By Rafiq Raji, PhD
On-the-record conversation with Ambassador Chiedu Osakwe, Chief Trade Negotiator & Director-General, Nigerian Office for Trade Negotiations, at the Financial Times Nigeria Summit on 31 May 2018
What are the specific concerns of the Nigerian government about the AfCFTA?
Well, we have to break the notion of the concept of Nigeria down. If you are speaking about the private sector, if you are speaking about the stakeholders in the economy, they actually support Nigeria joining the agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area. I have just been, as directed by President Buhari, I have just been on a nationwide sensitization in the six geopolitical zones that culminated in Lagos yesterday [30 May]. There is no opposition in the consultations that I led and undertook, on the basis of the directive from the president on the AfCFTA. However, what a number of stakeholders are ultimately saying is there should be greater attention by government to the longstanding systemic problems in the Nigerian economy that have an effect on competitiveness; reduce the cost of money, improve security, with regard to security of life and property, number three, energy must be predictable and must be cost-effective, continue with the good work of the government on improving the enabling environment for business, put in place trade remedy infrastructures to offset dumping in the Nigerian economy to countervail trade distorted subsidised products in the Nigerian economy and also set up a system of global safeguards with regard to any import surges that would affect the Nigerian economy. What they have also given us as feedback in this extremely valuable nationwide exercise is to establish a mechanism for coordination, inter-agency coordination in the course of implementing the agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area and make sure that the mechanism also engages in monitoring the effects from the AfCFTA. So, just to repeat, this has been a 2-month exercise that ended yesterday [30 May 2018], hugely valuable, great feedback, no opposition, I mean there are individual voices here and there, ideologically inclined, who consider that trade openness is an issue.
But since Nigeria led the negotiations and had some time to maybe get some of these inputs and feedback, and what is on top of most peoples’ minds and what they wonder, is why didn’t that occur before?
Well, the question is a very simple one. There were consultations at the general level before the framework agreement was finalised in the negotiations on the 8th and 9th of March in Kigali. Remember that I am the chairman of the negotiating forum that put that agreement together. So, there were inter-agency consultations, amongst the agencies in Nigeria here that I basically led. I sent regular reports to the economic management team of the country. But the purpose of this particular consultations that was directed by the president is also absolutely, absolutely correct, after the framework had emerged before we now go into the specifics regarding the application of the modalities in the framework you then need to get the specific feedback from the stakeholders. So here is the issue. Of course we consulted on the framework, but you could not consult on the specifics which had not yet emerged and you could not also consult on the framework that was adopted before it was actually adopted. So, what is happening is frankly normal. This is the way it should be. And the process has now been completed. That is the process of sensitization on the substance of the framework agreement and what we need to do over the next few days would be to prepare a report for the review of the presidential committee on the agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area and it would be submitted to Mr President by the ministers with competent responsibility.
What timelines are you looking at towards eventually signing the agreement?
Well, the timeline would be a decision by the president. The president is the elected head of the federal government of Nigeria. He decides one way or another.
Final question, thank you for your time. Were other African countries surprised by Nigeria’s seeming reluctance at first to sign the agreement and why perhaps wasn’t the president advised to do like the South African president did, which is to go there, endorse it but not sign the actual agreement?
Couple of points. Nigeria is sovereign. This is a sovereign country and Nigeria decides what it does and when it does it. Secondly on the question of the surprise of other African countries. I mean, I am in touch with most of them. A number of them also understood that what Nigeria decided to do, that is to sensitize and consult, nation-wide, industry-wide, and sector-wide, was entirely consistent with the way a treaty change of this magnitude should be handled. So, there is understanding. In fact, the element of surprise that may have been there is no longer there. Can I tell you that many of my African counterparts, the chief trade negotiators, are now in regular contact with me, asking me if I could share the Nigerian model of domestic sensitization and consultation that they now need to use it domestically. And a number are inviting me to their own countries to assist in their sensitization and consultation process.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/columnist/rafiq-raji/article/stopthekillings-on-nigeria-and-the-afcfta/