COVID-19 Pandemic Pushes Back Start Date for AfCFTA Entry into Force

The entry into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Secretary General of the AfCFTA Secretariat, Wamkele Mene. The first phase of the agreement will now take effect by January 2021 at the earliest.

Phase I of the AfCFTA, which covers trade in goods and services, was to begin on July 1, 2020, following the ratification of the agreement in June 2019. Subsequently, attention turned to negotiations for Phase II of the agreement dealing with protocols on investment, competition, and intellectual property rights. These negotiations were scheduled to be completed by January 2021 and will be followed by Phase III negotiations on e-commerce, the AU announced in February 2020.

In addition, Phase I details regarding trade in goods, services, and rules of origin were still to be ironed out at an extraordinary AU summit, which was to be held in South Africa on May 30. Among the key items pending from Phase I included the final goods and services schedules. This summit has been cancelled, and while attempts have been made to hold virtual meetings, these have reportedly been thwarted by Internet connectivity issues.

Beyond the delay in the AfCFTA’s entry into force, the COVID-19 pandemic is predicted to slash the continent’s predicted GDP growth as a result of falling demand for fuel, declining commodities prices, and a drop-off in tourism and remittance flows.

Nevertheless, according to Stephen Karingi, the pandemic represents an opportunity to reflect on ways that the AfCFTA can better address key issues that are bound to continue to challenge African countries over the next century, including pandemics and climate change. There have also been concerns raised over the level of capacity needed to implement Phase I effectively, though whether the delay will help provide sufficient time to address those questions remains to be seen.