- Four of the six member states of CEMAC - Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic and Congo Brazzaville - this weekend decided to fast-track plans to establish a regional free trade zone. Central Africa has so far been lagging behind regional integration efforts in the south, west and east of Africa.
The Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) yesterday held a meeting of its Finance Ministers in Cameroon's biggest city, Douala, where the fast-tracking of regional integration was on the agenda. Four of the six member countries agreed to move on with a plan to create a free trade zone in the region, while Gabon and Equatorial Guinea asked CEMAC to await further discussions at home before joining the programme, at earliest in June.
The Ministers from Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic and Congo Brazzaville meanwhile put their signature to an agreement that outline the first immediate steps to be taken towards the establishment of the much awaited free trade zone.
As a first step, Ministers agreed to abolish visa requirements for civil servants, business travellers and diplomats between the four countries as an immediate measure. This would be extended to a total abolishment of visas between the four countries by 2009, if the agreement is ratified by national assemblies.
According to CEMAC Ministers, the free circulation of products within the region should be implemented by the same date - 2009. Plans on how to achieve such a free trade are however more vague than the concept for a free circulation of people - something already achieved in West Africa and most of Southern Africa.
Also major reforms of CEMAC were discussed at the Douala meeting, which served as a preparation for the CEMAC summit in N'djamena, Chad, on 17 March, where all Central African Presidents are expected to unite. Plans include setting up a permanent committee and five commissions instead of CEMAC's current executive secretariat. A rotation of top positions their election is to be regulated in a new way as the institution gains more importance.
A proposal by Cameroonian Finance Minister Polycarpe Abah Abah about weighting of the votes of states by their population had caused uproar among Central African partners. Cameroon is the senior partner in CEMAC when it comes to population and industrial production. Mr Abah's colleagues insisted voting should continue on a one-country-one-vote basis.
The reform process of CEMAC was initiated at the last summit, in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, in March last year. Finance Ministers trusted Heads of State would be presented with a plan acceptable to all at the upcoming N'djamena summit.
The Ministers from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea - Jean Ping and Balthasar Engonga Edjo'o - did not want to sign up to the fast-track plan of gradually abolishing visa requirements. While they said a decision would be made by mid-June, it was also to be considered by their Presidents at the upcoming N'djamena summit, they indicated.
CEMAC was formally established in 1999, being a successor of an earlier regional customs union and having its roots in France's guarantees to maintain a stable exchange rate for the regional currency, the Central African franc CFA. Since 2003, the European Union concludes its regional development aid plans directly with CEMAC.
The potential regional free market zone has a total population of over 35 million, but has poor inter-state communications. Congo Kinshasa (DRC) is not a part of the bloc, despite geographical logics, as it belongs to the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
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