Africa's Trading Bloc Steps Towards Customs Union

Agree on common tariff system

Leaders from Africa's main trading bloc on May 23 endorsed a key step towards customs union, at the end of a Kenyan summit. Heads of state and government agreed on a common external tariff system after a 12-day meeting of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). The deal calls on every member state to apply the same tariffs on goods from outside the region: free movement of capital goods and raw materials, a tax of 10% for intermediate products and 25% for finished goods.

The 19-member bloc plans to launch a customs union at the end of next year, but experts have warned the deal may be delayed by some member states who fear their weaker economies could collapse. However, Kibaki said that individual countries could apply separate rates to "sensitive" products to enable them to sign up to the tariff deal, a key part of customs union.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, shunned by the West for his recent opposition crackdown, was appointed vice chairman during the summit. "While we rightly emphasize trade for our growth and development, it is equally important that we move towards trading what we produce," he said in a closing speech.

Participants also discussed regional peace and security, including efforts to set up a peace conference in war-torn Somalia, border tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Sudan's volatile Darfur region.

When it was founded in 1993, COMESA, representing some 400 million people, aimed for a free trade zone for all member countries from 2000, evolving into customs union by 2004 and monetary union by 2025. But it has fallen short of its plans, with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Seychelles, Swaziland and Uganda yet to participate in the free trade zone and balking at the customs union.

COMESA groups Burundi, Comoros, the DRC, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2007

TAGS: Trade
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