Leaders from Nigeria and South Africa were absent on Wednesday as leaders from 44 African countries signed an agreement to form a $2.5 trillion continental free-trade zone.
The creation of a free trade area — billed as the world’s largest in terms of participating countries since the creation of the World Trade Organisation in 1995 — comes after two years of negotiations and is one of the AU’s flagship projects for greater African integration.
“The agreement establishing the CFTA (African Continental Free Trade Area) was signed by 44 countries,” said Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the AU commission.
However, the agreement will still have to be ratified at a national level, and is only due to come into force in 180 days.
The full list of countries which did not sign the agreement is not yet available, however Nigeria is a notable absentee after President Muhammadu Buhari pulled out of this week’s launch in Rwanda saying he needed more time for consultations at home.
Nigeria, one of Africa’s largest markets, hesitated after objections from business leaders and unions — a sign that getting the deal through scores of national parliaments may face several hurdles.
On his part, South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said his country will join the agreement when the necessary legal processes are concluded.
“President Ramaphosa has undertaken that South Africa will become a signatory to the agreement once the legal and other instruments associated with (the trade bloc) are processed and ratified by South African stakeholders and parliament,” he said.
Meanwhile, Albert Muchanga, the AU Commissioner for Trade and Industry, has said:
“Some countries have reservations and have not finalised their national consultations. But we shall have another summit in Mauritania in July where we expect countries with reservations to also sign.”