Pushing Economic Integration through Diplomatic Channels

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Prior efforts to make the African economy work for African countries were fraught with frustration and little success. Factors like artificial boundaries, lack of faith in implementation of treaties as well as human greed have hindered needed success. The result is that nations on the continent import from advanced economies, items they could get faster and at cheaper rate from brother nations thereby engendering poverty.

In a proactive measure to open bilateral doors in addition to multilateral efforts, the Ambassador of Nigeria to Cote D’Ivoire, Ifeoma Akabogu Chinwuba in collaboration with Socio Cultural Integrations of African Youths Organisation, SCIAYO, organised a made in Nigeria exhibition in Cote D’Ivoire aimed at sensitising both countries on opportunities to improve trade as well as free movement of goods and persons between Nigeria and Cote D’Ivore. Ahamefula Ogbu who was at the event reports

Though it was initially slated to hold as a trade fair to feature made in Nigeria goods as a means of extending the campaign for patronage of goods locally produced in the country, intrigues by stakeholders in Nigeria and other organisations based in the host country ensured it was scaled down to an exhibition. Once the programme started taking shape, groups emerged challenging the organisers and sought to stop the programme on the excuse that they had been planning same for the past 20 years; insisting that allowing it to hold under the organisers was akin to stealing their ideas. However, the storm was finally weathered and the programmme held.

A look at the intention of the exercise demonstrates its usefulness as Nigerian companies in various sectors are already suited to provide some services and supplies that are currently done by countries outside the Economic Community of West African Countries, ECOWAS and the African Union. The opportunities are many while the cooperation could stop the bleeding of African economies.

The effort appears to support previous schemes especially by the African Parliament in Midrands, South Africa during the tenure of Honourable Bethel Amadi as President where efforts were made to integrate the regional and continental economies with some level of success. However, the number of artificial boundaries that screen off member countries of ECOWAS and the AU attests that much still need to be done. Also, that after so many years of mouthing economic integration, the free movement of goods and persons is still being discussed is a pointer to the levels of frustration.

At the venue of the De La Foire Du Nigeria, Caistab, Plateau, Abidjan,the programme appeared well thought out as organisations that would facilitate the free trade which an increase of about two per cent would generate several billions of dollars that could enhance the economic fortunes of the continent.

The Cote D’Ivoire effort according to Chinwuba was an attempt to revive the effort at economic integration at a different level. She noted that efforts had been at multilateral level and her scheme was to see what could be done at the bilateral level to compliment what were being done at other levels

“What we are doing is economic diplomacy, that is trying to expose potentials, capabilities of your country to these other countries, to expose the economic potentials of Nigerian operators to our brothers here to see if they can get distributors and buyers of their goods so that Ivoriens can source this from Nigeria instead of from elsewhere”, she said.

Asked of the frequency of the event in future, she stated that it should be an annual event but that since the life of diplomats concerning their postings were normadic, it could depend on the progammme of who might be in charge at any time but opined that it should be an annual or biennial event so that more people and Nigerian businesses could participate, more opportunities given and people would expect when it would take place and prepare for it.

On the expectation from the exhibition, Chinwuba said, “We represent government and our expectation is that we sensitise economic operators especially about what is available in Nigeria to import instead of going to China or Dubai or outside our region. We are member of ECOWAS, Nigeria and Cote D’Ivoire are members and in 40 years since ECOWAS was formed, the rate of integration is placed at 12 per cent which means that integration is at a very low level.

That means that more should be done to integrate our economies ; this is one step in that direction, we are trying to publicise what we have so that people from here won’t have to go outside to get them. From the point of view of Tourism, not just about goods and consumables but also spending their weekends and fee time in Nigeria. Here is a foremost economy for the Francophone countries and here you have the population of 24 million people but only 15 million are Ivoriens, the remaining nine or 10 million are from outside. We have about 2 million Nigerians here, Lebanese, Senegalese, Bukinabes and so on, so it is a melting point; so if you can get this market, you are not only getting the Ivoriens but people that are coming from other places can buy from Nigeria and send to their home countries”.

She observed that there had been a lot of conferences and efforts to achieve integration but saw the need for individual countries to do more and not leave it to ECOWAS to do but explore multilateral and bilateral efforts, anything that could be done too make people within the region buy from within ECOWAS. She advocated the organisation of dialogues, conferences and other sensitisation programmes on how to patronise each other. She cited the pharmaceutical sector which were well represented in the exhibition and some of the pharmaceutical companies that came gave their products to the Minister of integration for evaluation and conformity so that they can be given to the Minister for health to see how they they can procure medicines from Nigeria and Nigeria would have done something to integrate as any naira or kobo that was exchanged between the two countries was definitely promoting integration within ECOWAS”.

