The day that trade is supposed to start under the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCFTA) is fast approaching.  It is now a little more than 3 months until the deadline of 1 July 2020 that has been set by African Union Heads of State.  This is ambitious as there is much that still needs to be done.

Here is what was on the agenda for African trade negotiators in order to try to meet this deadline. These plans were set up before the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt by African countries. It is now unlikely that there will face to face meetings taking place any time soon. This raises questions about the ability of a complex trade negotiation like the AFCFTA to progress using technology to facilitate engagement. An electronic platform has been set up to allow for the capturing of offers on goods, which is an important innovation. This could provide the basis for further virtual discussions as these offers are interrogated by trading partners.


Phase 1 Negotiations: Goods and Services Phase 2 Negotiations: Investment, Intellectual Property Rights and Competition Policy
Resolve outstanding rules of origin for clothing and textiles, automotives, sugar, fisheries and machinery (Chapter 84)

By end of March 2020

Set up technical working groups for each of the three areas and commence work on drafting texts

March 2020

Exchange tariff offers and respond with further requests

By end of April 2020

Comment on services offers received from trading partners

By end of April 2020

Finalise rules of origin, tariff schedules, services commitments for adoption by Heads of State

Before Extraordinary AU Summit in South Africa in May 2020

Complete negotiations of phase 2 by end of 2020 with aim of protocols being adopted at the AU Summit in January 2021

The steps required to progress the AFCFTA cannot be taken by governments alone. Consultations will be needed with stakeholders at the national level and also at the reginal level for those countries, like South Africa, that is a member of a customs union. The Southern African Customs Union (SACU) has to present a joint offer of 90{fdf3cafe0d26d25ff546352608293cec7d1360ce65c0adf923ba6cf47b1798e1} of products on which it is prepared to offer duty free access to other parties to the Agreement.

The establishment of a Secretariat for the AFCFTA in Accra, Ghana will also be taking place at the same time as the negotiations. This will be under the leadership of the former South African trade negotiator, Wamkele Mene, as Secretary General. Mene will have to negotiate a clearly defined mandate for the Secretariat, including its working relationship with the AU Commission Directorate of Trade and Industry in Addis Ababa, as well as secure sufficient human and financial resources to support implementation of the AFCFTA. There is no doubt that COVID-19 will also impact on this process.

As we grapple with our new working reality in many parts of the world, our trade negotiators are also trying to adapt processes that have been built on rounds of meetings and lots of travel. What will be the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the AFCFTA? Is there enough incentive for countries to meet these ambitious deadlines or are we likely to see a new timetable set by the continent’s leadership? Or is this going to be another case of the African Union over promising and under delivering on regional integration goals? Only time will tell.