Not signing CFTA was goodwill to labour, stakeholders, says Wabba
In this interview with COLLINS OLAYINKA, the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba, explains why Nigeria and some African countries are yet to sign the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.
What is your response to President Buhari’s insistence that the agreement will not be signed until all stakeholders have been properly consulted?
It is commendable and expected. I say this because policies are about the people, and the people need to be consulted when government intends to introduce any policy. Governance is also about sharing the views of government on very serious policy matters with critical stakeholders.
Particularly on the CFTA, everyone is aware that labour across Africa has had a very serious position about ensuring there is an inclusive process of discussion that takes on board its views, those of manufacturer associations and other critical stakeholders.
Clearly, such a move by the President not to sign the agreement is a welcome development to us. Indeed, the President directed that all stakeholders, including Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and organised labour should be consulted, and that our views should be taken and reflected in the final position government will adopt. I can confirm that a meeting in which we were consulted took place. There was a formal meeting at the conference hall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where all stakeholders converged. We submitted a memorandum where we drew attention to dumping, how to protect our national interests, and most importantly, how we can encourage industries to produce, especially industries that would lead the process of driving trade among the African countries.
We insisted on trade reciprocity. We also insisted on having a platform where issues of concern can be addressed. We canvassed the need to address the infrastructural deficit within African countries, to be able to drive the process of trade. Trade across Europe is easy because the movement of goods and services is very easy. They have a very impressive infrastructure that makes things easy. Here, to even move within West Africa is a herculean task, not to talk of the entire continent. In order to facilitate this kind of trade agreement, there is the need for all African countries to recommit themselves to building critical infrastructure that would drive the trade initiative.
Nigerians must be made to know that it is not only Nigeria that did not sign the agreement. South Africa, the second largest economy on the continent, also did not. They argued that they also must consult before taking any decision. For us at the NLC, it is not degrading for Nigeria not to have signed. If anything, it is a sign of strength. We all know that Nigeria is 10 times the size of many countries in Africa. With the size of our market and population, Nigeria must be at the driving seat. Nigeria and South Africa have demonstrated leadership. Even if smaller countries are signing, that will not stop us from strategically articulating our interests, protecting our local industries and protecting jobs. I disagree with former President Olusegun Obasanjo who erroneously said it was a sign of weakness.
What steps have labour and manufacturer associations taken to ensure your views reflect in the final document that would be submitted to the President?
I was told at the meeting that the President directed that all the views must be collated and presented to him through the Federal Executive Council (FEC) for consideration. And he gave only two weeks for all these to happen. I think with that assurance, coupled with the fact that in our recommendation we said there should be a process where continuous input into the agreement would help incorporate our views every time – even if the agreement is signed – we should be able to have a platform where the process of implementation can be addressed. And also, where critical issues arise, we should be able to address it at the national level. Because this is a new idea, there will be challenges in the implementation stages that would warrant constant rejig.
I believe that by not signing the agreement, government and the President have demonstrated goodwill towards labour and other stakeholders involved. There were a number of countries that went ahead to sign the agreement without consulting their people.
This is a sharp departure from the past practice where policies that had profound effects on the people were discussed, people rejected them and yet the government went ahead to adopt them. A case in point was the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), which was openly rejected by Nigerians. But the government of the day adopted it. Nigerians are still feeling the negative impact today, years after. The systematic closure of industries actually began around that period.
What is the level of collaboration between the labour movement in Nigeria and its allies in other African countries, seeing that this affects the continent as a whole?
Across the continent, all trade unions under the auspices of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), African region, met in Lome, Togo, precisely October 9 and 10, 2017. There, we envisaged that this process is coming. We took our position at that meeting, telling all our national governments not to sign the agreement until some fundamental issues are addressed.
So, all African countries are well aware of our position including civil society groups, because our position was taken in conjunction with them. We played our own part as NLC by advising the President that this is what we have seen concerning this agreement. We expressed our fears, stressed areas where we thought we had comparative advantage. We highlighted certain sections of the agreement that are likely to undermine our national interest. All these decisions were taken at the level of ITUC-Africa within the context of Africa. I am sure South Africa did not sign because COSATU might have raised similar issues like we did.
Our role is to make sure that this information is brought to the public domain and have convocation of dialogue and consultation, with the government taking our views on board. We are very happy this is happening in Nigeria. If it is not happening in other places, it is rather unfortunate. We also know that some countries signed because they are not truly independent and still rely on their colonial masters to lead them. This is what has happened, not that trade unions have not engaged government on the issues.
Is NLC suggesting ways of bridging infrastructural gap in Africa to government, if that is what is hindering trade among African countries as you have pointed out?
Yes, indeed that formed part of our recommendations. We said there is a large deficit of infrastructure across Africa, which is preventing trade from taking place; hence the urgent need by the African governments to tackle it. We need infrastructure that can facilitate integration and trade among African countries. For instance, having a rail line within the West Africa sub-region will boost the economy of the region because movement and trade will be seamless.