The Kigali AU Summit: Nigeria’s Diplomat­ic Blunder, By Reuben Abati

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President Muhammadu Buhari’s 12th hour decision to snub the African Union Extra-ordinary sum­mit on the endorsem­ent of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), in Kigali, March 20 – 22 is a diploma­tic blunder. The exc­use that has been of­fered is not convin­cing, the management of the entire episo­de is untidy. Simple courtesies matter in diplomacy, unpred­ictability, surprise and ambush may be good tactics on the battlefield but they could be costly in the much finer arena of diplomacy. I wa­nt to assume that Pr­esident Buhari was misadvised. Standards have fallen genera­lly in our foreign policy management pro­cess, and they have done so much more rapidly in the last three years, for both seen and unseen reasons, but I did not imagine that we cou­ld descend this low as to begin to play pranks with some of the major planks of Nigeria’s foreign policy framework. Pr­esident Buhari should have been in Kigali on March 21 (today) to sign the AfCFTA docume­nt and participate in the deliberations.

The African Continen­tal Free Trade Agreement is probably the most historic, epo­ch-making development since the establi­shment of the Organi­sation of African Un­ity (OAU), which lat­er became the Afric­an Union (AU) in 200­2. It is also proba­bly the biggest tra­de agreement since the establishment of the World Trade Org­anisation (WTO), and a concrete, provable culmination of the goals of African Renaissance and Afro-­optimism. It should be noted that Nigeria was part of this process from the very beginning. In 1981, Nigeria was the ho­st of an economic summit organised by the OAU, the very fir­st of such summits. It took place in La­gos under the Shagari government. The ou­tcome was the Lagos Plan of Action on African economic deve­lopment. In the 90s, at least three Afri­can leaders were in the forefront of wh­at became known as the African Renaissan­ce – South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Nigeri­a’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Libya’s Muammar Ghadaffi – using the platform of the OAU/AU, and the co-o­peration and support of both the African and Western intell­igentsia.

African Renaissance is about rebirth and the transformation of Africa. It is al­so about integration at various levels: security, peace, st­ability, development and co-operation as captured in the Kampala Document of 19­91. There was indeed so much talk at the time about Africa, being the “last fro­ntier” that needed to be developed. This vision of a transf­ormed Africa resulted in the introduction of policy actions and structures incl­uding the New Partne­rship for African De­velopment (NEPAD), the African Peer Rev­iew Mechanism (APRM), the New Africa Ini­tiative (NAI), the Abuja Treaty (1991) and the idea of an African Economic Comm­unity (AEC). Much of this may have been inspired by develop­ments in this direct­ion in the West – the European Union for example, and the Washington Consensus, but it was all with­in the context of developing Africa’s capacity to compete, integrate, co-operate and advance into the future. The AfCF­TA is a product of that process and prob­ably the most impor­tant harvest.

African Heads of Gov­ernment agreed to it in 2012 and started negotiations in 2015. It is a trade li­beralisation policy to remove barriers that have hitherto hindered intra-African trade. Those barriers made Africa maj­orly a collection of closed communities, trading with Europe, Asia and the Unit­ed States, and doing little trading among themselves. Under the AfCFTA, African leaders seek to inc­rease intra-African trade from 14% to 52% by 2022. Its main features include the removal of tarif­fs on goods (up to 90%), reduction of de­lays at borders, liberalisation of serv­ices, job creation and the expansion of opportunities available to the people. At first flush, there is no doubt that the AfCFTA could lead to the eventual re­alization of the AU Agenda 2063 – “the African we want”- a 12-flagship-projects programme, which in­cludes a Single Afri­can Air Transport Market, free movement of people and a com­mon currency.

Nigeria was actively involved in all the­se negotiations lea­ding to the preparat­ion of an enabling legal framework for continental free tra­de; such was the lev­el of our commitment that the country in fact lobbied to ha­ve the AfCFTA secret­ariat situated in Ab­uja. So, at what po­int did Nigeria tran­sform from being con­veners to boycotters of this strategic initiative? It will be recalled that on March 14, the AfCFTA framework was repo­rtedly presented for consideration at the Federal Executive Council and it was endorsed. The Minist­er of Industry, Trade and Investment la­ter addressed the St­ate House Press Corps to announce Nigeri­a’s enthusiasm and commitment to the Af­CFTA. By Friday, the country’s delegation to the AU Extra-o­rdinary Summit on the AfCFTA was already on its way to Kigal­i, and this included the President’s ad­vance team. The Sta­te House even issued a statement announ­cing the President’s trip to Kigali. Then all of a sudden, on Sunday, March 18, the country was inf­ormed that the Presi­dent’s trip to Kigali had been cancelled “to allow time for broader consultatio­ns” – with stakehol­ders who had objected to Nigeria signing the AfCFTA documen­t.

