SHARM-EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT, June 11 – President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the current chair of the African Union (AU), opened a summit of African leaders here Wednesday to launch the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA), a new trade bloc made up of three regional economic groups.

The TFTA encompasses the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC), and becomes Africa’s largest trading bloc, made up of 26 countries with a population of 625 million people and a collective gross domestic product of 1.2 trillion US dollars.

The three regional trade blocs signed the Sharm-El-Sheikh Declaration to merge the three trade blocs which is aimed at fostering deeper economic integration, co-operation and development centred on processing of
local natural resources.

President Mugabe told fellow African leaders at the launch that the “unique arrangement” would also contribute to the continental integration agenda. “With the TFTA programme we have committed to establishing a single market that will be a powerful magnate to trade and investment from within and outside the region,” he said.

“We should use the tripartite arrangement to create a boarder-less economy with free movement of persons, goods and services.”

President Mugabe emphasized the need to upgrade the bloc’s infrastructure to drive its industrialization agenda and create jobs. “We need to pursue robust industrialization policies and create jobs for our people and curb the migration that has seen our men, women and children die in their thousands as they try to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of jobs,” he said.

He urged the TFTA task force, led by Comesa Secretary-General Sindiso Ngwenya, to finalize negotiations on outstanding issues such as trade in services and intellectual property.

“In the coming months as we redouble efforts to take the necessary measures to ratify the tripartite agreement, I want to urge the task force to see to it that effort is equally redoubled towards finalizing
issues that remain outstanding in the negotiations,” President Mugabe said.

Summit host Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said political will was crucial in supporting efforts being made to industrialise the bloc to improve the welfare of its people. “Political will is crucial in driving idustrialization and creating jobs for the people of Africa,” he said.

He added that it was also critical to emphasise the role of women in sustainable development as the continent drives its economic agenda.

Ngwenya, who described the launch as a “game changer”, said notable progress had already been made towards improving infrastructure and encouraging free movement of people, goods and services within the TFTA.

He said five countries, including Kenya, Rwanda and Mauritius, had already scrapped visas for citizens from member states, allowing free movement.

“The lesson for the tripartite is that we need to move away from focusing on processes and focusing on results,” he said.

He also said it was critical that the African private sector, which would eventually benefit from establishment of the tripartite bloc, support efforts being made by governments.