On why the colonial masters were still tying Affrican countries to their apron strings, Chinwuba explained that countries by signing to ECOWAS and AU agreements, they were signing to open up the economies though there were things that militated against the expected results as ties with colonial masters preceded the ECOWAS and AU agreements. She pointed out that the commitment of the countries to the stability and welfare of the people of their former colonies could not be ignored, adding, “This country got independence in 1960 while ECOWAS and AU came afterwords.

There were agreements they entered into earlier with their colonial masters and those cannot be thrown overboard. There are very close relations between France and their former colonies. The intervention of France during the crises in the country and the role France was still playing in Mali where some of their soldiers were paying the supreme price explains their level of commitment that tied them to those countries which could not be wished away as it was a whole package though there was need to keep pushing for more integration”.

She also explained that there were many Nigerian businessmen in the country and that they were still staying in Ivory Coast because business was good though there were man-made factors militating against the general objective that could be tied to individuals at various entry and exit points. Demand for gratifications by individuals, insisting payment for use of virgin passports to enter a country and arbitrary collection of customs charges on goods and passage of vehicles were still issues which she likened to a government signing a policy of free education but allowed levies above the cost of fees to what was happening in the sub region which she blamed on human factors.

She pressed for free passage of persons and goods to compliment other gains like entry without visa unlike in other parts of the world. While making light of excuses people make about visiting Nigeria, she in her opening remarks pointed out how Mike Zuckerberg, the facebook founder freely moved on Lagos streets to dispel insinuations of security concern and urged them to visit and spend time in Nigeria since if multi-billionaire like Zuckerberg could move freely in cities of Nigeria without security and not coming to harm, other Africans could do same and promote tourism.

On what gingered the programme, she said that she observed that Pakistani people had their day and exhibitions, same with Egypt and some other countries. When she inquired if Nigeria had her day too, she was told it was about 30 years ago and that it was on traditional medicine but none on fair of goods and services; then she set about planning to do so through the chamber of commerce on trade missions where businessmen from both countries could interact and chart way forward.She said to encourage patronage of goods to increase revenue was part of their call of duty. She encountered the problem of remittances, companies that wanted to participate but could not remit their monies, reluntance of some companies who may not have believed in the progrmme holding, spending too long on the road by exhibitors who were delayed on the way were part of the problems, adding that though they had started small, it was going to be bigger in due time.

Interacting with participants at the exhibition brought certain issues to the fore. An Ivorien who did not want his name mentioned told THISDAY that they had fears of being overwhelmed by the sheer population of Nigerians that could flood and take over their economy, pointing out that there were over two million Yorubas from Ejigbo Local Government Area alone, besides the Igbos and Hausas. They also fear the aggressive nature of Nigerian entrepreneurs which could take a lot of things from them but admitted that goods from Nigeria were cheaper while some of the pharmaceutical products they have tried are more effective than those imported from other places.

An official of Pharmatex, a Nigerian company at the exhibition, Mr. Gabriel Akwaja said they had submitted their products for any scientific verification to prove they were of world standard, pointing out that because it concerned health and life of people, more stringent frameworks were needed to certify them but said they were for the country to have the needed confidence and were even working from the angle of World Health Organisation to clear the products. They however submitted them to their various ministries for authentication. He observed that they were already looking for a warehouse and distributors for their products which would also generate employment for the citizens, adding that a comparative cost analysis showed it was cheaper for them to buy from Nigeria. There was a stand by the National Agency for Foods and Drugs Administration and Control, NAFDAC to assure of certification and stringent controls of edibles from Nigeria.

The banking sector was not left out as Guaranty Trust Bank, United Bank for Africa and Diamond Bank had their stands though funds transfer and an accessibility of funds through the ATM was yet to work.

The stand on Nigerian literature was mounted by Mrs. Chinyere Obi-Obasi who displayed books in English Language which are not common in Cote D’Ivoire because they are French speaking nation. She insisted that Nigeria was a force to reckon with in the literary world which strengthened her resolve to showcase Nigerian literature which she adjudged highly partronised in the exhibition as she sold out most of the books she exhibited especially Chimnda Adichie and Chinua Achebe series. Children books were also in high demand as English speakers in the country had been looking for without access to them. There are 11 Nigerian schools in the country. “Nigeria is known world over for literature and it would have been an error of omission not to showcase it as our strength”, the author and public presenter said.
Other companies that exhibited include Dangote group of companies which displayed their cement and other products.

