Tunisia joins West Africa trade bloc, eyes export market

Tunisia eyes African markets to ship goods and services worth $4 billion by the end of 2020.

TUNIS - Tunisia has joined the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui signing membership documents as part of the North African country’s efforts to extend its economic ties in Africa.

Tunisia eyes African markets to ship goods and services worth $4 billion by the end of 2020, a bold goal for a country whose total exports stood at $14 billion in 2017.

Malagasy Trade Minister Yvette Sylla,  whose country hosted the gathering of the 26 members of ECOWAS, welcomed Tunisia saying: “I’m confident its membership will strengthen the economic integration of our region.”

Tunisia is turning to the rest of Africa for trade and business opportunities because Libya, which constitutes its main market in Africa, suffers from the chaos of its 7-year-old conflict. The Maghreb Union, which includes Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia, has been unable to shake its chronic lethargy, which stunts economic integration between its members.

With the European Union accounting for two-thirds of Tunisia’s exports, diversification of the trade market is a primary goal.

ECOWAS’s intra-regional trade stands at 10% and the Maghreb’s is less than 3% and has been causing a loss of 2.5% in GDP growth annually for each member.

This situation has deprived the Maghreb region of 220,000 job opportunities per year, official figures and estimates by economists and experts stated.

Tunisia was among the first countries to join the broader African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) with the potential of creating a trade bloc among 55 countries with a combined GDP of more than $3 trillion.

The African grouping plans to eliminate tariffs on intra-Africa trade of goods and services and create a single continental market with free movement of business people.

Intra-Africa trade is estimated at about 16% of the continent’s total, compared with 19% in Latin America and 51% in Asia.

The continent’s combined GDP would almost equal Germany’s economy, giving Africans a stronger voice in global trade and negotiations at a time when Britain is leaving the European Union and the United States is locked in a tariffs war with China.

AfCFTA is expected to coexist with regional blocs, such as ECOWAS, and set standards and rules to ease trade between the various groups in Africa to eventually absorb them into a single trade forum.

Anticipating expanded cooperation with other African countries and people and in a bid to create a friendlier environment for Africans, Tunisia will become the second country in the 55-member African Union, after South Africa, to pass an anti-racial discrimination law.

The initiative reflects the attitude of Tunisians who say skin colour should not be an issue in a country that, for centuries, has been a mosaic of diverse cultures, religions, races and ideas.

The draft law criminalises racial discrimination with up to three years in jail for those convicted of racism or even verbal racial bias. The measure is expected to be voted by the parliament in the coming weeks, officials say.

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.