He told Reuters that this change in plan was mainly due to the new coronavirus that hit the world and caused many delays.
He said that while only the 55-member AfCFTA heads of state can authorize changes to deadlines, the canceled summit among South Africa's planned May leaders left them with few options.
“It is only after the summit that you can say that we have a new negotiation date. The next opportunity for a summit will be on January 2, 2021, ”he said.
If the AfCFTA is successful, it will become the largest since the World Trade Organization was created in 1994, bringing together 1.3 billion people in a $ 3.4 trillion economic bloc.
The Secretary General is expected to be the primary advisor to government leaders, who have the exclusive right to approve all parts of the agreement and its implementation.
Therefore, he advised them to postpone the implementation deadline on July 1, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The AfCFTA would also require countries to liberalize at least 97% of their tariff lines and 90% of imports. Mene advised country leaders to allow the free movement of goods, despite the fact that borders are closed to human traffic as part of virus containment efforts and to allow zero tax on 40 specific goods that would help fight the virus, such as soap, disinfectant, and personal protective equipment.
Secretary-General of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Wamkele Mene
Twitter / AfCFTA
"Current circumstances are simply not conducive to the comprehensive trade that we had envisioned," he said.
The final phase of business negotiations in person was interrupted in March, based on advice from the African Center for Disease Control.
Mene said moving these discussions online is unrealistic.
He explained that the meeting would involve detailed conversations on technical details, with more than hundreds of negotiators spending 17 hours a day distributing thousands of documents, while translating between the bloc's four official languages.
“The technical difficulties are immense. I am not convinced … that doing them by videoconference is feasible ”, he said.
He said they would step up their efforts as soon as the negotiators could meet in person.
“What this pandemic has done is to highlight the imperative of this objective. When you over-trust a specific business partner, you are vulnerable. "
"The pandemic is holding us back, but I think it will happen," he added.