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Government responsible to citizens than mythical African continent – Onah

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A senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Lagos, Dr Emmanuel Onah, speaks with GBENGA SALAU on the implication of Nigeria’s refusal to sign the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) treaty.

Was it a diplomatic blunder when Nigeria pulled out of signing the AfCTA agreement, given that Nigeria was key to negotiations?
Diplomatically, it is not a big deal, if a country that had tactically given its consent to an issue or treaty, but at the point of signing, decided not to give final consent or sign the agreement. That can only show a number of developments: the political administration could have had newer information on the matter. In this case, it is to be assumed that the new information is giving some contrary feedbacks, as to the benefits of the treaty. This could be the result of the development on ground, the feelings of the people. Every government is supposed to act at the diplomatic level carrying the mood and approval of its people along. The government is supposed to be the representative of the people. In other words, if things had happened over a period of time showing that the previous stand on a matter is not in line with what the people want, then if the government has not signed it, it can pull out.

Another reason could be developments in the international community. For instance, if South Africa is pulling out, that is an indication to Nigeria, in terms of the big brother role and the implementation of the treaty. In Africa, when South Africa is not part of the implementation of a project or programme, that immediately puts more pressure and responsibility on Nigeria. And the government could decide that instead of carrying the entire burden, considering that another big brother on the continent is not part of it, it could decide to stay action. So, what they have done is not a strange thing in diplomacy. Diplomacy does not mean that once you give your words, you must maintain that same stand in the face of new knowledge. This is especially if it has not been signed. The period between giving your word and signing is a period of learning and reviewing, to take a concrete position on an issue.
Will Nigeria’s decision not strain relations with other proponents of the idea?

If Nigeria feels it does not want to be part of a project, it does not matter whether other countries are not happy. They are not going to share the aftermath of the decision on Nigerians at home. So, they are also expected to understand Nigeria’s plight. Friendship is not just that you are doing something for somebody because you are better off, and when you do not do it, your relationship is strained. That means you are just being used. It also does not mean that when you give somebody something, then you become his friend, and when you don’t, that friendship ceases. It means that such friendship should be re-examined. I do not expect that West African countries will not understand Nigeria’s position. If they don’t, that is too bad. And it should not force Nigeria to do what it does not want to.

The idea of the trade agreement was muted in 2008 and was firmed up in 2012. Six years after, we seem unprepared. What does it say about us a country that claims to be a giant on the continent?
That you are a giant does not mean you cannot benefit from new information about a policy. The labour unions must have taken time to look at the drafted treaty. And that is why they are holding that position, that the country should not sign the treaty. What they are saying, and if they are saying something new or contrary, the leaders should not just dismiss them, saying it does not matter. When the draft came up, the labour unions obviously did not know the details. But probably, when they had the details and were pointing at the negative implications of signing the document to the government, do you expect the government to just dismiss it? Or government should now be bound to it because they have been part of it and must continue with it, even when they have discovered that the country is going to lose out?

There is nothing on the diplomatic front that says you cannot back off when you discover that something you are part of will ultimately make you lose out. Diplomacy is not such a code that you are bound by the words given, because the words given were based on knowledge available at that time. I said it earlier, if the country has got new knowledge, new information, then the country will act based on the newest information, and this is completely logical. Other countries that are going to benefit, to the detriment of Nigeria, would surely not be happy that we are pulling out. But the government will be failing its citizens if it goes ahead to sign the treaty, to the detriment of its own people.

So, I commend the government for pulling out. It is heartening to know that it is not only Nigeria that has pulled out; South Africa also did not sign. Every government has a responsibility to its citizens more than it has to the mythical Africa continent that is more on the level of idealism.


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AfCTAEmmanuel Onah
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