‘Strong African economies may lose out under CFTA agenda if dumping is not checked’
It seems West Africa is still left behind in the facilitation of the CFTA agenda. What is happening especially with Nigeria accounting for the GDP of the sub-region?
I do not know if it is an accident, but yes, ECOWAS appears to be at the tail end of the progress that we have made so far. I must say that we have made progress in the last two years. Our lack of appreciable progress is also as a result of our historical antecedents. There is this tendency for not speaking enough with each other. So we have the French speaking and the English countries and even within the English speaking countries, we do not speak with one voice. What we have also done is to provide the leadership that we can use to drive the facilitation.
Today, I am president of ARSO and I do not want a situation where we will be regional economic group that will keep Africa behind. Like I said, we have made so much progress in the last two years, but East and Central Africa are so far ahead already. There are also reasons why they are far ahead. There is geographical factor, there is language and there is a lot of traffic among them.
Also, most of the multilateral agencies, sometimes whether by accident, reside between those two communities. For example, we have the United Nations Economic Community for Africa (UNECA) in the region. They are all over there ensuring that a strong Africa is being built. Look at Nigeria for instance; when we started in 2011, Nigeria did not have meteorology, accreditation but today, Nigeria is coming up strong. We have actually within two or three years, built enough grounds to level up with countries like South Africa, Kenya and others and I can assure you that in the next two years, we will clearly be at par with all of them. That parity is also what will help to accelerate the process of integration in Africa.
How does ARSO hope to tackle issue of dumping in the continent?
In all meetings we agreed on the fact that Africa seems to have one big enemy, because if you look at Africa in the context of industrialisation, it does appear that Africa stepped back in the last 10 to 15 years and if you investigate this, you will find out that the growth of certain Asian economies also resulted in decline of industrialisation in Africa, this is not the problem. I think the challenge is because of the weak framework in Africa, it is easy to bring those products into the continent, but there is nothing wrong bringing in products that attract the right price and quality. The point however is when you are selling substandard products into the African economy. It is not fair and actually inhuman as far as I am concerned. What we have done is work with our colleagues to share our best practices.
For instance, I think I became president of ARSO because they believe that we have gone ahead in Nigeria because there were some certain initiatives we introduced and we pursued them single-mindedly, but one thing that shocked me was every country we went to were going through the same challenges as Nigeria. I think they must have found out that there were some initiatives we introduced such as issues of registering the products, issues of consumer education because the reason why these products come into Africa is because the African consumers are very ignorant. So we are sharing best practices, experiences and also helping our weaker colleagues. Remember, if Africa forms a CFTA, the weakest point will be the weakest countries where these products can come into and get to the rest of Africa. So everybody must be at the same level and this is what we have committed ourselves to achieve.
As a regulatory agency in this country, how do you ensure that most of the goods coming from these neighbouring countries are checked looking at the effect on the manufacturing sector?
If we must operate a common tariff within any economic zone, we must have the same standards in products, services, and the same regulatory system. If the system in Nigeria is more stringent than the one in Ghana, then the products can come from Ghana and flow into other places and it will be unfair. I believe what Nigeria’s position has been with the Common External Tariff (CET), is that we must first of all ensure that everything is not just all about standards, we must harmonise practices beyond just the standards you know, regulations, customs, immigration and then we can open up our borders as one zone. We have not attained it and I think it will be unfair especially to the bigger economies to open up ourselves because like you said, the manufacturing companies will be at the losing end. It is also very critical to us because we should ask ourselves if there are factories in other African countries that can compete with Nigeria. So what do they do, they pull from outside and circulate from inside which leads to an unfair competition, but I believe the government of Nigeria is in a position to take the best economic decision for Nigerians.
As Director-General of Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), you visited one of the Asian countries identified to be one of the major culprits responsible for dumping in the country, as ARSO President, what are your plans to check mate this situation?
We are engaging those people at another level; we are engaging them at the level of Africa Union (AU). Those are the kind of initiatives we are also canvassing. The point is, if Nigeria fights with a big economy, Nigeria may not be too successful, but if Africa fights, there is going to be somebody listening and that is the basis of our strategy to say let us fight as one because we have the critical mass and if Africa says if you do not make products to meet our minimum requirements, we will ban products coming from another continent, they will not have a choice than to listen very clearly because I am sure Africa constitutes maybe over 50 per cent of their manufacturing output.
At what stage is ARSO presently in terms of harmonisation of standards across the region and the enhancement of intra-African trade?
