By Oladeinde Olawoyin
On Sunday, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement in Niger Republic. The president was in Niger for the African Union summit.
Earlier in March, about 44 member countries of the African Union had endorsed the agreement during the 18th Extraordinary Session of the Assembly of (AU) Heads of State and Governments in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
But Nigeria and South Africa, two economic giants on the continent, declined assent to the agreement meant to establish a common protocol to allow free movement of goods and services among member nations of the AU. They were joined by seven other countries, including Burundi, Guinea Bissau and Eritrea who also did not sign the agreement.
South Africa later signed the agreement, raising concerns among analysts who were favourably disposed to Nigeria being a part of the agreement.
In March, for instance, former President Olusegun Obasanjo described Nigeria’s refusal to sign the agreement as “disappointing.”
Mr Buhari’s delayed signing of the agreement, according to the government, was borne out of the need to appraise its potential and possible danger to the local economy.
With a porous border system, for instance, there were fears that the agreement would open the country’s seaports, airports and other businesses to unbridled foreign interference and domination.
The agreement was heavily criticised by prominent interest groups like the Nigeria Labour Congress and Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, with suggestions that aspects of the agreement would hurt Nigeria’s interest.
Following Mr Buhari’s refusal to sign the agreement, the government called for adequate consultation and inputs from interest groups, particularly with the NLC, which called the treaty a “renewed, extremely dangerous and radioactive neo-liberal policy initiative.”
In June, Mr Buhari received the report on the impact of the agreement on Nigeria’s economy.
“As Africa’s largest economy and most populous country, we cannot afford to rush into such agreements without full and proper consultation with all stakeholders,” the president said at the occasion. For AfCFTA to succeed, African nations must develop policies that promote African production, among other benefits, he added.
The signing of the agreement on Sunday brought to an end several months of wait by many in the various sectors of the economy.
With a GDP of $405 billion, Nigeria is considered the largest economy in Africa. It is followed by Egypt ($332 billion) and South Africa ($295 billion). With a population of about 180 million, the nation is also Africa’s largest market.
Analysts are however divided on the impact of the agreement on the economy and what Nigeria’s delayed signing would translate to.
A few analysts have argued that the treaty would impact on government revenue and social welfare. According to them, elimination of all tariffs among African countries would erode the trading states’ treasury by up to $4.1billion annually and deepen poverty, with millions of Africans potentially exposed to starvation and death.
Last Saturday, Ghana was selected as the host of the AfCFTA secretariat. A review committee said the West African nation was awarded the right based on regional balance formula.
The country edged out six other countries that had submitted their bids to host the secretariat, including Egypt, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar and Senegal.
The secretariat’s primary mandate will be the implementation the agreement, which has been ratified by 25 countries, according to the African Union.
Jide Ojo, public policy analyst and development expert, said the signing of the agreement was the right way to go. “If properly implemented and guided, Nigeria stands to gain a lot from that because as we do know, Nigeria is a huge market.”
Mr Ojo explained that with free movement of goods and services, the African market can help boost the nation’s economy because Nigeria has a comparative advantage if things are done right. To achieve maximum value, the nation must fix its infrastructure and develop local capacity, he added.
Tope Fasua, economist and public affairs commentator, said the arrangement would have been Nigeria’s ‘baby’, had the government and other stakeholders been proactive. According to the former presidential candidate, with her huge potential and vast resources, Nigeria ought to have been the country driving the process, rather than being the nation trying to hold every other nation back on the continent.
“We have lost the battle, at least psychologically, but could still win the war,” he wrote. “Ghana positioned herself and today hosts the secretariat. If nothing, that is a lot of tourism money that will be drawn to Ghana, especially from Nigeria where many people in government service are getting ready, smacking their lips for the deluge of trips for meetings and conferences – which is what we know how to do best.”
But for Cheta Nwanze, lead partner at SBM Intelligence, a research and geopolitical intelligence platform, Nigeria’s delayed signing of the agreement would not have much impact on what the nation stands to benefit in the long run.
“We signed (the agreement) before the thing had really gone into full drive (there isn’t even a secretariat yet), so we will benefit from it completely,” he told PREMIUM TIMES Tuesday morning.
However, Mr Ojo said that he was worried about Nigeria’s level of preparation. He noted that the agreement is like the West African free trade agreement which Nigeria has failed to maximise.
“How well-positioned are Nigeria’s businesses to take advantage of the agreement?” he asked. “Where is the infrastructure? How have we positioned the products that we seek to export?
“If we must take advantage of AfCFTA, we must incentive the private sector for value addition. We cannot continue to export raw materials and get peanuts in return.”
Mr Ojo also expressed fear over the possibility of having locally produced products dumped into the country and mislabelled by other countries across the continent.
To check dumping, Nigeria needs to have some safeguards, he said, adding that the nation must develop infrastructure, protect her borders, set up monitoring teams and develop the capacity of local manufacturers.
If the government and relevant stakeholders fail to put these measures in place, he warned, the nation may not gain from the agreement.
“We may just be signing on to something that may be like paper tiger; something good on paper alone. Unless we develop capacity for value addition, we may not profit maximally from AfCFTA.”