Africa’s largest trading bloc, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, is set to get even bigger in June with the admission of Somalia and Tunisia, increasing its membership to 21 countries.
The addition of two countries comes just after the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in Kigali in March. The AfCFTA aims to break down trade barriers across the continent.
Officials told The EastAfrican that Somalia and Tunisia will join “after having fulfilled the terms and conditions of accession” to the Comesa Treaty.
Article 4 of the Treaty provides that the bloc’s highest organ — the Comesa Authority — may admit a country that is an immediate neighbour of a member state upon fulfilling conditions set forth, including acceptance of the aims and objectives, compliance with the general undertakings and fundamental principles and wishing to co-operate with Comesa.
The two countries’ admission will end years of knocking on the doors of Comesa — currently a 490-million people market. The inclusion of Somalia and Tunisia will increase the population to over 516 million people — just under half of the continent’s population.
Trade experts say the AfCFTA still has a long way before it can compete with the agility, ease and seamlessness of regional blocs like Comesa and the East African Community.
“The AfCFTA is positive, but it should not be overestimated. It’s a complement, not a substitute,” said Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organisation.
Tunisia had applied for Comesa observer status in 2005, but its application was neither discussed nor endorsed by the member states.In February 2016, the North African nation with a population of 11.6 million renewed its push to formally join the bloc when it wrote to Comesa Secretary General Sindiso Ngwenya.In his response, Mr Ngwenya said that under Article 1(4) of the Comesa Treaty, Tunisia was eligible for admission as “an immediate neighbour of a member state of Comesa … upon fulfilling conditions that may be determined by the Comesa Authority”.Tunisia is an immediate neighbour of Libya, a Comesa member state.