Business leaders on the continent have signed an Open Letter stressing that the AfCTFA can and must remain on course. Their view is emphasized in a new report, the AfCFTA Year Zero Report, published by The AfroChampions Initiative.
There are innovative ways to keep AfCFTA on track, they stressed, "and we should be willing to explore them."
Speaking from Accra, Ghana, Edem Adzogenu, Co-Chair of the AfroChampions Initiative Executive Committee said that postponing the start of trading would be a mistake.
Adzogenu said: "It certainly will be a mistake to postpone because this may well be our new reality. My view is that the political decision has already been made for Start of Trade to commence on July 1. If COVID-19 hadn’t struck, we would be on course.
So, COVID-19 reality needs to be evaluated within the context of the technical, health, and economic realities that the pandemic presents.
"The reality is that we need essential products to be produced and health personnel moving across borders. It will be a mistake for African countries to keep treating each other as foreign markets in times like this."
Before the African business community made its position known, last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, who is AU Chairperson, recommended that the date - July 1, 2020 - originally chosen for starting trading under the Agreement be postponed to January 1, 2021. Ramaphosa indicated that this was due to the impact of the pandemic on the work and operations of the Union.
Sources indicate that the AU Chairperson is now consulting member states to make a final decision, either on postponement or starting trading on July 1.
Adzogenu stressed: "We can’t anticipate 2021 just as we didn’t anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic. So we must approach this situation as if this is the new normal and find the measures, available technology, and resources to proceed with the negotiations."
On the offensive, they note, the July Start of Trade can focus on restricted trade in essential goods such as pharmaceuticals and food products to the fight against COVID-19.
On the defensive, current border closure will continue as part of anti-COVID measures while at the same time permitting the entry of critical and life-saving goods.
They noted that the temptation to postpone is natural, given the health emergency and how it has disrupted preparedness and finalization of negotiations and operationalization.
They stress that it is quite easy to use videoconferencing and online work platforms to keep AfCFTA negotiations and operationalization on track.
In their report, they emphasized that instead of delays, COVID-19 is a reason why the start of trade under the Agreement should be accelerated.
Indeed, it is noted, they expect the level of readiness and commitment to be impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Nevertheless, AfroChampions strongly advocates that in the face of COVID-19, Africa should use the AfCFTA to simultaneously play offensive and defensive by adjusting to current and critical issues needed to fight the pandemic.
According to the Afrochampions, negotiators must adapt to the changing times.
"The new AfCFTA Secretariat must fully embrace and innovate for the crisis period into which it has been birthed. We urge African trade ministers and governments to make the tough, creative, bold choice to march on – despite COVID-19,"
But members of the private sector are holding their fingers crossed, hoping the AU decision is changed.
Robert Bafakulera, the chairperson of the Rwanda Private Sector Federation (PSF), said: "Postponing will not help us, but it will take us back a lot. Trade, just like life, should not stop or be postponed. Business can’t stop. And, starting trading (under the AfCFTA) on July 1 will enhance trade on the continent."
Bafakulera also noted that it is important to note that the continent has not been affected as other continents and there is hope that once African countries coordinate better and work harder, jointly, the pandemic will end faster.
Prudence Sebahizi, Chief Technical Advisor on AfCFTA at the AU Commission, said: "I don’t want to preempt the ongoing consultations with Member States.
Implementation of AfCFTA depends on Member States readiness. We at the AUC can only facilitate the process where possible."
Rwandan economist Teddy Kaberuka also stressed that there could be no better time to start trading under the Agreement than now.
Kaberuka said: "It is very wrong to postpone. This, actually, is the time for Africa to initiate its common market, following the shutdowns, globally, due to the pandemic. The AfCFTA would be a good opportunity for our businesses."
Launched in January 2017, the Afrochampions is a special implementation vehicle for major, innovative, public-private partnerships to harness big opportunities in Africa for transforming the continent’s best companies and institutions into globally significant players.