Labour opposition puts African free trade deal in jeopardy

The objection raised by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to Nigeria becoming a signatory to the framework agreement for establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) has cast an air of uncertainty on the fate of the trade deal, and has been blamed for President Muhammadu Buhari’s sudden cancellation at the weekend of his scheduled trip to Kigali, Rwanda, Monday.

Buhari was billed to attend the Extraordinary Summit of the African Union (AU) in the Rwandan capital with other African leaders to sign the CFTA agreement on Wednesday, in pursuit of the AU 2063 vision.

The agreement is expected to allow free trade among all countries that sign it.

But a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tope Elias-Fatile, in a statement Sunday, said Buhari cancelled the trip in order “to allow more time for input from Nigerian stakeholders”.

Sources at the presidency also revealed that the advanced team of the president’s entourage travelled to Kigali on Friday but has been asked to return home.

The Federal Executive Council (FEC), last week, had approved Nigeria’s participation and signing of the agreement.

Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah, while briefing journalists in the State House, had said FEC gave the green light for Nigeria to sign the agreement, pointing out that the president would be in Kigali on Wednesday to sign the agreement.

He also said FEC resolved that Nigeria should bid for the location of the secretariat of CFTA in the country, in view of Nigeria’s outstanding role during the negotiation process.

“The council approved for Nigeria to sign the agreement establishing CFTA in Kigali on March 21, which will be signed by our president at an extraordinary session of the AU.

“It also approved for Nigeria to express an interest in preparing a bid to host the secretariat where it will operate.

“Nigeria has played a leadership role in the negotiations. Our chief negotiator and Director-General of the Nigerian Office for Trade Negotiations was the chairperson of the negotiating technical team.

“Also, the African Ministers for Trade and Group was chaired by myself and so, if we played a leading role in this negotiation, we feel that it is better to lead than to follow.

“Therefore, we also got approval to express an interest in the secretariat of CFTA, so that the headquarters will be located in Nigeria.

“Obviously, we are expecting it to be a competitive process but Nigeria will be interested.

“We also got approval for the Nigerian Office for Trade Negotiations among the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and the private sector to work together and continue to the next stage of the negotiations.

“The first stage is the overall framework establishing CFTA. The next is the protocol on trade in goods and associated annexes; also a protocol on trade in services, and finally, the protocol on rules and procedures for the settlement of disputes,” Enelamah said.

However, the NLC kicked against Nigeria’s participation in the continental free trade agreement, saying it could affect the nation’s manufacturing sector and lead to job losses.

President of NLC, Ayuba Wabba, had expressed the trade union’s opposition to the trade deal, saying: “We at the Nigeria Labour Congress are shocked by the sheer impunity or blatant lack of consultation in the process that has led to this.

“We are more worried by the probable outcome of this policy initiative if it is given life because of its crippling effect on local businesses and the attendant effect on jobs.

“We have no doubt this policy initiative will spell the death knell of the Nigerian economy. Accordingly, we urge Mr. President not to sign this agreement either in Kigali or anywhere. We believe our national interest is at stake and nothing should be done to compromise this.”

Asked to respond to the claim that there were insufficient consultations, Enelamah had said that his foreign affairs counterpart, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, had been mandated to widen consultations with stakeholders, including the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA).

He said: “The conclusion we reached was that it is very important that in doing the agreement, we are clear that we are doing is good for Nigeria. We want it to generate more exports.

“The African market is 1.2 billion people, Nigeria accounts for 180 million of this. We have an ambitious economic agenda, and we are going into this wanting to clearly improve market access for our products and our people.

“We are also going into it wanting to protect our markets from unfair trade practices – dumping, smuggling and all the other things that can go wrong.”

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