By Michael Jegede (Editor-At-Large)

Last month, the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF), African Union (AU) Specialized Agency for Capacity Development whose headquarters is in Harare, Zimbabwe, hosted the7th African Think Tank Summit with the theme, “Implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement: Assessing country readiness and the implications for capacity-building.”

NIGERIAN NEWSLEADER BUSINESS REPORT reveals that different presentations were made in connection to the theme of the two-day Summit. Among the topics discussed were: Understanding the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for making AfCFTA a reality, exploring the critical determinants of country readiness in implementing the AfCFTA, identifying key capacity issues facing the implementation of the AfCFTA at the continental and country levels, building the capacity of frontline state actors and institutions to effectively drive the implementation of the AfCFTA. Others are: Building the capacity of SMEs as a driving force for success in the implementation of the AfCFTA, the role of Think Tanks in supporting the implementation of the AfCFTA, and establishing partnerships and coordination mechanisms to enhance country readiness.

The Summit held virtually provided a veritable platform for African Think Tanks and other key stakeholders to identify and examine key capacity challenges facing countries and other major institutions involved in driving the African continental free trade agenda.

The virtual gathering which reportedly attracted experts and representatives from about 45 African countries, was convened by ACBF in partnership with the African Development Bank (AfDB), the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), the African Union Commission (AUC), the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (BADEA), the Development Centre for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD-Dev), the International Cooperation Centre of China’s National Development and Reform Commission (ICC-NDRC), the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), the Southern Voice, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

While officially opening the Summit, ACBF Executive Secretary, Professor Emmanuel Nnadozie said the AfCFTA represented a major opportunity to help African countries diversify their exports, accelerate growth, increase intra-African trade, attract foreign direct investment and create jobs through value addition.

Nnadozie maintained “There is, therefore, a need to find solutions to put the AfCFTA back on track, to accelerate its implementation and to deliver on the promises. Hence the aim of the Summit is to provide a platform for African Think Tanks and other key stakeholders to engage in a high-level deliberation on the most effective ways of addressing the capacity challenges facing the implementation of the AfCFTA to accelerate its implementation and enhance country readiness in implementing and benefiting from the Agreement, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In his remarks, President and Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Afreximbank, Professor Benedict Okey Oramah represented by Chief Economist and Director, Research & International Cooperation Department at Afreximbank, Dr. Hippolyte Fofack, said the AfCFTA had the potential to transform African economies and boost intra-African trade.

Senior Director at the African Development Institute of the African Development Bank Group, Professor Kevin Chika Urama, said the Think Tank Summit had come at an opportune time when the African continent is in the process of coming up with policies to achieve growth and “build back better post-COVID-19.”

Urama further stated that “This is a clarion call for Africa to accelerate the implementation of this agreement to be able to achieve the great implications of trade for development.”

A Communiqué issued at the end of the Summit reads in part: “We note that the Summit provided us with the opportunity for stakeholders and development partners to have a good understanding of the capacity challenges posed by COVID-19, factors affecting the readiness of countries and the capacity gaps not only of governments but other key stakeholders – private sector, SMEs, civil society, regional economic communities, and the African Union. The Summit also enabled us to identify the actions including priority capacity building programs required to put the AfCFTA back on track and to build the capacity of key stakeholders (government, private sector, SMEs, civil society, regional economic communities, and the African Union) to improve country readiness.

“We acknowledge that the challenges of COVID-19 can be overcome and the AfCFTA if duly domesticated by countries and implemented as designed, could help Africa achieve the future we want: ‘an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa’. This is a common dream that underpins Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We note that African think tanks are able and ready to play a critical role in supporting African countries in tackling AfCFTA implementation issues through evidence-based policy design and implementation, provision of platforms for stakeholder engagement, dialogue, advocacy, and capacity development activities for state and non-state actors as well as their monitoring and evaluation to assess the progress of the AfCFTA.”

It further states: “We recognize that think tanks should be the source of the policies for the domestication of the ACFTA, its implementation and monitoring and evaluation at the national, regional and continental levels.

“We commit to providing advice on the policy options and innovative solutions available to successfully tackle the bottlenecks facing the implementation of the AfCFTA using knowledge, research and networking while expanding our outreach to policy actors and making our research accessible to support the AfCFTA.

