The Federal Government of Nigeria on Wednesday, announced the ratification of Nigeria’s membership of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), beating the December 5 deadline.
The news came at the end of a Federal Executive Council meeting held virtually on Wednesday.
“The Federal Executive Council (FEC) today (Wednesday) Ratified Nigeria’s membership of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), ahead of the December 5, 2020 deadline. The AfCFTA Agreement comes into effect on the 1st of January 2021,” a statement from Nigerian government said.
For months, the Nigerian government has been dragging feet on the ratification of AfCFTA, when several other African governments have stepped forward. President Muhammadu Buhari said the government needed to examine the merits and demerits of the agreement before it could pen the approval.
The African Continental Free Trade Area is a new bloc designed to foster intra-African trade. The idea was brokered by the African Union and signed by 44 out of 55 of its member states in Kigali, Rwanda on March 21, 2018.
So far, 30 African countries have deposited their instrument of ratification with the African Union Commission (AUC), and they include most West African states.
Nigeria, as the largest economy in the continent was expected to take the lead, but she was among the last countries to sign the agreement. In July, 2019, when Buhari finally penned down Nigeria’s willingness to become part of the agreement, it was all the continent wanted to hear.
But as other member states welcomed Nigeria to the bloc, the government took a controversial step that stood in the way of AfCFTA and everything it stood for.
In August 2019, the Nigerian government shut its land borders, halting all trade with its West African neighbors, and throwing the chances of implementing the AU trade agreement into jeopardy. It was an unprecedented move that cast more strains on Nigeria’s struggling economy as well as her West African neighbors.
The federal government said it took the step to quell smuggling which was ripping through its economy and enabling free flow of arms to terrorists in the Sahel region and northern Nigeria, and West African states will need to find a way to stop the smuggling before the border could be reopened.
“The Sahel region is awash with small arms, which accounts for severe security challenges in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria. We are in fact the biggest victims,” Buhari said. He also noted that the inflow of rice into Nigeria was undermining the efforts of local farmers, and that the border closure has boosted their earnings.
While local and international condemnation trailed the move, Nigeria’s government adamantly said there is no date for reopening of the borders.
The West African neighbors saw the decision as deliberate punishment that undermines ECOWAS rules. Clement Boateng, National Organizer of Ghana’s Union of Traders Association said that the Ghanaian government needs to enact retaliatory laws to protect its people.
“Nigeria has shown us that when it comes to ECOWAS protocols, they don’t care because they put their citizens first. That is why we think our Ghanaian government needs to implement some of the local laws that can protect the local people, especially regarding the influx of foreigners in the retail trade,” he said.
The lax in enforcement of ECOWAS protocols and the seeming lack of jurisdiction by the African Union to compel Nigerian government to open the borders set some members of the ECOWAS on a vindictive mission. Ghanaian government commenced shutting Nigerian-owned stores in Ghana, and there was rising tension between Benin Republic and Nigeria over the border closure.
As the West African economy nosedived even before the outbreak of COVID-19, AfCFTA becomes the hope of ECOWAS bloc and the rest of the continent as they push to up their economic ante through the creation of intra-African trade that will soar over the current abysmal 16%.
Africa’s $2.4 trillion GDP is currently reeling on the strains of COVID-19 and needs a boost through intra-African trade.
The World Bank has urged African leaders to develop a framework to resolve border issues, as they will be a lot of it when AfCFTA comes into effect.
“The AfCFTA will only succeed if member countries make the regional strategy part of their national policy and proactively address the tensions that arise. Countries should find the sweet spot that reinforces national economic goals and ensures maximum gains from increased integration, looking beyond a static assessment of their priorities,” the World Bank said.
It added that countries need to make the case to their people as to why integration is useful in the long term – this is particularly important in larger countries, which may have greater influence on regional decisions.
The Nigerian government did not comment on border reopening when it announced the AfCFTA ratification, which suggests the borders may likely remain closed when AfCFTA goes into effect in January 2021.