By Ronald Njoroge and Chrispinus Omar
NAIROBI, May 26 (Xinhua) -- Africa's free trade zone is expected to be operational by the end of 2017, a senior AU official said.
Chairperson of the African Union Commission Jean Ping said in Nairobi that this will be achieved through the merger of all African regional trade blocks.
"The heads of the states and government have committed to the realization of a continent wide free trade zone which is expected to operational by the end of 2017," Ping said in a speech read on his behalf by the AU Commission Chairperson Special Representative to Somalia Boubacar Diarra during the commemoration of the 49th anniversary of the Africa Day late on Friday.
The day celebrates the day that the Organization of African Unity which transformed to the African Union in 2002 was founded.
The day also celebrates the developments efforts and achievements made in the continent since the member states achieved liberation from colonial rule.
Ping said only a free trade area across the entire Africa will promote cross border trade amongst the African nations.
"Increased intra-African trade will enable the continent create a large market of close to one billion people as well as encourage the diversification of economies," the AU chairperson said.
The East African Community (EAC), Common Market for Eastern and Central Africa (COMESA) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) have already begun negotiations to merge, which is a precursor to a single trade area across the continent.
According to the AU, the three regional economic blocs constitute 58 percent of the continent's GDP and 57 percent of its population.
"The AU is recommending that the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) enter into similar talks," he said.
The AU said despite the current fragmentation of the continent in terms of different trade regimes, the future looks bright.
"Many analysts are of the view that Africa is on the verge of an economic boom much like east Asia experienced in the later part of the 20 century," he added.
Dean of the African Diplomatic Corps in Kenya Kelebert Nkomani said the economic growth of the continent in 2011 was 2.7 percent compared to 5 percent growth witnessed in 2010.
"This was due to the instability in some north African countries, which have since regained some level of normalcy," Nkomani said.
Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Richard Onyonka said the ongoing economic integration efforts are a necessary precondition for eventual political integration.
"The continent hopes for a united Africa as envisioned by the founding fathers of the continent," he said.
Onyonka said virtually all Africa countries are undertaking new infrastructure projects especially those in the roads, railways and energy sector in order to increase inter connectivity in the continent for continued economic growth, he noted.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the continent was home to six of the world's ten fastest growing economies in the past decade and the number is expected to rise to seven by 2015.
"The major factor which will underpin sustained African economic expansion is increased intra-Africa trade which can only be achieved if tariffs and non tariff barriers are eliminated," Onyonka said.
He noted that the three economic blocs of COMESA, EAC and SADC will sign an agreement for the road map for the implementation of a free trade area across the 26 members' states by the end of this year.
"The accord will allay fears present among some members states who want to protect their infant industries and labor markets from neighbors who have more advanced economies," he noted.
"This will set the stage for the other regional economic blocs in north, central and west Africa to merge in order to achieve AU's ultimate goal of a single trade zone across 54 countries," the assistant minister said.
Zambia's High Commissioner to Kenya Mary Zambezi said that while the continent achieved political independence, it is yet to achieve economic freedom.
"The continent leaders have realized that economic integration will lead to improved standards of living for its entire people," Zambezi said.
She noted that there is renewed optimism about the continent which is evidenced by increasing foreign investments inflows. "Africa is witnessing reverse resource especially in those nations that have made mineral, oil and gas discoveries," the envoy said.