SA Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Hon. Lindiwe Sisulu during a SADC Council of Ministers Consultation meeting on the margins of the AU Extraordinary Summit being held in Kigali, Rwanda. Picture: Supplied/Dirco/Jacoline Schoonees

Kigali - African Union (AU) chairperson Paul Kagame on Tuesday gave a strong indication yet that member states will sign the treaty to create the continental free trade area even if the continent's most-populated country, Nigeria, withdraws from the meeting.

At least 53 African Heads of States have gathered in Kigali, Rwanda, for the 10th Extraordinary Summit of the AU to consider the legal instruments of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) and also launch the agreement officially to establish the treaty.

AfCTA is aimed at deepening African economic integration, promoting agricultural development, food security, industrialisation and structural economic transformation through single-air continental transport market with free movement of persons, capital, goods and services.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who will attend the signing of the agreement in Kigali on Wednesday, said that South Africa is committed to the establishment of an AfCFTA that will boost intra-Africa trade in accordance with the aspirations of the AU's Agenda 2063.

However, Nigeria President Muhammad Buhari withdrew his participation from the Summit at the weekend and did not travel to Kigali, saying that continental aspirations must complement Nigeria's national interests.  

Read more: Blow to free trade deal as Nigeria skips African summit

Last week, Nigeria's Cabinet endorsed the AfCTA.

"As Africa's largest economy and most populous country, we are committed to ensuring that all trade agreements we sign are beneficial to the long-term prosperity of the continent," Buhari said in a statement.

"We are therefore widening and deepening domestic consultations on the CFTA, to ensure that all concerns are respectfully addressed. Any African Free trade agreement must fairly and equitably represent the interests of Nigeria, and indeed, her African brothers and sisters."

Despite this setback in Africa trade integration, Rwanda President Kagame appeared unfazed on Tuesday when he delivered the keynote address at the opening of the Summit, saying that the treaty would be signed on Wednesday. 

"Tomorrow, we will sign a historic agreement creating a Continental Free Trade Area. The road to this point has been long indeed. It can be measured in decades. And we still have a few more steps to take. But we are persisting, and a new chapter in the story of African unity is set to begin," Kagame said.

"The stakes are enormous for Africa, but also for the entire global economy, to which Africa will contribute an ever-greater share in the decades ahead.

"The creation of one African market necessarily entails a metamorphosis in how we think and act. The full involvement of the private sector is needed more than ever before. The purpose of today’s forum is to discuss how to make the most of the new opportunities we are creating for ourselves."

Kagame said that the Continental Free Trade Area symbolises the AU's progress toward the ideal of African unity, but that is not the only reason why it is so historic. 

He said that increasing intra-African trade, however, did not mean doing less business with the rest of the world. 

"On the contrary, as we trade more among ourselves, African firms will become bigger, more specialised, and more competitive internationally.

"Let’s also be realistic. We cannot take the Continental Free Trade Area for granted. After it is signed, there will still be challenges. Any concerns or technical issues that remain should be addressed fairly, but also expeditiously. Work on some additional protocols and annexes will also continue."

Kagame ended by saying that the full engagement of the private sector in adoptomg and implementing the treaty "will be absolutely essential".

African News Agency/ANA