Talks to Begin on Creating a Trade Zone Within Africa

JOHANNESBURG — Trade within Africa has long faced many barriers, from the physical to nonphysical: bad roads, air routes that still favor old colonial ties to Europe, corruption and poor governance. Even as African economies have grown in the last decade, trade between African nations has lagged behind their exchanges with the rest of the world.

But African leaders meeting here this weekend are expected to start negotiations on an ambitious plan to create a continent wide free-trade zone that, perhaps years or decades from now, could foster closer economic and political ties between dozens of nations.

The negotiations, which will take place during an African Union summit meeting here, come days after officials from 26 African countries signed an agreement to create the continent’s largest free-trade zone, covering a region of more than 626 million people and a total gross domestic product of $1.2 trillion.

The new trading zone will more closely link the powerful economies of eastern and southern Africa, including South Africa, Egypt and Kenya.

The agreement, which was signed in Egypt on Wednesday and is called the Tripartite Free Trade Area, will reduce tariffs and link together three existing regional trade groups of African nations. But it fell short of its original goal of combining the three zones into a single one.

“What we are doing today represents a very important step in the history of the regional integration of Africa,” President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt was quoted as saying at the meeting in Egypt.

The agreement still needs to be ratified by each country in the relevant areas, but it gave momentum to talks for an even bigger goal: to create a Pan-African trading zone that would encompass the continent, a dream in Africa ever since most nations achieved independence more than half a century ago.

The African Union says it will establish the zone, called the Continental Free Trade Area, by 2017 as a way to create long-term growth, investment and jobs.

“There’s been talk about the continental free trade agreement for many, many years, but it’s been more like a shibboleth that shows you’re committed to regional integration on the continent,” said Christopher Wood, an expert on economic diplomacy at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

“It seems like that’s changing now,” he added. “The African Union has established negotiating principles and some outcomes and a rough timeline that seems like the continental free-trade agreement is going to move from a vision to an actual plan.”

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