Last Thursday, when the motion to debate Nigeria’s membership of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was moved by Senator Barau Jibrin, the enthusiasm that swept through the chamber was electric and encouraging. It suggested that Nigeria might have taken a decision that would move her closer to being prosperous as a nation.
The debate saw the senators drawing the attention of the Federal Government to the need to come up with a comprehensive roadmap on how to bequeath a productive economy, positioned for competition, to the nation.
President Muhammadu Buhari signed the AfCFTA in Niger Republic last Sunday. And the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan described the agreement as a catalyst that will spur the Senate to be more circumspect in dealing with the 2020 appropriation bill for optimal performance.
Speaking on the motion, Lawan said the agreement is the only way businesses in the country could be competitive and productive. According to him, to do anything otherwise will not support businesses.
Lawan said that in the past, Nigeria had the “luxury” of signing the WTO agreement and so many agreements without knowing what the implications were. “This time around, the President took time. Initially, he refused to sign because he needed to protect our economic environment. But after setting up a technical committee to look into the issues, having conferred with businessmen in the country, he was asked to sign the agreement. He has signed and we are going to ratify it,” he said.
Lawan advised that the grey areas that have been identified must be addressed for businesses to get a conducive environment for employment opportunities, wealth creation and so many other things that will benefit the people. “I believe that we can do this together with the executive arm of government,” he added.
The Senate unanimously urged the FG to improve the state of the nation’s infrastructure to pave the way for the smooth operation of the agreement
They identified areas such as electricity and good roads as needing government’s urgent look-in.
Senator Kola Balogun said Nigeria is already a dumping ground. “We have to pay serious attention to our power infrastructure, so that we can be a producing nation. If we remain a consumer nation, we can never move forward.”
Senator Olubunmi Adetunbi observed that power infrastructure, roads, aviation and rail must be fixed for movement of goods and services to other countries.
Adetunbi said, “There is nothing called the economy of Nigeria outside the economy of the states. So, the economy of Nigeria is the aggregation of state economies in Nigeria.”
He stressed that if the basic things were not done, the agreement will just keep Nigeria on paper as a member of the AfCFTA but without any serious economic benefits for the country.
Senator Orji Uzor Kalu also reiterated the need to critically look into the issues of power generation, security and other factors. He urged government to take proactive steps that will reduce cost of production for manufacturers.
“Chinese market is already saturated and they are looking at Africa and Nigeria in particular to dump their goods,” Kalu noted.
For Senator Ibikunle Amosun, if Nigeria could take advantage of the AfCFTA agreement and manage it well, it can help make the country become a production giant in Africa and in the world.
Chairman Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Adedayo Adeyeye said the agreement aims to eliminate tariffs on goods coming into the country.
“Tariff is a taxation. When you remove the tariffs, it will be easier for other countries to come into the country with their goods. Nigeria has benefited more from free trade agreement than it has lost. If we wait for Nigeria to first address its infrastructural deficits before joining the free trade agreement, we will be wasting our time,” he said.
Adeyeye said that in the long run, Nigeria would be the greatest beneficiary of the agreement because of its huge population.
Senator Betty Apiafi, in her contribution, however, noted that what the President has signed was a treaty, saying that it had to be domesticated by the National Assembly working on it to become a legal document that will carry the force of law.
Senator Utazi Chukwuka Geofrey said the agreement would add to the ease of doing business policy of the country. But he urged the Senate to convoke an economic summit on the agreement so that all stakeholders will look at how to properly apply it to the nation’s advantage.
Senator Teslim Folarin indicated that, in principle, there is nothing wrong with the agreement but it is premature to celebrate when the full content of the agreement has not been seen.
“Do we have a productive economy before talking about competitiveness. We have to come up with a comprehensive roadmap on how to be a productive economy before positioning as a competitive economy,” Folarin said.
Barau, in his lead debate on the motion, added that Nigerians would benefit largely from the gains of the agreement. He observed that President Buhari’s signing of the agreement, brought an end to the heightened expectations of Nigerians on the desirability or otherwise of the country’s membership of the continental body.
He recalled that Nigeria had earlier declined to sign the agreement in Kigali because of the agitations and apprehensions by the private sector in Nigeria.
He commended President Buhari for his strong political and economic will to sign the agreement despite earlier misgivings, which have been put to rest by the Presidential Technical Committee on the matter.
Barau urged the Federal Government to enlighten the Nigerian business community to leverage the immense benefits of the Agreement.