The African Union headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Picture: REUTERS
The African Union headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Picture: REUTERS

Niamey — Heads of state will meet for an African Union (AU) summit in Niger Sunday to usher in a landmark free trade agreement and consider looming security and migration crises.

In a “historic” moment for the 55-member bloc, according to its chairman Moussa Faki, leaders will officially launch an African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) at the two-day summit.

The accord was sealed in 2018 after 17 arduous years of negotiations. By the end of April, it had crossed the launch threshold, which required ratification by at least 22 countries.

In a major coup, Nigeria, with Africa’s biggest population and economy, announced this week it would officially join the pact in Niamey on Sunday after long holding out.

The zone is expected to become operational from July 2020, AU Trade and Industry Commissioner Albert Muchanga told AFP.

“Its goal is ultimately to create an integrated, continent-wide market,” Faki told a pre-summit meeting of AU foreign ministers Thursday.

Only Benin and Eritrea are yet to sign.

Despite the celebratory mood, intense negotiations are likely to continue behind the scenes. Numerous key issues, including setting common criteria to determine rules of origin for traded products, are yet to be ironed out.

Ronak Gopaldas, director at Signal Risk consultancy, said the continental pact required much more detail.

“It remains largely aspirational with many practical and design issues still to be resolved,” he said.

“You need to give a timescale for everyone to play their role in preparing for the market, so we have recommended to the summit that the actual date of trading should be the 1st of July 2020,” Muchanga explained.

The AU estimates that implementing the AfCFTA will lead to a 60-percent boost in intra-African trade by 2022. Today, African countries trade only about 16 percent of their goods and services among one another, compared to 65 percent among European countries.

Also on the summit agenda is security — an issue afflicting the Sahel in particular.

High surveillance

Summit host Niger has face repeated attacks by jihadist groups.

Its fellow members of the G5-Sahel security pact — Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania — will seek backing at the AU to push for a greater UN security force to tackle the problem.

The countries hope to activate Chapter VII of the UN Charter, a Nigerien security source told AFP. The chapter allows for the UN Security Council to determine a threat to peace and propose measures, including military deployment, to deal with it.

“No prosperity, no integration is possible without peace,” said Faki, who stressed the importance of an AU Peace Fund launched in 2018 to finance security activities and called on member states to fulfil their financial promises.

So far, only $116 million has been received for the envisaged $400-million fund.

Niamey is under high surveillance, with summit facilities subjected to strict access controls and a heavy security presence.

“We have a special unit of several thousand men” on duty, said defence minister Mohamed Bazoum.

The city has been revamped and boasts a brand-new airport, upgraded roads, and new hotels for the occasion.


The leaders will also discuss boosting intelligence cooperation and the global migration crisis.

An airstrike Tuesday on a migrant detention centre near the Libyan capital, Tripoli, killed 44 people and injured more than 130.

The AU condemned the attack, and the UN said it could constitute a war crime.

The issue of migration has become a pressing issue for the AU,” said security analyst Ryan Cummings.

“Libya is a repository for forced migration which itself is symptomatic of poor political and economic conditions across large parts of the continent.”