The last minute decision of President Muhammadu Buhari to cancel his scheduled attendance of the extraordinary summit of the African Union in Kigali on March 21 demonstrated Federal Government’s dithering and lack of resolve on the continental free trade agreement.
The historic summit was to inaugurate the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a ground-breaking event designed to create a single market for goods and services as well as a customs union with free movement of capital and business travelers. It was the most important landmark in the history of the integration of Africa.
The event did not take the country by surprise. The African Union had agreed in January 2012 to develop the AfCFTA. It took eight rounds of negotiations, mostly led by Nigerian officials, including the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investments, Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah, one of world’s most famous investment and development experts, who were, indeed, nursing the ambition of getting Nigeria to host the headquarters. The Nigeria Office for Trade Negotiations (NOTN) was deeply involved.
The decision to attend the summit was a Federal Executive Council resolution, which routinely authorised President Buhari to sign the treaty. All this was announced with fanfare to the Nigerian public and the world at large. The President’s first advance party was already in Kigali; the second advance party was at the airport about to board its flight when it was turned back. The President’s trip the following day was also aborted.
Never in the history of Nigeria’s Afro-centric foreign policy had a Nigerian government, out of self-doubt and narrow self-protection, abdicated its responsibility to the continent by pandering to vested domestic interests, which often try to minimise Nigeria’s strategic interests to fit their narrow group and individual interests.
Anyone familiar with the history of labour sloganeering in Nigeria would find the fears expressed by labour on AfCFTA as a familiar tune. Infant industries must be protected and that is why those industries remained infants since 1960. The protectionist temptation often sounds so patriotic even when it has become part of the problem. There is no rational explanation why Nigerian contracts tend to cost five times higher than those in other African countries, even when allowance is made for corruption.
The cost of transportation of goods in sub-Saharan Africa compared to the United States could go as high as five times. In Ethiopia, it is thought to be about 3.5 times, whereas in Nigeria it is said to be 5.3 times higher. Frank Jacobs, President of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), objected to the free trade agreement because of infrastructure challenges. When will Nigeria have a surfeit of infrastructure? Would Nigeria wait till it has all the infrastructure it needs before joining the AfCFTA? Even the United States thinks it needs better infrastructure.
The Abuja chapter of MAN, however, expressed its support for AfCFTA, noting it would increase intra-African trade from 10 per cent to 52 per cent. Airline Operators of Nigeria also adviced the country to hold on. Yet the Ethiopian Airline has distinguished itself internationally.
It has been Nigeria’s tradition to look at the brighter side and to err on the side of optimism when it comes to African policies. It is a rational policy that has served the country well for nearly 60 years. Even if the government in the process makes a mistake in good faith, Nigerians would understand and be more forgiving.
The AfCFTA would turn Africa into one of the world’s largest trading blocs. It is a single market of up to 1.2 billion people with a collective gross domestic product of $2 trillion. Nigeria should be leading and celebrating such a forward-looking venture, not foot-dragging on it.