right virtual negotiations could prove to be even faster and cheaper than face to face meetings for certain aspects of the negotiations process.
“Africa must be proactive and united in fighting the pandemic; no country should be left behind in the fight. Otherwise borders, travel and trade will continue to be disrupted even if most countries recover and a few do not. Economic relief during the crisis is paramount and should be coordinated to include trade in goods critical to the fight against COVID-19. If economies sink too deep, recovery will be slow, and intra-Africa trade will suffer even more. There is a Silver lining in the COVID-19 crisis for Africa and AfCFTA”, it said.
It has also recommended that, the July 2020 date for start of AfCFTA trading should not be postponed even if the pandemic persists into July. If AfCFTA trading can take off in the middle of this battle – even if symbolically – will send a strong signal; it should be one of the symbolic victories for Africa in the midst of a crisis.
Initial AfCFTA trade can focus on critical goods needed to fight the pandemic such as pharmaceuticals and food products. Governments should ease border crossings for these goods. The AfCFTA can be one of Africa’s main weapons to beat COVID-19.
Among other things, the AfCFTA secretariat, which is temporarily operating out of Addis Ababa, should continue with its staff recruitment and operationalize a fully functional virtual office with newly recruited teams working virtually from their homes across the continent.
Also, the African Union should convene a major virtual meeting of African trade ministers to deliberate on ways to keep the AfCFTA on track. A fully virtual mode of meetings should be activated to keep the process going adding that, the African Union should request Ministers of Trade to present COVID19-IMPACT reports of their proposed AfCFTA plans or their already prepared BIAT.
Each of the member states that have ratified should be made to present a COVID-19-ADJUSTED plan to project how they plan to catch up in the post COVID-19 period. We urge African Union President Cyril Ramaphosa to appoint Special AfCFTA Envoys to assist the AfCFTA SecretaryGeneral to coordinate with governments towards salvaging and keeping the process on track.