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‘Why Nigeria must begin to benefit from AGOA’

By Joseph Onyekwere
30 May 2023   |   4:20 am
As countries explore the most effective ways of promoting international human and labour rights standards beyond the traditional foreign instruments and mechanisms, most developed countries have found trade agreements or preferences viable tools in this regard

Nigeria justice

As countries explore the most effective ways of promoting international human and labour rights standards beyond the traditional foreign instruments and mechanisms, most developed countries have found trade agreements or preferences viable tools in this regard.

The belief is that by linking a country’s quest for economic survival to the human rights records, the nation would have the incentive to improve.

But one non-reciprocal (unilateral) preferential trade scheme that Nigeria has not been taken full advantage of is the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which came into force in 2000.

AGOA is extended by America to African countries based on defined eligibility criteria.

In 2000, under President Bill Clinton’s leadership, the American government passed special trade laws to promote trade ties between the US, Africa, and the Caribbean. The AGOA is one such preferential trade law.

While Nigeria continues to pass the yearly review to retain its beneficiary status under AGOA, it has not recorded much success in utilising the AGOA preferences to drive non-oil exports to American markets, compared to other beneficiary countries.

There also remains the question of whether Nigeria has really performed well in making ‘continuous progress’ in meeting the eligibility requirements – especially in human and labour rights.

“Nigeria continues to be a member of the AGOA due to its satisfactory performance on criteria such as the yearly review report. The American Congress sets AGOA’s eligibility criteria, and member countries are evaluated to determine whether their status should remain or be withdrawn. While retaining membership in the AGOA implies Nigeria will continue to have preferential trade access to the US market, an analysis of Nigeria’s trade with the US under the AGOA does not suggest that the country is making full use of this open market access.

“The eligibility criteria for the AGOA, as reported by The Guardian in June 2022 following an interview of the American Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, are the establishment of a market-based economy, rule of law, political pluralism, right to due process, fair trial, equal protection under the law, elimination of barriers to US trade and investment, economic policies to reduce poverty, a system to combat corruption and bribery, protection of internationally recognised workers’ rights and respect for internationally recognised human rights.

“The situation for the rule of law has also remained a challenging one for Nigeria. Nigeria’s indicators with security and rule of law as reported by MO Ibrahim Index also show a deteriorating situation for Nigeria. In 2015, the MO Ibrahim index score for Nigeria on security and the rule of law was 45. By 2019, Nigeria’s score with regard to security and the rule of law worsened as it got a MO Ibrahim score of 42.8,” Dr. Terfa Abraham, Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS), Abuja explained.

According to him, by 2021, the score further deteriorated as the country was assigned a score of 42.6. “Relative to the overall ranking in Africa, the score for Africa in 2015 was 50.1 and stood at 49.1 in 2021. The overall deterioration for Nigeria in security and rule of law is therefore faster than the overall score for African countries.

“Data from the Africa SDG dashboard also shows that Nigeria is ranked to have declined in performance in relation to achieving the SDG 1 target of No Poverty by 2030, while countries like Ghana are ranked as to be recording improvement,” he said.

He told The Guardian that while Nigeria is retained in the AGOA based on performance in the yearly review, there are several factors that it has to deal with to benefit from having access to the American market such as enhancement in the respect for the rule of law, implementation of policies that makes the Nigerian economy more market based and tackling poverty.

Retaining Nigeria in the AGOA, he declared, presents an opportunity for the managers of the Nigerian economy to make deliberate policies that will enable the country to benefit from the AGOA. If this is not done, he noted, the same factors could limit Nigeria benefiting from the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) thereby making Nigeria to be a dumping group for other countries.

“To avert this situation, therefore, Nigeria needs to address insecurity and address human rights concerns to enable it to get a favourable rating in global rating reports. Also, the country would need to take more steps to ensure that the economy is private-sector driven rather than relying on public enterprises.

“Civil society can also continue to engage the government to promote open governance initiatives and ensure transparency and accountability in governance. Lastly, it is also vital to ensure that international agreements and laws with implications for Nigeria are domesticated to establish jurisdiction and enforce compliance,” Dr. Abraham stressed.

Similarly, the Deputy Director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Kolawole Oluwadare, whose organisation has been involved in the campaign for better utilisation of AGOA, believes there is the need to reposition the AGOA as a viable tool for advancing human and labour rights.

“All stakeholders need to work together to reposition the AGOA as a tool for advancing human and labour rights in Nigeria, and other beneficiary countries.

“To achieve this goal, the American government must bring the AGOA human and labour rights eligibility requirements to the table in its engagement with the government of Nigeria on human and labour rights.

“There is a need to foster collaboration between the national state and non-state actors working in the field of trade and those in the field of human and labour rights,” he said.

According to him, trade policy institutions such as the Federal Ministry of Industry Trade and Investment (FMITI) and the Nigeria Export Promotion Council (NEPC) need to collaborate with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and non-state actors working on human and labour rights on all engagements on the AGOA.

He stated that the present practice where only the trade policy institutions manage all engagements on the AGOA does not reflect the original purpose of the AGOA.

Oluwadare said the (missed) AGOA opportunity should be used to drive awareness and capacity on the trade and human rights nexus, especially among the human and labour rights-focused non-state actors.

This, he said, would ensure that these actors can effectively engage with the process of implementation of the AGOA for its remaining few years and become ready to engage in subsequent trade agreements from a human rights perspective.

Also, a legal expert, Ms. Adelanke Aremo, said compared to other beneficiaries, such as South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, etc, Nigeria has not performed well in utilising the AGOA preferences to deepen economic diversification and non-oil export.

She said: “From a human and labour rights perspective, the implication is not only that the citizens have been denied an opportunity for economic prosperity that could have accrued from export to the US market, but also that the potential of the AGOA as a tool of human rights advocacy is weakened.

“This follows the principle that countries would modify their behaviour in compliance with an external obligation where the cost of non-compliance is high.

“On the national implementation of the AGOA and the engagement of national stakeholders with the implantation, it was found that there is a total institutional disconnect between the human/labour rights goals of the AGOA and the trade goals.”

Aremo said the disconnect does not only occur at the public sector level but also at the civil society level, adding that the key reason for the disconnect is the lack of awareness of the nexus between AGOA eligibility and human/labour rights standards.

Another lawyer, Kehinde Oyewumi, said the reasons for the ineffectiveness of the AGOA include, stakeholders’ lack of awareness about the human and labour rights eligibility requirements attached to the AGOA; the discretionary nature of AGOA preferences, which means that the US government determines what violations of human and labour rights merit withdrawal of eligibility as well as the lack of objective criteria for measuring human and labour rights performance in the beneficiary countries.

This, he said, makes it difficult for human and labour rights advocates and even beneficiary countries to predict with certainty how America would react to specific human and labour rights concerns.

“It has been found that the AGOA may remain a weak tool for human rights advocacy unless Nigeria improves its utilisation of the Act to make the cost of losing the trade preferences high enough to compel compliance with the human and labour rights eligibility requirements,” Oyewumi said.

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