Only nine of the 20 member states of the regional Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) are expected to launch a Free Trade Area (FTA) scrapping tariffs on Tuesday. COMESA spokesman Mweusi Karake said that 11 countries have expressed reservations in joining the long-awaited FTA, leaving only nine countries to sign the protocol.
The nine states planning to participate in the first zone of its kind in Africa are Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Burundi, Eritrea, Rwanda, the Comoros and Uganda have indicated that they might join the FTA next year, Karake said. The other COMESA members are Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Namibia, the Seychelles and Swaziland.
Some countries fear lost revenue by joining the FTA, while others say their industries are too underdeveloped to compete in a free trade zone. COMESA Secretary-General Erastus Mwencha said some of these concerns were addressed in the COMESA treaty.
"The treaty actually provides for the protection of infant industries," Mwencha told AFP, noting that the deal would make imported goods cheaper for consumers in participating countries. He added that since imports from COMESA countries account for about eight percent of total imports in the region, the FTA would not drastically affect total government revenues. "COMESA imports may be about 1.4 percent of total government revenue. Trade between COMESA countries is relatively small," Mwencha said.
But analysts say the FTA is likely to fail in the absence of economically viable states such as South Africa, which has opted to remain in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). "Another problem with this FTA is that some countries will become consumers only. Zambia for instance has no capacity to compete with other COMESA countries when it comes to exports," Zambian economist Fred Mtesa said.
Some industrial and agricultural experts have criticized the implementation of the FTA, saying the process has been hurried. "There is need of our government to hold on. They are in a rush which may backfire in future," said Mark O'Donnel of the Zambia Association of Manufacturers.
Tanzania has already pulled out of COMESA, saying it is not ready for the FTA, but its action is being blamed on South Africa. "The pullout of Tanzania is as a result of South Africa trying to play it big. They are influencing some COMESA countries to quit and concentrate on SADC," a COMESA secretariat official said.
An official further revealed that Angola is also contemplating pulling out of the trade group, which started in 1981 as the Preferential Trade Area (PTA) grouping, but was renamed COMESA in 1994. — (AFP, Lusaka)
© Agence France Presse 2000
By Dickson Jere
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)