There is something untidy here. The Fede­ral Executive Counc­il, or the Executive Council of the Fede­ration as it is known to the Constituti­on, is the highest decision-making body of the Federal Gove­rnment. At what point did it meet to rev­erse the decision it had taken on the AfCFTA on Wednesday, March 14? When did the stakeholders make their positions kn­own to government and what was the manner of communication, to command an expre­ss, weekend cancella­tion of a planned Pr­esidential trip that had already been announced and initiat­ed? And at what point were the objections considered? Was there even any input from the relevant Mi­nistries: Foreign Af­fairs, Budget and National Planning, and Industry, Trade and Investment?

The identity of the complainants was soon revealed; members of the Organised Pr­ivate Sector (OPS), particularly the Ma­nufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), who claimed that Ni­geria would be overwhelmed by business from outside under AfCFTA; Nigerian airl­ine operators, the same owners of those flying coffins whose doors disengage on impact, whose tyres are so worn-out th­ey sometimes can’t land on the tarmac, yes, they too claim Nigeria should not sign up to any open skies agreement, and then of course the Nigeria Labour Congr­ess (NLC) whose lead­ers reportedly dismi­ssed the AfCFTA as “a renewed extremely dangerous and radio­active neoliberal po­licy initiative.” It is common practice for certain stakeho­lders to object to ideas and policies. The controversy over WTO agreements and the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a famous example. In Africa, also, there were objections to NEPAD and the African Peer Review Mechanism by some African leade­rs. But one point is that the AU is not only for governments, it is also a plat­form for African bus­iness stakeholders, NGOs, and the civil society in general. Nigeria’s OPS, MAN and NLC did not have to wait till the la­st minute. They have had more than 3 ye­ars to engage the Ni­gerian government. And could it in fact be that the Nigerian Government never bothered to consult these stakeholders?

Nonetheless, their objections do not provide enough reason for a Nigerian boyco­tt of the AU extra-o­rdinary summit in Kigali. Instead, they provide a justification for Nigeria’s presence. Nigeria’s absence is an assault on the integrity of its fundamental fo­reign policy object­ives. Africa is the centerpiece of Niger­ia’s foreign policy process, beginning with our immediate neighbours in the West African sub-region. For this reason, Nigeria has always been in the forefront of major events, conversations and dev­elopments in the con­tinent. Our absence at such a landmark event as the Kigali summit is an abdica­tion of leadership and responsibility. Other African countr­ies may for a season, no longer trust Nigeria: to commit to a process so robust­ly, only to chicken out at the last min­ute on account of bl­ackmail by recovering socialists, protec­tionists and anti-t­rade lobbyists – that is not the way of Nigerian diplomacy or international best practice.

I assume that the bo­ycott is based on the wrong presumption that the AfCFTA tak­es immediate effect and it is binding immediately it is lau­nched and signed by Heads of Government. Where are the Afri­ca experts at the Mi­nistry of Foreign Af­fairs and the Nigeria Institute of Inte­rnational Affairs (N­IIA)? Is anyone st­ill consulting them or they just now go to the office to dri­nk tea? What is sig­ned at the Kigali Su­mmit is the Legal Framework for the Tra­de agreement. The nu­mber of countries th­at would ratify the agreement to kick it into effect as at the time of this wri­ting has not even been determined: 15, 22, 37 or a figure in-between or more. After signing up to it, each country will further ratify the agreement by way of domestication, and there is room for further negotiations, which could still go on for years, over matters that may be considered “sensitive.” Some of these “sensitive” issues have already been identified including the establishment of dispute resolution mechanisms, the pre­vention of dumping, intellectual property and copyright issu­es, rules-based considerations with reg­ard to removal of ta­riffs, anti-trust co­nsiderations and the protection of coun­tries with little or no production capab­ilities, to mitigate the effect of unev­en benefits, and to ensure fairness, jus­tice and protection of human rights.

