Nigeria signed the treaty establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) on July 7, 2019, and in 2020 became the 34th member State to ratify the agreement. The principle of pacta sunt servanda in international law requires that every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith. Thus, any action or inaction of the Nigerian government that trammels its treaty obligations under the AfCFTA will amount to a concomitant breach of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969.
Trading has commenced under the AfCFTA since January this year (2021). The countries that have ratified the agreement, consent to liberalize 90% of tariff lines on goods traded under the AfCFTA for a period of five or ten years for least developed countries (LDCs) and non-least developed countries (non-LDCs) respectively. Nigeria is categorized as a non-LDC in Africa.
At this point, it is imperative to ask whether Nigeria is indeed prepared to trade with other AfCFTA member States, given the current challenges facing the country. This doubt is informed by the growing insecurity which has been compounded by the agitations by regional secessionists and further exacerbated by the poor handling of communication by the Presidency. In specific terms, the banditry in the North and kidnapping and herdsmen/farmer crisis in the South and some parts of the North are a few instances of the inhibiting factors. Following the ENDSARS protest, there has been a spate of arson and vandalization of public institutions and attack on security personnel in the South East and South-South, leading to the birth of the inglorious “unknown gunmen.” These faceless anarchists have been terrorizing the populace within the region, leaving in their wake, the destruction of public institutions.
The specific objectives of the AfCFTA treaty are as follows: To
(i) lay the foundation for the establishment of a Continental Customs Union;
(ii) promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development, gender equality and structural transformation of the State Parties;
(iii) enhance the competitiveness of the economies of State Parties within the continent and global market;
(iv) promote industrial development through diversification and regional value chain development, agricultural development and food security, and resolve the challenges of multiple and overlapping memberships and expedite the regional and continental integration processes.
To actualize the afore-stated objectives, the implementation of the AfCFTA requires the existence of enabling framework that guarantees the security of lives and property.
Ironically, whilst it is believed that the AfCFTA will go a long way to address a double whammy of insecurity and unemployment in Nigeria, the actual implementation of the free trade deal will require Nigeria to first tackle the growing insecurity challenges in the country. The Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Niyi Adebayo, had earlier in the year reiterated that the AfCFTA agreement would assist Nigeria to address unemployment and the prevailing insecurity in the country. He made the statement at the official flag-off of the nationwide sensitization tour by the National Action Committee on AfCFTA in Kaduna.
Incidentally, the nationwide tour is meant to sensitize and prepare Nigeria to take advantage of the AfCFTA Agreement. At the said event and subsequent similar events, the point has been re-echoed that the core objective of the AfCFTA is to create a single market for goods, services, and free movement of persons in order to deepen the economic integration of the African continent.
The vision of a liberalized market rests on a safe and conducive business environment with enabling infrastructure and institutions that guarantee protection for local and foreign investors. Nigeria has a competitive advantage in agriculture and food processing, but this has not led to food security within the country due to the increased cases of banditry, kidnapping and clashes between herdsmen and farmers in major food basket states of the country.
The heightened tension in the country has led to anti-trade measures and counter-measures that do not augur well for intra-trade within Nigeria and which if unaddressed may impact the implementation of the AfCFTA treaty. A case in point is the recent stoppage of food supply to southern Nigeria by the Northern traders. Sometime in March this year (2021), the Amalgamated Union of Foodstuffs and Cattle Dealers in Nigeria (AUFCDN) (Northern traders) blocked food supply to the South to demand the payment of N475 billion compensation for lives of members and properties lost during the ENDSARS protest and Shasha market chaos.
The traders later called off their nationwide strike after the Federal Government agreed to comply with their demand. Earlier this month, the Onion Producers and Marketers Association of Nigeria (OPMAN) threatened to cut off supply to entire southern Nigeria beginning from Monday, 07 June 2021, if the Federal government failed to respond to the association’s demands. The OPMAN’s demands which are similar to the earlier demand by AUFCDN arose from the complaint of the association that its members had suffered losses from the crisis in the South and therefore the Federal government should compensate the farmers.
It will be difficult to implement a free trade regime in a country where traders, producers of goods and business owners are not free to move around due to fear of being killed, kidnapped, or maimed. The AfCFTA provides opportunities for youth and women on the continent and by extension, seeks to address the high rate of unemployment that feeds the insecurity and crisis, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria, as Africa’s largest economy and market, must provide leadership in driving the implementation of the AfCFTA. The cacophony of war and violence across the country portrays a picture of a nation in chaos and unprepared for the free trade regime.
The recent ban on Twitter and the statements coming from the Presidency, coupled with the ill-thought-out regulatory interventions can send the wrong signal to foreign investors that the Nigerian business environment is not safe. Nigerian leaders, particularly the Presidency, should adopt a more unifying approach in addressing the hydra-headed challenges confronting the country rather than making divisive comments that will worsen the already bad situation. If Nigerians cannot trade amongst themselves due to insecurity, how can they trade with other AfCFTA member States?
Unless urgently addressed, security challenges in the country will be a major setback in the actualization of the AfCFTA objectives.