First Head of AfCFTA Secretariat to Swear in amid Coronavirus Crisis

ADDIS ABEBA – African Union will swear in first secretary-general for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) as the continent grapples with coronavirus outbreak.

Wamkele Mene, a South African economist, as the African leaders appointed Mene in early Feb to lead the AfCFTA secretariat.

They also directed the African Union Commission “to prepare for the installation ceremony in close liaison with” Ghana as the host country of the secretariat.

African Union announced today Mene will swear in as Secretary-General in Addis Ababa on Thursday.

It “is a very important event, which represents an important milestone in the history of the African Union Commission,” the AU said.

The 43-year-old South African is tasked to ensure that implementation instruments required are in place by 1 July for the first commerce under an African-wide free-trade deal.

This target, however, may face an unexpected challenge from Coronavirus as several African governments are now closing borders, canceling flights and enforcing strict quarantine requirements to curb the spread of the virus.

Experts say these decisions will have consequences for the continent’s economy. The United Nations estimate shows Africa’s GDP rate will fall from 3.2 percent to 1.8 percent this year.

‘On track’

Soon-to-be-confirmed secretary-general said the outbreak is unlikely to scupper the July 1 target, even if meetings to iron out details are being canceled.

Cross-border travel bans by some governments, as well as restrictions imposed by companies on their employees, have led to conferences being canceled.

“I don’t think anybody would have anticipated that the virus would be so disruptive to the entire global economy,” Mene told Bloomberg news.

The virus “is a big issue to take into consideration,” Mene said. “But, you know, I think we will have to find a way. We’re going to have to find a way.”

Summit in May

According to Bloomberg, if it wasn’t for the virus and the ensuing travel restrictions, discussions around trade concessions and rules of origin may have been further along already and could have been concluded by May.

That’s when South Africa is scheduled to host an extraordinary African Union summit to finalize the modalities of the agreement.

“The rules of origin are 90% ready,” Mene said. Rules on automobiles, sugar and cotton haven’t yet been agreed and are still subject to talks, he added.

Legally, the agreement is already in force, but in order to make the 1 July deadline for the start of trade in goods and services under the new tariff rules, these details need to be rubber-stamped before the May summit as part of phase one of the process.

“The summit will have to look closely in terms of how we how to deal with the disruption,” said Mene.

Image: AU headquarters in Addis Ababa