Ahmed: Countries Must Adhere to Rule-based Trade under AfCTA

Minister of Finance, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed

James Emejo in Abuja

The Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, yesterday urged African countries, particularly Nigeria’s neighbours to adhere to trade obligations under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA).
While acknowledging the opportunities presented by the AfCFTA, she said going forward, countries must observe a rule-based trade and do things properly.

She said a situation whereby countries, particularly the Benin Republic would import goods only for them to be dumped and smuggled into Nigeria would no longer be acceptable.

Speaking during a panel session on “The Impact of African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA)”, at the opening of the 2019 African Economic Congress (AEC), the minister further justified the decision of the President Muhammadu Buhari- led administration to shut the country’s borders in August as part of measures to curb the activities of smugglers.

Ahmed said though free trade is the way to go, a lot of impetus is still required to make it a success.
She said there must be some sense of national interest in the country’s relationship with other states no matter how much affection it attaches to the Pan-African ideology.

Ahmed, while responding to the rationale for shutting the nation’s borders, stressed that, “we must all observe the rule and not just call on Nigeria alone to observe the rules.”
She said AfCFTA is trying to introduce a rules- based trading system in Africa.

Painting a scenario which led to the action by the federal government, and with specific reference to Benin Republic, she said: “Now the very people who had signed previous agreements with Nigeria on customs cooperation, on the rules that will affect transit of goods- are not observing those obligations.

“So, you are not following to things you have signed to but you want to hold me to the things I have just signed up to. So, what you would then have is that I would sign on to the AfCFTA and you would continue to do these things you are doing to undermine my economy- smuggling, dumping – you would continue to do them because I have signed AfCFTA.”

“But you have not recognised the various agreements that we have signed under the Cotonou Agreement. I think it is, that regulates the trade between us and our neighbours. You signed on to them but you are not observing them. But now, you are asking me to observe new rules.”
Continuing, Ahmed said: “I think it’s a very good opportunity for us to remind everybody that all obligations should be adhered to.”

The minister who was represented at the panel session by Special Adviser to the President for Economic Matters in the Office of the Vice-President, Mr. Adeyemi Dipeolu, noted that it would not be the first time the borders were shut against its neighbours.

She said President Olusegun Obasanjo had once closed the borders after which Benin came to the table and signed commitments to comply only for them to renege after a while.

She said: “I think this is an opportunity for us to say let us all observe what we sign up to- let is not only be that when we show you that there can be a reaction that you now say you signed and we are not observing the rules. We must tell ourselves the truth in Africa. We signed for rule-based trade, we must observe rule-based trade.”

However, the Minister Counsellor for Trade, EU Delegation to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Mr. John Taylor, also backed the minister’s call for a rule-based engagement among member countries of the African Union.

He said the success of trade within the EU had been built around strong adherence to rules.

Taylor, who was also on the panel session also noted that to maximise the benefits of the AfCFTA agreement, Nigeria must decide whether it is willing to sacrifice its sovereignty to get preferential trade relationships and develop the political will to carry through the agreement.

He said: “If you don’t have a preferential trade regime, trade is much more difficult and when you have it, it links everyone closely together and the whole problems of Brexit is how to unravel that relationship in a sensible way.

“How far are you prepared to close up your relationships? How far are you prepared to give up sovereignty to build that trade relationship? I think there’s an open debate about that in Nigeria.

“But there’s no free dinner here; if you want a preferential trade relationship, which will have an overall positive benefits for the economies of the African states, there’s a price to pay.”

Using Brexit, which he described as “a mess” as a reference point, he said, it represented a proof that if the government fails to carry all stakeholders along in the implementation of the agreement, it would be bound to be unsuccessful in the end

“There would be people that would be dissatisfied and they would even shoot themselves in the foot because they are not happy,” he said.

Also on the panel was Special Adviser, African Union Commission, Prof. Jerome Afeikhena, who challenged Nigeria to address limitations in power sector and boost local production in order to compete with the rest of the world.

“There is no way you can produce with generators, we must produce to compete,” he said, adding that Africa imports $64 billion worth of processed food.

He said if the AfCTA must succeed, all obstacles to free trade must be cleared by stakeholders, particularly ease of mobility, infrastructure, taxation among others.

He said private sector participation remained critical for achieving success.

Meanwhile, a former federal lawmaker, representing Kaduna Central Senatorial District, Senator Shehu Sani yesterday took a swipe at the decision of the present administration to shut its borders to neighbouring countries, after signing up for the AfCTA agreement.

Sani said:”You can’t sign an African free trade agreement and close your borders, I don’t know how to call black, white.”

He said in order to build a new economic future, the government would have to sever irrelevant relationships with foreign countries.

He further advised the government to ensure that all agreements signed to date are domesticated and implemented.