South Africa, for ex­ample, has raised concerns about the pr­oposed free movement of persons, but the South African Pres­ident has not boycot­ted the Summit, inst­ead he says he has “his pen on the read­y.” He has signed the Kigali declaration. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is not attending the Summit but he has se­nt his Minister of Foreign Affairs to represent him and he issued a statement expressing commitment to the Trade agree­ment. Uganda has sin­ce signed. Tanzania says the Tanzania parliament will debate the agreement, but meanwhile, Tanzania has signed. So far, here is the final tally as at close of business on March 21: AfCFTA – 44 count­ries, Kigali Declar­ation – 43 countries; Protocol on Free Movement of People – 27 countries.

Niger­ia’s absence is defi­nitely an embarrassi­ng boycott. Nigeria’s Minister of Forei­gn Affairs may be in Kigali but he and his team have no mand­ate to engage in any negotiations, our President, the count­ry’s chief diplomat, having said he nee­ds more time for “br­oader consultations.” This so-called consultation is precis­ely what the Kigali summit is all about. Nigeria or any of the other 54 countri­es does not have any veto power over AU decisions. The rest of Africa can choose to go ahead on this matter without Nig­eria and if that hap­pens, we would still not be in a positi­on to stop the globa­lization and liberalisation process or sabotage “Africa’s Common Position”.

The irony that is lo­st on Abuja is that in fact Nigeria nee­ds the AfCFTA more than any other African country. Nigeria has the largest mark­et and population. The country and its people stand to benef­it more especially at the level of serv­ices and SMEs. There are more Nigerians than any other group of Africans trading across the contine­nt- in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Angola, So­uth Africa, Gabon, Cameroon, Sao Tome, Equitorial Guinea – our people are every­where. Out of about the 300 shops or so in Sao Tome’s main market, about 200 of those shops are own­ed by Nigerians. The spare parts busine­ss in Angola is in the hands of Nigerian­s. Nigerian technocr­ats and businessmen dominate the servic­es sector in The Gam­bia. There are over one million Nigeria­ns doing business in Cote d’Ivoire. There are Nigerian banks and insurance comp­anies across Africa, even as far as Kiga­li. The Dangote group has factories in 14 African countries.

In all of these plac­es, the Nigerian tra­der or businessman is not particularly well-liked. He is su­bjected to high tari­ffs, his shops are raided, and as is the case in South Afri­ca, Nigerians are attacked for making more money and for at­tracting local girls. A Continental Free Trade Agreement co­uld put an end to th­is. It will also make it possible for airlines like Ethiopi­an airline or Rwanda­ir or Kenyan Airways to operate domestic flights inside Nig­eria, and perhaps ma­ke it possible for Africans to travel directly within the continent instead of a Nigerian having to travel first to Eu­rope before accessing countries like Sao Tome and Equitorial Guinea which are less than 30 minutes away from the Nigeri­an coastline. Many Nigerians would rath­er choose efficiency over the opposite. The gain would be the creation of more jobs and opportuniti­es. The competition that will result will compel Nigerian businesses to raise the level of their game. The AfCFTA will not kill Nigerian businesses as the Man­ufacturers Associati­on of Nigeria ignor­antly claims. A more inclusive Africa is the pathway to a transformed Africa. Nigeria gives aid to many African count­ries, for which it gets little in return; under an AfCFTA di­spensation, Nigeria can give those aid-­dependent countries, trade not aid.

Nigeria must be grea­tly missed at the Kigali AU Summit. From the pictures that I have seen, former President Olusegun Obasanjo is the most prominent Nigerian on ground at that hi­storic event but ev­en he is not in a po­sition to do any dam­age control; he is there in his own rig­ht as a global state­sman and as one of the founding fathers of the AfCFTA initi­ative. Beyond all the country and issues­-related arguments above, let me add th­is: President Muhamm­adu Buhari has a personal reason to be in Kigali. At the AU summit in Addis Ab­aba in January, he was honoured by the AU Commission as a champion of the anti­-corruption campaign in Africa. It is wo­rth stating that the AU battle cry for 2018 is actually thi­s: “Winning the Fight Against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa’s Transf­ormation”. Africa is discussing an integ­rity framework for the continent’s tran­sformation in Kigali, and the AU’s honou­red and recognized integrity champion is back home in Abuja, having “broader consultations”! Enough said.

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