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Trade treaty will make Nigeria a dumping ground, says Gillis-Harry

Billy Gillis-Harry

Billy Gillis-Harry is President of the Coalition of South-South Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (FOSSCCIMA). He tells ELVIN EBIRI that Nigeria’s refusal to sign the free trade treaty was strategic, warning that with a comatose manufacturing sector, the country risks becoming a dumping ground for African manufactured goods.

Should Nigeria have backed out of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) treaty?
Yes and no. Yes, because no matter how you have engaged yourself preparatory to taking an economic decision that will impact generations of people, if you pause, slow down a bit, it is a very strategic thing to do. The painful part, however, is that a Nigerian chaired the negotiating committee. What it means is that this particular Nigerian did not consult with essential stakeholders. You can bring one billion people and call them stakeholders. But they are not effective because they don’t know the subject. They are not technically sound. They are not educated about the process. The Chamber of Commerce was not part of the discussion. In a country where you have an active private sector, like the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, they are not even part of the process of how the results and decisions were arrived at. Yet, these are the private business leaders that will participate in the execution of that agreement.

So, I think it was good that Nigeria backed out, to assess how the process would holistically impact on our economy. It is crucial that stakeholders should have a full review of the agreement and make full input. And that is why this pause is good. I commend President Buhari for rescinding his decision, even after the Federal Executive Council had endorsed it. They might have hurriedly believed that it was beneficial. But down the road, the President found out that something was wrong that needed to be fixed. I think that private rather than public sector players should have deliberated on the entire process.

Shouldn’t Nigeria, supposedly the biggest market in Africa, benefit from the agreement?
If you look at the terms of the agreement, what are those things Nigeria will have as comparative advantage? Is it our market? Is it our size? The agreement is about manufactured goods in Africa. What is Nigeria producing? What is Nigeria manufacturing? What is going to be the reciprocal trade participation by Nigeria? It is not there!

I will recommend that the chairman of that committee, who stood on behalf of Nigeria, should be shown the way out of the public sector because his activity was a complete sham. Nigeria is not a producing country and you want to get into an agreement with producing countries, like Morocco, Ghana, or even Ivory Coast. We need to be prepared to take advantage of what our comparative values are, namely: our population, our intellectual capability, even our ability to engage in manufacturing and production activities that is being maligned, delayed because of lack of infrastructure. Those could be the reasons, though the government has not come out to say so. But as a private sector player that has gone through that agreement, I can tell you those could be the possible and plausible justifications for not signing that agreement.

It is estimated that this agreement will boost trade in Africa with a combined GDP of $3.4tr. Isn’t this a missed opportunity for Nigeria?
What are we losing? Are we creating employment by allowing our brothers and sisters to make Nigeria their dumping ground? Yes, dumping ground, because they are producing and most of them have mass production capacity. We shouldn’t envy them. We should emulate them. If for instance there is textile coming in from Tunisia, with the quality and value that we get, we should also be able to give them ethanol. We should have been able to produce tractors to give to them. Do we have that capacity today? The answer is no. So, there is nothing you are losing because the bulk of the trade will just be focused on your population. You are import dependent. You are not producing. Therefore, it will be difficult to match any trade deficit of any stretch of imagination. We are not children. If we get our acts together, we can go back and say we want to sign. But we want to sign on condition one, two and condition three. Instead of stealing money to play election, we should have money that should be injected into the production and manufacturing sector.

Even right now, Aba is doing quite a lot just by self-effort. There in Aba, you provide your own security, you provide your own water, and produce electricity. In actual fact, the decision to pause is okay. They have not canceled the agreement. We are just one out of over 40 countries. We will certainly need to put our acts together and get things working.

What are the likely conditions Nigeria might give to join this trade treaty?
I think the first thing we need to do is encourage in-country production. So, if we are going to be signing the AfCFTA agreement, we should be able to make our brother countries produce some of the goods they even want to ship to other African countries in Nigeria. That will be a simple, easy way out.

The Nigerian industrial sector should be encouraged. There should be a quick injection of funds that will be really applied. Not money sitting in the Central Bank and commercial banks. This thing can be done in less than a year, because every agreement has a time value allotted to it for acceptance or rejection. Nigeria is a frontline member of the African Union. And so, on what concerns Africa, its voice is very loud and strong. So, we are not the ones who are going to advocate for anything that will break down continental integration, continental agreement and aggregated trading that is going to give positive value to our economy. The fault is in-country. We cannot blame it on other countries. We have to look at how our financial apparatus functions and how things can be made to work.

Nigeria played a pivotal role in the establishment of ECOWAS. Why the reluctance to join the AfCFTA?
Is Nigeria benefiting from ECOWAS? No. Nigeria is the butt of humour and comedy in ECOWAS. In the ECOWAS secretariat, you hardly see a Nigerian of value that is in the decision-making process, except by name. We built the ECOWAS secretariat and donated it. You have to be able to speak French to do good business there. That is a good example telling you how Nigeria will lose again in AfCFTA, when we are not producing or manufacturing. We are just an import-dependent economy. Most of our African brothers are already advanced in manufacturing capabilities. So, I don’t think it is a matter of fear; it is just being cautious, saying, ‘Wait a minute. We did this before and we didn’t get it right’.

What does Nigeria stand to benefit from the agreement?
There is a lot. Quality African goods are going to be dumped in our own economy. And of course, Nigerians are very good at changing taste. So, before you know it, every one of us will be going for the Tunisian kind of carpet or furniture or the Ethiopian brand. And we will forget about Nigeria.

The government needs to do a proper colloquium like what the private sector has done. Most of the African economies are very aggressive. Why do you think a country like Morocco wants to become a member of ECOWAS? Why? They have applied. It is because they have seen the size of the market that it is heavy, and they are already advanced in their technology. And then Turkey is working so closely with them. But in Nigeria, we have not even stepped an inch. We are just only celebrating some level of mediocre enterprise based on government funding, at the detriment of Nigerians.

Why has Nigeria failed to take advantage of her resources and population to dominate the African market?
It is simply that our leadership has not been creative and has not been looking out for the general good of the country. If our minds were focused on growing our economy, to stablise our country, make our country good, attractive, create enough jobs for our young people to be involved in economic development, and not to be involved in violence, we would have been better off. That is the reality.

Why is the private sector not competitive, compared to other advanced economies in Africa?
If you go to any francophone country today, the Chamber of Commerce is funded statutorily by the state. In Nigeria, it is not the same; it is voluntary. And payments for even dues are very well delayed. We don’t have access to funds. Access to money is very difficult and little. You cannot take a risk. Entrepreneurship is what builds the world. It is risk taking. You can’t take a risk, if you don’t have the resources to mitigate that risk in the next trial. So, this is the truth. We need to sit and re-evaluate how we should function. That is what we should do.

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