By Rafiq Raji, PhD
What could have made Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, suddenly change his mind about the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement? I pondered this question with some emotion. More than any other continental gathering and epoch, the signing ceremony was perhaps the greatest symbol yet of African unity; in recent times, at least. And Nigeria was conspicuously absent. (No, the presence of the foreign minister does not suffice.) More than when the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established more than half a century ago and later transformed into the African Union (AU) almost forty years later, the AfCFTA is perhaps the one concrete step Africans have taken since then to take charge of their destiny. Unless Africans trade more with themselves and in fact block outsiders for a while, the automated industrial world that is already afoot would forever put a lid on any attempt by the continent to lift itself out of its technological backwardness. To be clear, one is not suggesting that Africa should shut itself from the world as it tries to master what are increasingly obsolete technologies. Not at all. But under the current global trade order, there is little chance for Africa to catch up with Europe, America and indeed Asia without greater trade interaction within the continent and indeed some protectionism. Even for those developing countries in Asia already taking over from China, if advances in automation, robotics and additive manufacturing continue at the current pace, there might be little need for their services in the future. In that future, a huge population is not likely to be much of an advantage as currently assumed: robots would likely make up for the demographic shortfall quite easily.
Concerns could have been raised and negotiated earlier
If Africa is currently dependent on the developed world, the imminent new world is likely to make that dependence permanent. So while not a one-fit-all solution, an instrument like the AfCFTA that engenders intra-African trade is one of a few options available to African leaders to buy the continent some time to catch up with the rest of the world. If our basic needs, whether food or simple manufactures, can be catered for within the continent, we stand a better chance of determining our future. Unlike the European Union’s Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), for instance, there is little chance that even smaller African countries would not benefit from the AfCFTA. But that is only one side of the argument. Some African countries have a larger manufacturing base than others. The AfCFTA would immediately offer them tremendous advantages. So what? Is that to forever be our excuse? Another point raised is that the EPAs, which countries like Nigeria have not been enthused about, and have not signed, could via the AfCFTA, be put in effect. How so? If all African countries can trade freely with one another, the European Union, say, would not need to enter an agreement with all the countries on the continent. It would only need one to agree and effectively European goods would be able to move through the continent via that one country. These are genuine fears. But surely the Nigerian “professionals” who negotiated the agreement were aware of these. And surely, they could have put in measures to prevent such an occurrence. Incidentally, Nigeria, which raised its concerns belatedly, via its manufacturers’ association and labour unions no less, was in charge of the negotiations, and could easily have ensured that its concerns were addressed. Besides, the other continental giant, South Africa, had similar concerns. As such, the AfCFTA that was signed by 44 African countries recently could easily have been one that addressed such concerns during the earlier negotiation stage.
More importantly, the event was so monumental that for President Buhari not to have attended was a great disservice to the nation. Mr Buhari says the decision was in the best interest of the nation. He could have attended nonetheless, show support for the so-called “Kigali Declaration” and ask for time to consult on the other two agreements. The foreign ministry must take full blame for not advising as such. Or did it and was ignored? South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, attended, and gave perhaps one of his best speeches yet, and probably the best of all the speeches at the ceremony. He signed the Kigali Declaration to celebrate the epoch and declared his country’s firm intent to join the free trade area while asking for some time to consult with stakeholders back home. Besides, why did the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) wait till a deal had been reached before raising their concerns? There was some talk about the authorities not being responsive to their enquiries. That is complete nonsense. Had they been as enthused and loud much earlier as they were once the agreement had been finalized, their concerns would definitely have been points for negotiations. To add to the anomaly, the federal cabinet approved the AfCFTA with little opposition. Quite frankly, I thought it was really strange and most unfortunate that we failed to show up for a party we virtually organized. What Mr Ramaphosa did is what you get when you have competent functionaries advising you. He attended his party, poured himself a drink, raised his glass with his contemporaries and took a sip. He did not have to eat the food. To use the Nigerian parlance, he packaged the food given to him at the party as a “takeaway.” The event was too important to miss. For the record, Mr Buhari’s absence at the AfCFTA was a diplomatic blunder. Irrespective of any likely redress or compromise we might seek in the future, history was made in Africa on the 21st of March 2018. Without us.