The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) went into operation on May 30, 2019 when the 22nd African country ratified the agreement and deposited the instruments of ratification with the African Union Commission. Nothing can justify Nigeria’s continued absence in this historic agreement. Nigerians cannot and should not accept any excuses based on the usual platitudes: the need for consultation, sensitisation, policy database harmonisation, listening to stakeholders, industrial and trade policy formulation, study of competitive environment and so on.
We accept the importance of all these issues , but the Federal Government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had seven years to do them.
The 22nd member who triggered the take-off of the AfCFTA, the Saharawi Republic came after Sierra Leone following the first set of 20 ratifiers. At last count, therefore, 49 African nations out of 55 had signed the agreement. The pleasant surprise was the speed of ratification considering that the agreement was signed just a little over a year ago on March 21, in Kigali. The AU Commission was encouraged because issues like this were usually handed over to parliamentary legislative committees where they sometimes languish for years. For instance, the AfCFTA has been on the agenda of the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2012 and as at today the Nigerian government is still unable to decide to sign the treaty and ratify it.
The coming into effect of the AfCFTA is a historic event and Africa deserves congratulations. It took too long in coming, but it finally arrived. The train has moved without Nigeria and other laggards and next month , July 7, 2019, a highly advertised heads of states and governments summit will hold in Niamey, Niger, to launch the operational phase of the agreement where decisions will be taken about the headquarters and other details of the institution. It will be preceded by a meeting of the AU and African ministers of trade to finalise work on the supporting instruments to kick off the next phase. Nigeria has its pace, determined by President Muhammadu Buhari.
We know Nigeria will eventually sign the agreement and ratify it. The government says it is taking its time because of the country’s porous borders and to decide what to do about our manufacturing industry. This is not convincing because in January 2018 President Buhari was in Addis Ababa at the AU’s 30th session lamenting the fact that the AU had missed the 2017 deadline set by the AU in 2012 for AfCFTA.
Some members of the Manufacturers Association of Nigerian have been casting doubts on the workability of the agreement. If the modest ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme (ETLS) has not been seen to be working, how could a much bigger scheme like the AfCFTA be made to work. Some Nigerian manufacturers are worried that their firms could not sell their products in Burkina Faso or Benin Republic even though the ETLS agreements guaranteed that. They also complain about the exorbitant cost of transportation in Africa in which it is almost cheaper to transport a container from China to Lagos than Lagos to Kano. Anxiety has also been raised about the Trans-Africa highways, a network of 10 highways of more than 60,000 kilometers that criss-cross Africa, none of which is dependable.
Yet in spite of the challenges, the AfCFTA represents a major push by the continent for Africa’s development agenda and its vision for 2063. Nigeria’s manufacturing is still below par due to the country’s enormous power challenges, yet the Nigerian market will certainly be boosted by AfCFTA. Nigerian female traders move a lot of goods through West Africa, this time they have a bigger field. Inter-African trade is said to be currently 16 per cent. The hope is that it would automatically climb to 55.3 per cent with AfCFTA. With that comes economic growth which boosts employment and reduces poverty.
The skepticism of labour and the manufacturers are natural but the prospect of Nigeria being a dumping ground is without foundation. The agreement is good for Africa and it is good for Nigeria. It brings together 1.2 billion people with a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of nearly $3 trillion. Signing this agreement is a good start if Nigeria must realise its objective of being among the first 20 economies in the world by 2020. Nigeria should sign the AfCFTA without further delay.