Leaders of nearly 50 African nations signed a deal to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) at a ceremony in Kigali, Rwanda, on 21 March, marking a historic milestone in the economic integration of the continent.
The formation of a free trade area spanning Africa creates a single market of 1.2 billion people with a combined gross domestic product of more than $2 trillion.
UNCTAD has provided long-standing support to African countries in conceptualizing African economic continental integration and is recognized by the African Union Commission as a strategic partner in the AfCFTA.
UNCTAD has calculated that cutting intra-African tariffs could bring $3.6 billion in welfare gains to the continent through a boost in production and cheaper goods.
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who is chairperson of the Africa Union, thanked the AU Commission for its work in preparing the treaty and welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa to his first AU summit as head of state.
Mr. Kagame said that work on the AfCFTA had culminated in the AU’s “most consequential” undertaking.
He said that the future of Africa’s farmers workers and entrepreneurs, particularly women and young people, was at stake.
The advantages of creating one African market lay in boosting prosperity for all Africans but also in ramping up the power that Africa could exert in world affairs as a unified economic bloc, Mr. Kagame said.
“This is not just a signing ceremony,” he said. “Today’s deliberations are critically important as we chart the next steps on our journey towards the Africa we want.”
The task ahead
Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the AU Commission, added that the moment was historic for African people, their future and the social and economic development of the continent.
“We have come here to lay a new milestone, to take another step in the Pan-African journey, whose intellectual seeds were sown more than a century ago,” he said.
“I also thank the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the African Development Bank, for their accompaniment and support.”
Mr. Faki quoted Pan-Africanist and Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, addressing the Ghanaian national assembly in 1965:
“The task ahead is great indeed, and heavy is the responsibility; and yet it is a noble and glorious challenge – a challenge which calls for the courage to dream, the courage to believe, the courage to dare, the courage to do, the courage to envision, the courage to fight, the courage to work, the courage to achieve – to achieve the highest excellencies and the fullest greatness of man.”
President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger said he was honoured to have been entrusted with the role of “champion for the AfCFTA” and was grateful to the AU team that helped bring it about.
He called for the minimum ratification of the treaty – 22 out of the AU's 55 members – within less than a year.
Mr. Issoufou added that the name of Kigali – the Rwandan capital where the ceremony to sign the deal was taking place – would be forever associated with this important stage in Africa’s development.
Mr. Issoufou was the first to sign the three legal instruments that bring the free trade area to life: a treaty establishing the AfCFTA, a protocol on the free movement of people, and the Kigali Declaration. He was followed by Mr. Kagame.
The documents were then signed in full or in part by presidents, prime ministers and government officials representing 47 other African states. The other AU members are expected to formally join the bloc at a later date.
Brahim Ghali, president of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – the disputed Western Sahara region of Morocco which is not recognized by the United Nations as a sovereign nation but is a member of the AU – also signed the document.
President Muhammadu Buhari of Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, did not participate, reportedly saying his government needed more time for input from local businesses before he could sign the pact.
UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi earlier called for “concrete actions” to follow political declarations. The focus of the AfCFTA process will now move to ratification and implementation.
The AfCFTA is part of the AU’s Agenda 2063, a long-term plan for continent-wide political, social and economic integration and development.
The signing of the AfCFTA is a milestone in a process that began with the creation of eight sub-regional economic communities, the building blocks of the African Economic Community established in the 1991 Abuja Treaty, which provided the overarching framework for continental economic integration.
List of signatories
Click the following link to view the signatories, listed in the order signed: