COMESA was formed in 1994 to replace the former Preferential Trade Area (PTA) arrangement which had existed earlier. COMESA was established “as an organization of free independent sovereign states which have agreed to co-operate in developing their natural and human resources for the good of all their people.” With its 19 member states, population of over 389 million and annual import bill of around US$32 billion, and with an export bill of US$82 billion, COMESA forms a major market place for both internal and external trading.
By signing up to COMESA, countries agreed on the need to create and maintain:
- A full free trade area guaranteeing the free movement of goods and services produced within COMESA and the removal of all tariffs and non-tariff barriers;
- A customs union under which goods and services imported from non-COMESA countries will attract an agreed single tariff all COMESA States;
- free movement of capital and investment supported by the adoption of common investment practices 50 as to create a more favourable investment climate for the entire COMESA region:
- A gradual establishment of a payments union based on the COMESA Cleaning House and the eventual establishment of a common monetary union with a common currency;
- The adoption of a common visa arrangement, including the right of establishment leading eventually to free movement of bona fide persons.
The bloc is now Uganda’s leading export market, accounting for 52 percent of all export earnings. In 2018/19 the 20th Summit of the Heads of State or Government (Authority) adopted the Agreement on the admission of Tunisia and Somalia into COMESA32. It increased the total number of COMESA Member States from 19 to 21. The two new Member States will become full members of COMESA upon signing and depositing of the instruments of accession. The increase in the number of Member States will provide a remarkable opportunity for Uganda’s exports and will promote further industrialisation and job creation.
During FY 2018/19, COMESA embarked on the Digital Free Trade Area (DGFTA) programme. The programme aims to use ICT to improve efficiency in cross-border trade between Member States by further minimising physical barriers. In that regard, DGFTA is being rolled out and incorporates e-trade, e-logistics, e-legislation, and electronic Certificate of Origin (e-CoO). The e-Trade provides an online platform for COMESA region traders to trade online; e-logistics uses ICT as a tool to improve the commercial activity of transporting goods to customers; while e-legislation looks at the readiness of legislation in the countries to carry out e-transactions and e-payments.
In 2015, Uganda and other COMESA member states started the process of ratifying the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) to enable all economies gain better market access in Africa. In 2018, the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement secured the minimum threshold of 22 ratifications required for it to come into force, in April 2019, Uganda was among the first 44 countries that signed the AfCFTA in March 2018 during the 10th Extraordinary Session of the Assembly in Kigali, Rwanda. Subsequently, the country deposited its instrument of ratification of the Agreement in November, 201835. Uganda aspires to increase its exports by taking advantage of the regional and continental markets that are more sustainable. In line with the country’s industrialisation agenda, AfCFTA will offer Uganda a very large market base to support more trade in goods and services produced by industries and enterprises that target to create jobs and increase household incomes as enshrined in NDPII and Vision 2040.