AU estimates the agreement –– which cuts tariffs between African nations –– will lead to a 60-percent boost in intra-African trade by 2022.
African nations launched the "operational phase" of a landmark free trade accord at the African Union (AU) Summit in Nigerien capital, Niamey on Sunday, creating what leaders hope will be the world's largest free trade area.
AU officials announced the launch of five "operational instruments" of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) with African nations agreeing to shared "rules of origin, the monitoring and elimination of non-tariff barriers, a unified digital payments system and an African trade observatory dashboard".
Eritrea, the only non-signatory to the accord in the 55 member bloc, said it would seriously consider signing the agreement.
The AfCFTA launch was given a boost when Nigeria and Benin's presidents signed on to rapturous applause on Sunday morning.
The AU estimates that the agreement –– which cuts tariffs between African nations –– will lead to a 60-percent boost in intra-African trade by 2022.
"An old dream is coming true, the founding fathers must be proud," said AU commission chairman Moussa Faki, adding that AfCFTA would create "the greatest trading area in the world."
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou hailed it as "the greatest historical event for the African continent since the creation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963," referring to the AU's predecessor.
Around 4,500 delegates and guests –– including 32 heads of state and more than 100 ministers –– attended the AU summit in Niamey, which has been revamped and boasts a brand-new airport, upgraded roads, and new hotels for the occasion.
African Union members meet in Niger to launch African Continental Free Trade Area, largest trading bloc since World Trade Organization was created in 1994 pic.twitter.com/3grgcFhXtO— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) July 7, 2019
'Opening Africa up'
The agreement was formalised at the end of April when the agreement crossed the launch threshold, which required ratification by at least 22 countries.
The deal was buoyed when Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and largest economy, announced this week it would join the pact alongside Benin after having unexpectedly pulled back from the agreement last year.
Nigeria's chief trade negotiator Ambassador Chiedu Osakwe said President Muhammadu Buhari would sign the landmark agreement the deal, "opening Africa up to abundant opportunities".
"We weren't dragged into this, we are a leading advocate," Osakwe told AFP. "But it is about assessing how to make it work for Nigeria and indeed the continent."
State trade ministers have agreed the zone should be operational from July 2020, AU Trade and Industry Commissioner Albert Muchanga told AFP, as countries needed time to adapt to the agreed changes.
However, there are still key issues that need to be ironed out, such as setting common criteria to determine rules of origin for traded products.
Amaka Anku, Africa analyst at Eurasia group, described the deal as a positive step but said implementing the AfCFTA was still "a long way from taking off".
The AU estimates that the deal will lead to a 60-percent boost in intra-African trade by 2022.
At the moment, African countries trade only about 16 percent of their goods and services among one another, compared to 65 percent with European countries.