Harmonisation creates a basis for you and me to do business. So, harmonisation has started happening but we also have limited ourselves to where we have what we call competitive and comparative advantage. In Africa today, we are known for exporting agricultural products to other parts of the world and that has also defined where we have found competencies. So if you look at cocoa, cotton and the likes, you will see those are the areas were Africa has done business with Europe and America, this is what we have tried to do to begin first of all, to do business with each other. We have cocoa in Nigeria, we have cocoa in Ghana, but because of our agricultural and geographic differences, the cocoa in Nigeria may have certain advantages over the cocoa in Ghana or vice versa.
Today in Africa, we have actually harmonised standards for maize, garri and lots of products in the agricultural sector. Today, we have about 800 standards that we have already harmonised. In fact, the East African bloc has already started harmonising with the southern Africa through their Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). So they have already done a lot of work, but even at the auspices of ARSO, all we have done is to select some of them to get them harmonised and somehow, I tell people that Africa seems to be blessed with strong countries in each of these groups Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. These are the countries that are leading the process of harmonisation. Have we achieved where we should be? No, we have not. Have we started redefining intra-Africa trade from 10 per cent to 25 per cent? We have not reached there but I think we have created enough basis for these businesses to happen. I also realised that apart from quality infrastructure, there are also other forms of infrastructure that are required.
For example, you must create some geographic linkages. We need to create this linkage because it is how the goods we move, that will also make people to be able to move. The good news is that the African Heads of States defined the Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) to be promulgated by 2017. Some people say it is too early but we do not think it is too early because we are working towards it. We believe we can cross the bridge when we get there. We are creating an opportunity for the Heads of State to make the decision. In fact, I am heading to South Africa for a meeting and in that meeting; we will be discussing meteorology, standardisation and accreditation.
All the groups in Africa are meeting because we need to submit a paper to the Africa Heads of States and it is all in furtherance to the realisation of the 2017 free trade area. You cannot force anybody to do anything. It is a kind of mutual consent. If we do this, it will be beneficial to us in Africa, if we do this, it will industrialise Africa. Africa has a huge population and it is also growing. In fact, when I look at other African countries and I look at Nigeria, I realised we face the same challenges. We are saddled with invasion of substandard products, poverty, disease and all that, but I think what we can do is to use standardisation to break down trade barriers and also ensure that we can build a more robust economy for Africa.
We are looking at ways of supporting our weaker African brothers. Some of them do not even have standards body, so those of us who are developed in standards, give to them and also do what we call bilateral and mutual recognition agreement so that we can trade seamlessly in such a way that we can support them and learn from each other about what we have done successfully to build a better Africa.
How many more standards are you planning to harmonise in the nearest future?
Within the next one year, we will make sure that we would have gone up to 1500 from 800. Harmonisation is driven by the market need. We do not want to harmonise for the sake of it, but harmonise what we can trade on with each other.
How far have you gone to reduce the preponderance of sub-standard goods?
The level of substandard products has reduced in the last three years. It may have been constant in the last two years, I mean whatever level it is, it has remained constant and the reason is obvious. I said to somebody that government in its wisdom, removed the SON from being at the ports and that singular action hampered the drive for reducing substandard products in Nigeria because today, we are not at the ports and we do not even know what is coming into the country.
As a learned organisation, we have devised another alternative by going to the markets. The markets are risky, they are more difficult and we are also limited. There are 1400 people in SON and there are over 1400 markets in Nigeria. So I cannot even take one staff to a market and I do not know how effective one person will be in the market. It does appear that we have slowed down in our drive to reduce substandard goods in the country.
Today, our statistics show that electronic and electrical products constitute over half of the substandard products. What we have done now is that within one month, we are launching a campaign on what we call operation flush. We are going to focus on electrical and electronic products. People are even going to complain to the President, saying that this man is destroying our business, but actually, we must destruct business of people who do not want to do the right things. So we are going to hit them at all levels.
We will go to the markets and we are also reviewing SONCAP certification for those products, but we are also going to be talking to the consumers. It is going to be a three-point approach; this is why we call it operation flush. The consumer must also be tutored on what to look out for when they want to buy an electrical or electronic product.
The more people stay away from these products, the lesser they bring it in. I can tell you to watch out, before the end of the year, you will see a new zeal of life for our industries because there is an inverse relationship between reduction of substandard products and the health of the manufacturing industry. It is as simple as that.