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African leaders to re-initiate free trade zone discussions

Heads of states pose for a group photo during the 35th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on February 5, 2022.   -  
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Three years ago, amid a blaze of optimism, African leaders officially launched a new continent-wide free trade area after 17 years of haggling.

But as the leaders travel to Addis Ababa for the annual African Union summit this weekend, transforming the blockbuster pact into reality remains a tough ask.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), billed as the biggest free trade accord in the world in terms of population, gathers 54 out of 55 African countries, with Eritrea the only holdout.

Two days of talks under the theme "Acceleration of AfCFTA implementation" open on Saturday.

AfCFTA's plan is to boost intra-African trade by 60 percent by 2034 by eliminating almost all tariffs, creating an economic bloc of 1.3 billion people with a combined gross domestic product of $3.4 trillion.

African countries currently trade only about 15 percent of their goods and services with each other, compared to more than 65 percent with European countries.

If fully implemented, AfCFTA would lift 50 million Africans out of extreme poverty and raise incomes by nine percent by 2035, according to the World Bank.

But implementation has fallen well short of that goal, running into hurdles including disagreements over tariff reductions and border closures caused by the Covid pandemic.

Backdrop of crises

This year's summit comes at a "delicate moment" for Africa, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, citing Ethiopia's nascent peace process, conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sahel region, South Sudan and jihadist insurgencies in Somalia and Mozambique.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions that followed "have rattled African economies and left many in deep distress", ICG adds, with food prices shooting up.

While Europe's internal market is knitted together by energy pipelines, motorways, railways and flight routes, Africa is playing catch-up, with decrepit infrastructure and corruption handicapping the process.

Analysts say the obstacles, which range from ubiquitous red tape to the entrenched protectionism of some countries, must be overcome for Africa to achieve the coveted single market.

"There is a declared political will, but it will take a long time to put in place," Paul-Simon Handy, regional director of the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, told AFP.

Dorine Nininahazwe, African Union director of US-headquartered non-profit ONE Campaign, agreed.

"There are fears from certain African countries that with opening borders, they will have an influx of people they cannot control," Nininahazwe told AFP.

Address conflict-torn regions

The summit, long criticised for being ineffectual, will also aim to address the raging conflict in eastern DR Congo.

Rebels, many of them a legacy of regional wars that flared during the 1990s and the early 2000s, have sown chaos in the mineral-rich east and sparked a diplomatic row with neighbouring Rwanda, which is accused of backing the M23 militia.

The African Union scored some success in November last year in fostering a peace deal in Ethiopia between the federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front.

Sudan, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, four countries that have witnessed military coups, will also be seeking to rejoin the AU.

But their chances are limited, according to Handy.

"The reintegration of these juntas into the AU would be a total renunciation, it will not be the priority at all," he said.

Comoros President Azali Assoumani, leader of the small Indian Ocean archipelago of almost 900,000 people, is due to take over the one-year rotating AU chairmanship from Senegal's Macky Sall.

The 64-year-old Assoumani will "require the support of other senior African leaders to discharge the role, given his country's limited diplomatic heft", according to ICG.

At least 35 presidents and four prime ministers will be attending the summit, Ethiopia's foreign ministry spokesman Meles Alem said on Tuesday, without giving names.

So far, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana and Congo-Brazzaville have confirmed they will be sending their presidents.

Last year, unease flared over the accreditation of Israel as an observer at the AU, triggering a rare dispute within a body that values consensus.

The summit suspended a debate on whether to withdraw the accreditation and a committee was formed to address the issue. It is not clear if AU will take up the matter this year.