African nations will officially launch a landmark trade agreement at an African Union summit in Niger on Sunday, with the long sought-after agreement hailed as a historic step towards "peace and prosperity" across the continent.
The deal, which African leaders hope will create the world's largest free trade area, was given a boost when Nigeria and Benin's presidents signed on to rapturous applause on Sunday at the two-day summit in Niger's capital Niamey.
After 17 years of tough negotiations, the AU is expected to launch the "operational phase" of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) later in the day in what AU commission chairman Moussa Faki said would be a "historic" moment.
"An old dream is coming true, the founding fathers must be proud," said Faki, adding that AfCFTA would create "the greatest trading area in the world".
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou hailed it as "the greatest historical event for the African continent since the creation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963," referring to the AU's predecessor.
With Nigeria and Benin's signatures, 54 of the 55 AU member countries have now signed onto the deal, with Eritrea the only holdout.
Around 4,500 delegates and guests -- including 32 heads of state and more than 100 ministers -- attended the AU summit in Niamey, which has been revamped and boasts a brand-new airport, upgraded roads, and new hotels for the occasion.
'Opening Africa up'
The agreement was formalised at the end of April when the agreement crossed the launch threshold, which required ratification by at least 22 countries.
The deal was buoyed when Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and largest economy, announced this week it would join the pact alongside Benin after having unexpectedly pulled back from the agreement last year.
Nigeria's chief trade negotiator Ambassador Chiedu Osakwe said President Muhammadu Buhari would sign the landmark agreement the deal, "opening Africa up to abundant opportunities".
"We weren't dragged into this, we are a leading advocate," Osakwe told AFP. "But it is about assessing how to make it work for Nigeria and indeed the continent."
State trade ministers have agreed the zone should be operational from July 2020, AU Trade and Industry Commissioner Albert Muchanga told AFP, as countries needed time to adapt to the agreed changes.
An official start date was expected to be agreed by heads of state on Sunday.
However there are still key issues that need to be ironed out, such as setting common criteria to determine rules of origin for traded products.
Amaka Anku, Africa analyst at Eurasia group, described the deal as a positive step but said implementing the AfCFTA was still "a long way from taking off".
The AU estimates that the deal will lead to a 60-percent boost in intra-African trade by 2022.
At the moment, African countries trade only about 16 percent of their goods and services among one another, compared to 65 percent with European countries.
Security on the continent
Also on the summit agenda is security -- an issue afflicting the Sahel in particular.
Summit host Niger has faced constant attacks by jihadist groups.
Its fellow members in the G5-Sahel security pact -- Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania -- will seek backing at the AU summit to push for a greater UN security force to address the terror threat.
The countries hope to activate Chapter VII of the UN Charter, a Nigerien security source told AFP. The chapter allows for the UN Security Council to determine a threat to peace and propose measures, including military deployment, to deal with it.
"No prosperity, no integration is possible without peace," said Faki, who stressed the importance of an AU Peace Fund launched in 2018 to finance security activities and called on member states to fulfil their financial promises.
So far, only $116 million has been received for the envisaged $400-million fund.
Niamey was under high surveillance, with summit facilities subjected to strict access controls and a heavy security presence.
"We have a special unit of several thousand men" on duty, said Defence Minister Mohamed Bazoum.
The leaders were also set to discuss boosting intelligence cooperation and the global migration crisis.