He told Reuters that this change in plan is mainly due to the novel coronavirus which has hit the world and caused a lot of things to be delayed.

He said that even though only the heads of state of the 55-member AfCFTA could authorise changes to the deadlines, the cancelled summit between leaders planned for May in South Africa has left them with few options.

“It is only after the summit that you can say we have a new trading date. The next opportunity of a summit is on 2 January 2021,” he said.

If the AfCFTA is successful, it would become the largest since the World Trade Organization was established in 1994, bringing 1.3 billion people together in a $3.4 trillion economic bloc.

The General-Secretary is expected to be the chief adviser to government leaders, who have the exclusive right to approve all parts of the deal and its implementation.

He has therefore advised them to defer the July 1, 2020 implementation deadline due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The AfCFTA would also have required countries to liberalize at least 97% of their tariff lines and 90% of imports. But Mr Mene has advised country leaders to allow free movement of goods, despite borders being closed to human traffic as part of virus containment efforts, and to allow zero duties on 40 specific goods that would help combat the virus, such as soap, disinfectant, and personal protective gear.

Secretary-General of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Wamkele Mene
Secretary-General of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Wamkele Mene
Twitter/AfCFTA

“The current circumstances simply are not conducive to the comprehensive trade we had imagined,” he said.

The final phase of the in-person trade negotiations was halted in March based on the advice on the African Centre for Disease Control.

Mr Mene said moving these discussions online is unrealistic.

He explained that the meeting would entail crunch-time talks over technical details with more than hundreds of negotiators spending 17-hour days passing thousands of documents back and forth, whilst translating between the bloc’s four official languages.

“The technical difficulties are immense. I’m not convinced…that doing them over video conference is feasible,” he said.

He said they would step up their efforts once negotiators could meet in person.

“What this pandemic has done is underscore the imperative of this objective. When you are overly reliant on a particular trade partner, you are vulnerable.”

“The pandemic is slowing us down, but I think this is going to happen,” he added.