“We encourage African governments and key stakeholders, especially the private sector, to work with African think tanks and capacity building institutions to support the expansion, retention, and use of capacities required to develop home-grown interventions for the effective implementation of the AfCFTA.

“We recommend that think tanks be supported in conducting strategic studies on human, institutional and transformative leadership capacity gaps facing the continent and to share good practices on how to address them to facilitate the effective implementation of the AfCFTA.

“We enjoin ACBF to coordinate the development of capacity development interventions to address gaps in key areas identified such as mapping of AfCFTA interventions, awareness, commitment and operational readiness, human capital and skills development, digital capacity, institutional and policy support, knowledge sharing and advocacy based on the ACBF’s strategy to accelerate the implementation of AfCFTA in Africa.”

Due to the global outbreak of the deadly Coronavirus code-named COVID-19 in January 2020, trading under the AfCFTA which was originally scheduled for July 1, 2020, was postponed to January 1, 2021.

The AfCFTA agreement has been signed by 54 out of 55 AU Member States. So far, about 35 African countries have ratified and deposited the instrument of ratification at the AU Commission. The Agreement was adopted on March 21, 2018, and came into force on May 30, 2019, thirty days after the 22ndinstrument of ratification was deposited as stipulated in the Protocol establishing AfCFTA.

As part of the preparation for the commencement of trading under AfCFTA in January 2021, Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo had in August this year at a ceremony in Accra, handed over the AfCFTA Secretariat to the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat. President Akufo-Addo had as well announced at the event the provision of a residential accommodation to serve as the official residence of the Secretary-General of AfCFTA, Wamkele Mene.

Among the about 35 nations on the African continent that can be said to have fully keyed into the AfCFTA with the deposition of their instruments of ratification to the legal depository of the AU include Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea and Kenya. Other are Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Saharawi Republic, and Nigeria which only deposited its instrument of ratification on December 5, 2020, having earlier ratified the agreement on November 11, 2020.

According to Article 3, Part III of the Protocol on Trade in Goods, the specific objectives of establishing AfCFTA are to: (a) enhance competitiveness of services through economies of scale, reduced business costs, enhanced continental market access, and an improved allocation of resources including the development of trade-related infrastructure; (b) promote sustainable development in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); (c) foster domestic and foreign investment; (d) accelerate efforts on industrial development to promote the development of regional value chains; (e) progressively liberalise trade in services across the African continent on the basis of equity, balance and mutual benefit, by eliminating barriers to trade in services; (f) ensure consistency and complementarity between liberalisation of trade in services and the various Annexes in specific services sectors; (g) pursue services trade liberalisation in line with Article V of the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) by expanding the depth and scope of liberalisation and increasing, improving and developing the export of services, while fully preserving the right to regulate and to introduce new regulations; (h) promote and enhance common understanding and cooperation in trade in services amongst State Parties in order to improve the capacity, efficiency and competitiveness of their services markets; and (i) promote research and technological advancement in the field of services to accelerate economic and social development.

According to a World Bank publication, “The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement will create the largest free trade area in the world measured by the number of countries participating. The pact connects 1.3 billion people across 55 countries with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) valued at US$3.4 trillion. It has the potential to lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty, but achieving its full potential will depend on putting in place significant policy reforms and trade facilitation measures.”

At the 13th Extraordinary Session of the AU’s Assembly of the Heads of State and Government on AfCFTA held December 5, 2020, the urgent need for member states to kick-start trading activities was accentuated. The South African President and AU Chairperson, Cyril Ramaphosa, was quoted as saying: “Today we stand on the cusp of a new era in the progress of our continent. The moment that we have all been working painstakingly towards has finally arrived…We are all filled with a great sense of pride at how far we have come to reach this moment. And now, we are about to witness the realization of one of the flagship projects of Agenda 2063.

“Throughout this process, we have stood united, with 55 sovereign AU Member States rallying together, despite different levels of economic development and diverse strategic priorities. The commencement of trading under the AfCFTA on the 1st of January 2021 is one of the most significant milestones in the continental integration project”.

Ramaphosa further emphasized that “this is going to be the clearest affirmation that Africa is determined to take charge of its own destiny, and that its success and development is fundamentally tied to harnessing the potential and energies of her citizens.” NNL.

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