Infrastructure development key for Nigeria to benefit from trade agreements – NLC scribe
General Secretary of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Dr Peter Ozo-Eson told COLLINS OLAYINKA that if Nigeria does not fix its infrastructure challenges, subscribing to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) would be a waste of effort.
What was the level of labour’s involvement in the processes that culminated in the final signing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement by President Muhammadu Buhari?
We were involved in the processes. We interacted with a consultative committee that was set up to aggregate views. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) President, Ayuba Wabba was involved at various stages of those consultations.
Now that the agreement has been signed, what next?
Well, the essence of a free trade area for Africa presents opportunities and challenges as well. If as a country, we would take full advantage of the agreement, we should actually be creating jobs by expanding production. The major issue we identified has to do with challenges of infrastructure in Nigeria. Power is a huge challenge, so also is roads and security. If we do not deal with these challenges, our producers would not be able to compete. These are the dangers that we pointed out.
By signing the agreement, however, it may spur government to quickly begin to with the challenges within the Nigerian economy. If we do that effectively, given the size of our economy in relation to the rest of African economies, we should reap immense benefits from this process. That would ensure that jobs are protected and new jobs are created.
With the challenge of paucity of funds, will labour subscribe to a Public Private Partnership by government to fix infrastructure?
There are various models of fixing infrastructure challenge. Where the private sector has a role to play, it should play it, but government must drive infrastructure development. Look at what has happened to the power sector. All government did was to hand over haphazardly to the private sector. What has been the achievement since then? So, let us not continue to repeat the same errors. It is not a matter of private or public, we need to develop master plan to develop our infrastructure and government must lead that process.
With AfCFTA in place, Nigeria is expected to provide leadership in the oil and gas sector. Can Nigeria play this role with a low price that is not globally competitive? Will labour support deregulation to make petrol competitive in the African market?
The issue of deregulation or no deregulation of the downstream sector is not an issue that would be affected by the agreement. The agreement requires countries to trade what they produce. No country is expected to trade what it does not produce. The rules of origin and all other aspects of the agreement have minimum percentage of domestic value added for such commodities to qualify for free trade movement. The petroleum that we consume here is imported; it is a separate issue and should not be mixed up with issue of free trade agreement. If we were refining the products here and selling ourselves, then it would have been relevant.
So, how will the Dangote refinery fit into the equation when it begins operation?
If Dangote Refinery comes on stream, it would export petroleum products into other African countries at prevailing global prices. That means petroleum products produced in Nigeria will go out as the same products produced elsewhere in the world. In the case of Nigeria, whatever is the difference between the global price and the local price has to be paid to the Dangote Refinery by the government. This scenario has no implication for the free trade agreement in whatever way with petroleum products.
How much buffer is inserted in the agreement to ensure that Nigerian workers are not short-changed when the implementation begins?
National labour laws govern labour relations in the agreement. It is only now that there is an attempt to incorporate labour laws into ECOWAS that has been in existence for more than four decades. That process is on-going and we are participating in it. So, labour relations are not part of the agreement as of now. With time and maturity of a common market, the need for harmonisation could arise.
Is labour optimistic that the agreement would be a win-win for all African countries?
By saying that there are opportunities and challenges, I have already mentioned as part of the challenges the fears that we have. For us to be able to do well within this framework, government must do certain things; it must deal with infrastructure bottlenecks. However, we also subscribe to the concept of pan-Africanism and the benefits that are derivable from Africa coming together to plan its economic development. Therefore, we think that these are the things that are desirable going into the future but we need government to do the necessary things that will allow this to be a win-win situation for Nigerian workers.
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