President, Socio-cultural Integrations of African Youths Organisation SCIAYO, that organised the exhibition, Ejarkaminor Ricolins Sylvester, a Nigerian based in Cote D’Ivoire said over 40 companies exhibited at the show and out of the lot, almost 90 per cent were Nigerian companies while the rest were those who export to Nigeria. He spoke of his shuttles between Nigeria and Abidjan to organise and ensure that the event held having suffered numerous failures in the past. Narrating his experience, he said, “Organising this was quite frustrating.

I visited Nigeria more than 24 times and went to Nigerian Promotion Council, Nigerian Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, NACCIMA and several states in Nigeria to be part of the event. I went to Kano, Lagos, Abuja and Onitsha to meet people but in the end, most of the government agencies did not respond while some tried to frustrate the effort.

I could not believe that people could work against such effort”, he lamented He said there were claims and counter claims by some people that they were to be the ones to host it than NGO be allowed to do so, adding that the event only held becauset he Ambassador gave him the support he needed as others including the Chamber of Commerce he hoped to work with drew blank. He however enthused that, “We have broken the jinx. It is a step forward and it has generated a lot of interest in Nigerian goods and companies. Our prayer is for it to be sustained”.

Nigerian drinks were the only made in Africa drinks the people were exposed to as they confessed that their drinks came from their colonial masters and cost almost three times what the products in Nigeria. That aspect was also appreciated by them especially with the NAFDAC offiicials on hand to give credence to their quality and safety. Movement through land borders was not left out as Young Shall Grow which moves people and goods through land borders to several West African countries and also had their stand at the exhibition. Remi Phillip Ejike Nwokehkeh manages the company from Cote D’Ivoire but lamented that while they had smooth rides through other countries, security checkpoints within Nigeria posed worse problems for them as extortion was too rampart. “Sometimes we have to make the passengers to contribute some amount to give to the security people at checkpoints to avoid delaying us.

Those who leave Nigeria for other West African countries and on returning to their country are extorted like that? It is not like that in other countries. What we do is to provide security which we change when we get to another country till we get to Nigeria and our services are linking the countries though the free movement has not been fully embraced, it is due to individuals at check points not the countries invoolved”, he lamented. He said the mutiplicity of check points were only too apparent in Nigeria and urged the government to adddress it. New routes Nwokekeh and Chidi Okoroji said they were opening with new vehicles changed regularly were Liberia, Senegal, Bukinafasso and Mali while they had started plying Cameroun from Cotonou.

MUDi, a known fashion house displayed Nigerian wears which were well accepted though one of the officials said they had to review prices downwards to attract more patronage while entering into the Ivorien market. Food products like Erisco Bonpet with their canned and packgaged tomamto products and other Nigerian cuisine were also prominent at the exhibition which witnessed an interface between the media as well as Nollywood with their film industry. Uzzi concepts by Uzzi Usman spoke on working with them to expand their film industry. Arik was the only Nigerian airline at the exhibition,

Health products and drinks that are made in Nigeria were on display. Mixta, a company that deals on houses also had their stand. Secretary General of Nigerians in the Diaispora in Cote D’Ivoire, Alhaji Ashiru Ashiru Abdullahi said of the effort that it was a giant step in the right direction which had given them an opportunity to improve more in the future. He however thought that more consultation should be made when next such a programme was in the works.

To him, it was the Nigerian community in the country that knew where to mobilise people from, adding that many goods that could remain unsold would have been sold out if they were involved and let the right people know about the programme. Interactive sessions where the media interfaced with a promise of more collaboration, the banking sector also met on how to ease remittances while producers brainstormed on how to set up shops and services which agreements were even on the need to work more closely together.Shops too numerous to mention included electronics, especially smart phone sellers, car parts, perfumes, beauty care products and the hotel industry.

At the closing ceremony, it was encomiums from ECOWAS and participants who prayed he effort would be sustained.

Captions: Pix 1: Ambassador of Nigeria to Cote D’Ivoire, Ifeoma Chinwuba; Pix 2;President, Socio Cultural Integrations of African Youths Organisation SCIAYO, that organised the exhibition, Ejarkaminor Ricolins Sylvester; Pix 3 : Ambassador Chinwuba; Pix 4: Chinwuba with some exhibitors at the venue; Pix 5, 6 and 7 are stands at the exhibition.