President underlines importance of free trade area

Robert Terpstra, Special correspondent, New York

President Nana Akufo-Addo addressed the 74th United Nations General Assembly General Debate last week Wednesday evening in New York City, on the second day of addresses by world leaders at the august forum.

On the grounds of the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in lower Manhattan, President Akufo-Addo spoke for the third consecutive year following his election as president in December 2016. Akufo-Addo followed the much-anticipated previous day’s address by US President Donald Trump as well as President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, the latter speaking earlier on Wednesday morning.

The president’s 12-minute address in front of the 193 member states, which included all 55 African Union (AU) members reiterated a common theme raised by his AU counterparts at the UN’s dais, that of the paradigm shift initiated by the signing and implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.

Entering into force with future trade amounting to an estimated US$3.4trn, the AfCFTA will become a larger trading bloc than the European Union (EU) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), now re-negotiated as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

“[The AfCFTA] will be the world’s largest free trade area since the formation of the World Trade Organisation and will provide the vehicle for us to trade better among ourselves, offer an opportunity to exploit our abundant wealth and resources for the benefit of our peoples and give us protection in how to deal with other trading blocs,” President Akufo-Addo said.

Several African leaders over the course of the UNGA’s week-long General Debate issued promises that the AfCFTA will result in a new era for the continent with its ratification. President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi of Egypt, President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, among other AU leaders, underlined the importance of multilateral cooperation with respect to the pan-African agreement.

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The establishment of the AfCFTA on May 30, 2019 allows Africa to realise a number of promising opportunities that can be both a promise for growth and spur the ramp-up of construction of much-needed infrastructure. Trading under the agreement will begin as of July 1, 2020.

“The African Continental Free Trade Area, which recently came into effect and whose secretariat Ghana has the honour of hosting is a major collective effort by Africa to get to grips with mastery of her own development,” President Akufo-Addo said in his UN address.

The trade agreement was initiated by President Issoufou in 2017 and officially launched in the Nigerien capital of Niamey on July 7, 2019 at the UN’s 12th Extraordinary Summit on AfCFTA. It was on the sidelines of the summit that Nigeria and Benin, two of the final three countries of the AU that were still holdouts, became signatories of the AfCFTA. The East African country of Eritrea had not yet signed as of late-September 2019.

Also, during the extraordinary summit, Ghana was tasked with overseeing the implementation of the agreement, buoyed by the High-Level Conference on AfCFTA that took place from August 19-21, 2019 at the Accra International Conference Centre. It focussed on harnessing the benefits of AfCFTA for President Akufo-Addo’s project Ghana Beyond Aid, which was itself launched in May 2019.

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Speaking in English and beginning at 6.24pm local Eastern Daylight Time, President Akufo-Addo spoke to a half-empty UN General Assembly hall and touched only sparingly on trans-continental and national issues, arguably short on substance, but admittedly one of the addresses that maintained both clarity and brevity. Despite being allotted 15 minutes at the UN’s rostrum, more than three-quarters of the world’s leaders extended their addresses, causing hours-long delays in the UNGA’s scheduling.

President Akufo-Addo concluded his speech to sustained applause from the UNGA floor for representatives, delegation and press galleries at 6.36pm local time or 10.36pm Greenwich Median Time in Accra.

Earlier in the week the UN hosted the first high-level Climate Action Summit on Monday, September 23. Several dozen heads of state and government spoke, including AU leaders, as well as business leaders, and notably the controversial 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg who has sparked climate action protests worldwide.

Thunberg issued a determined and emotional condemnation of the world’s leaders. Sitting less than three metres from the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Thunberg threatened leaders on their climate inaction and empty emission target promises by saying, “How dare you”, and concluding her remarks by saying, “If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you”.

Robert Terpstra has worked as a journalist for more than 16 years, having been based in several dozen countries. He is a Canadian previously based in Ghana for one year and now resides in Berlin. He has written for several publications as editor-in-chief, editorial manager, deputy chief sub-editor, country editor, news editor, business editor, op-ed columnist and sports editor.

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