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From 16 to 17 May 2024, eight Judges of the COMESA Court of Justice, along with four CCJ Registry staff, attended the TRALAC Annual Conference in Lusaka, Zambia. The theme for this year’s conference was: “Africa Integration: New Challenges of Responding to Economic Risk, Uncertainty, and Geopolitics,”

Discussions centred on international trade governance and its implications for the African Continent. The conference brought together a wealth of legal experts, policymakers, and trade professionals to address critical issues in trade law, dispute settlement, and industrialisation strategies.

The conference highlighted that only 15% of goods produced on the African Continent are consumed within Africa, with the majority being exported. This low level of intra-African trade was flagged as a significant concern. Changing this dynamic to encourage more intra-African trade was deemed essential for the Continent’s economic development.

A central focus of the conference was the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a flagship project of the African Union. The AfCFTA aims to create a single market for goods and services, facilitating the free movement of people and investments, and strengthening intra-African trade across regional economic communities (RECs) and the continent. The specific objectives of the AfCFTA include eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers, liberalizing trade, and cooperating on trade-related areas.

The conference also examined the impact of global events, such as the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, on African economies. The Russia-Ukraine conflict had negatively impacted budget implementation, reduced prospects for foreign financing, and increased budget spending across various African countries. Crude oil prices had risen by up to 60%, and there was a notable increase in the price of commodities like fertilizer which is crucial for agriculture.

The conference further highlighted that despite the overlapping membership of many African countries to different RECs, few economic disputes are referred to regional courts. This was blamed on several factors including the lack of jurisdiction, the requirement for exhaustion of local remedies and the fact that most partner states preferred to resolve issues diplomatically. However, it was observed that the role of regional courts could evolve in future given that only State parties had standing in the AfCFTA dispute settlement mechanism. Aggrieved private parties could therefore opt to seek remedies in REC courts.

Finally, the conference underscored the need for African States to speak with one voice on various issues, as a unified stance would strengthen the Continent’s position on the global stage.

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