Prof. Jonathan Aremu,a professor of International Economic Relations at the Covenant University is also head of Trade Policy Commission at the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG) as well as member, Technical Working Group,Rule of Origin at the African free Continental Free Trade Area. In this interview with Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf,he gives a bird’s eye view of the AfCFTA initiative. Excerpts:
Where have been a lot of hue and cry over Nigeria’s inability to sign the AfCFTA deal. What’s your take on this?
Well,in my view I think that not going there to sign any of those documents is a little bit of diplomatic minus for Nigeria because at the commencement of the African Continental Free Trade Area, the foundational treaty was the African Economic Treaty; the commencement of which was a Lagos Plan of Action from 1980-1982. The Lagos Plan of Action translated to African Economic Community Treaty, which they called Abuja Treaty (AECT. The AECT agreed upon had six stages. The first stage is that African was divided into regional sections of eight groups, ECOWAS is one, African Economic Community, then each of the economic integration was supposed to go to the second stage and then actually engage in individual regional trade arrangements or free trade area. In ECOWAS,we have free trade area called ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme. Other regions have their own. Then the third stage was the consolidation of all these regional economic communities to make sure they’re working well. The fourth stage is that each of these regional economic groupings will now come together under a free trade area for the entire continent. That’s the origin of the AfCFTA). In year 2012, all the heads of states agreed that we should all plan towards that free area. The commencement started in 2015. When the commencement started in 2015, it was the responsibility of the heads of African countries to sensitise their own country about the AfCFTA).
Now East African Community- COMESA-SADC,already have a free trade platform they’re operating with. It was now left to the others to be able to form another one or wait until we have a continental free trade area. So what now happened is that in 2015, there was a decision at the African Union to have the AfCFTA. With that agreement, they expected that the commencement of the scheme should have started. Now, by 2017,it was finally decided that AfCFTA was going to be signed by December last year. There were four technical working groups; including African Ministers of Trade, all of them met last year. There were also quite alot of meetings held by heads of states, in which all of them supported the creation of the AfCFTA for the entire Africa.
In fact, at the 4th of July in 2017, all Heads of States agreed that they should go back and sensitise their individual countries so that member state citizens can buy into the idea. In the negotiation process, the key negotiator for the entire continent is Ambassador Chiedu Osakwe, a Nigerian and former Director with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with a lot of experience. So he was actually positioned to do that for the entire continent and let me tell you,that the entire African believed that this man can get it done and indeed he went ahead to do it. I was a member of the Rule of Origin, inside the AfCFTA meeting.
So what really happened with Nigeria?
I think the real problem with Nigeria is that there was not enough sensitisation and I agree. Secondly, the Nigerian Office of Trade Negotiation was just created August last year. I don’t think that office that is in charge of negotiation for AfCFTA has enough capacity in terms of funding to be able to organise a free trade area because up till now, I think that it was created by an Executive Order. So I don’t think they’ve been able to mobilise funds immediately to get it done.
What I expected is that Nigerians themselves, including the president should have been able to after returning from the 4th of July meeting in 2017, make some funding available to drive the process because he was committed to whole exercise all along. For instance at the G8-meeting last year, President Muhammadu Buhari assured that Africa is going to have the largest free trade area. Apart from the WTO, which is an economic group for the whole world, Africa is about to emerge with another wonderful highly populated economic integration.Even this year, the president was reported to have enjoined African leaders to be committed to the AfCFTA and everyone supported it. And we expected money to come from the government to support the sensitisation but it never did and I think that was where the problem really lied.
Even the Federal Executive Council (FEC)met a week before the signing and equally approved that the country should follow through with the process.
But some pressure group and then said that they were sensitised. Fairly speaking, they’ve the right to say that. But my own opinion is that well, even if they were not sensitised, I’m not sure many other countries went out of their way in popularising this thing, especially the SADC and COMESA. Even if we had not done enough sensitisation, Nigerian President would have gone and sign the trade agreement as well as the declaration and that is what South Africa did so as to create a sort of commitment to the project. And that’s the real issue. You see why our a president has a listening ear to be able to listening to all of them, which is good. That’s democracy.
At the same time, because of Nigeria’s commitments to the various plans of Actions both agreed at the Lagos and Abuja declarations; however,at the point of celebration which is the signing, for Nigeria not to appear is not a good thing because it’s going to actually create a doubt in the minds of all African leaders about Nigeria’s genuineness, because I don’t think there was anything better to be able to say that we shall not be able to do this one.