In a free trade area, human beings trade, not machines. Stakeholders’ engagements and effective communication are key to a successful implementation of any trade liberalization agenda particularly one that is at its early stage as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
Business owners and prospective investors intending to do business within the AfCFTA require access to periodic information on the phased negotiations of the various concessions and agreements reached by the member States towards the implementation of the trade deal. Just the same way, access to reliable and timely information is regarded as a hallmark of a democratic society.
Following the start of trading in the AfCFTA on 01 January 2021, negotiations are currently ongoing on some aspects of the treaty, particularly in the areas of trade in services, intellectual property, competition, and investment policies. Barring any confidential issues concerning some aspect of the negotiations, it is expected that there would be a periodic update on milestone achievement in the course of the negotiations.
In the same vein, considering that only 37 out of 54 of the AfCFTA-member States have ratified the agreement, there is a need to understand the continent-wide efforts in the incremental implementation process. Interactions with some entrepreneurs, business owners, investors and SMEs across Africa including Nigeria reveal a lack of access to information and understanding of the implementation process as well as the impact of the free trade agreement.
As far back as 2019, participants at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) workshop on trade and gender had agreed that “to scale-up AfCFTA impact, there was a need for coordination through a network for the exchange of information.” Though the focus of the workshop was on gender and inclusive implementation, there was a consensus on the need for proper dissemination of the AfCFTA-related information.
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Amongst the priorities for implementing the AfCFTA, effective communication remains crucial, and each member State owes its citizens that duty to put in place a monitoring and evaluation system that will measure the phased implementations and provide constant progress and status report. For business owners and investors, prior knowledge of government policy direction is often key for planning purposes. Sometimes, investors and business owners’ concerns are not the lack of government policy but the failure to communicate existing policies and implementation process effectively. The knowledge of what is being done helps businesses to make projections and budget accordingly.
Granted that the AfCFTA implementation is to be done in phases and one may start noticing meaningful impact in years to come, the people still need basic information that will guide them in measuring the progress of the trade liberalization. In Nigeria, as it is with most African countries, getting information on government programmes and policies is often difficult partly because of the lack of a database and equally due to poor communication of these policies. In an era of knowledge and digital economy, it is worrisome that government institutions and agencies do not update their websites and social media handles despite the huge amount budgeted for this purpose annually.
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It is not enough that some of these agencies are on social media if the handlers of such platforms hardly provide current information on critical policy issues affecting businesses and citizens. A lot of people, particularly SMEs are asking questions on what is being done following the commencement of trading. The AfCFTA Secretariat located in Accra Ghana is expected to champion the information dissemination by collating continent-wide updates and reports on the phased implementation. However, not much information is being disseminated as the Secretariat is still trying to put structure and its personnel in place.
For instance, the AfCFTA Secretariat needs a functional website and social media handles to aid information dissemination. And while available information suggests that the Secretariat has created its own website, recent attempts to access the site have not been successful. The understanding is that the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the pace of work at the Secretariat and it is hoped that with the gradual return to normalcy, we will start witnessing heightened activities and public engagements from the Secretariat.
Beyond this, each member State should put mechanisms in place to engage the local populace. After all, the implementation is expected to be driven by the member States with the AfCFTA Secretariat only playing a complementary role in this regard. While it is appreciated that some of the negotiations are at technical stages which makes it premature to release certain information to the public, this nonetheless, does not obviate the need for constant engagements of the public on the implementation process.
In Nigeria, the National Action Committee on AfCFTA has been engaging the stakeholders across the States, the last of such reported engagements was in Ogun state where stakeholders brainstormed on various issues ranging from Trading Under AfCFTA, Rules of Origin, Export Market Strategy and Product Prioritization, Maximizing AfCFTA for MSMEs Development, Investment Support Programme, Harmonization of Standards across AfCFTA member States amongst other topical issues. Such stakeholders’ engagement is crucial and should be held across the Nigerian States. Often times, people do not know about these workshops and programmes. One way to make it more accessible to the public is to air such events on National television to give a larger audience the opportunity to participate.
A lot of people are enthusiastic about the AfCFTA and are eager to access information that will aid their understanding of the opportunities and benefits under the enlarged market. People want to know about the implementation stages of the AfCFTA. They want to know the progress made so far, the tariffs concession, steps to address non-tariff barriers, what has been agreed and what is outstanding, the stages of negotiations and milestone achievements. Which countries have started trading and what are they trading? What are the potential challenges that may be faced by traders and what is being done to address the challenges? The public needs constant information on these and other critical issues that are necessary for the effective implementation of the free trade agreement. It is hoped that the relevant government agencies of the AfCFTA Member States will work with the AfCFTA Secretariat to address this information gap in relation to ongoing negotiations and implementation.