By Fumnaya Ijeh

Infrastructures play crucial roles in the development of any country’s economic growth. They improve mobility, efficiency, and productivity of labour. 

The poor state of infrastructure is the bane of Nigerians doing business within the African Continental Free Trade Area, AfCFTA, and this is hindering business owners and traders from benefitting fully from the AfCFTA.

Robert Lubem Aboh, in an interview with African Leadership Magazine, talks about what Nigeria would do to improve infrastructure for it to enjoy the maximum benefit of the AfCFTA.

Robert Lubem Aboh is a trained Statistician with an advanced background in Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems, GIS.

Lubem currently runs a Start-Up called *Agritech and Social Innovation Hub Nigeria* where he promotes innovative Agriculture through capacity building training and other technical and practical services as well as propagates other aspects of social Innovation such as fostering an environment for the practical implementation of the United Nations sustainable development goals within grassroots communities in his locality.

He also promotes data-driven agricultural programs, research, other agricultural investments, and most importantly anchors, facilitates, and championed the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area in Benue State and Nigeria at large.

Interviewer:  Looking at your portfolio, you said you were among those that championed the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

Tell us more about this AfCFTA, especially from the Nigerian angle, and how you played.

Robert Lubem: Yes, since the official start of the AfCFTA in 2021 we have been on course to engineering its full implementation here in Nigeria.

The main objective of the AfCFTA agreement is to promote export trade, deepen the economic integration of the continent, create a single market for goods and services with free movement of Africans and investments among member countries.

This agreement seeks to eliminate more than 90 percent of tariffs and reduce non-tariff barriers to enhance intra-African trade and form the foundation of the establishment of a continental customs union, thereby creating the largest single market in the world with over 1.2 billion people.

For Nigeria, the AfCFTA will re-energize our country’s aspirations for industrialization and position Nigeria as the destination market for goods and services of the highest standards. It is said that over 80 percent of imports in Africa are sourced from Europe, Asia, and the Americas, imagine redirecting such huge numbers back to the African market.

It’s a good thing the federal government of Nigeria has shown commitment to the AfCFTA by first being among the early countries to ratify the agreement and also setting up a National Working Committee. In a statement credited to the Secretary of the committee, Mr. Francis Anatogu, the first of the strategic goals in the implementation plan is to grow the export capacity of every state to the tune of $1.2 billion with a focus on products where there is a competitive advantage.

There is, therefore, a need to ensure that all groups and relevant stakeholders are aware of the foundation being laid by the Apex government and their readiness to support a single vision and strategy between federal and state governments, to push the AfCFTA agenda in Nigeria.

But even as we speak how many State Governors have been able to set up a technical committee for the AfCFTA in their States?

We need buy-in by the states, local governments, private individuals, and other relevant bodies to ensure Nigeria takes advantage of this important agreement, especially as the Giants of Africa, because without trade we cannot go far as a nation. All governors have a mission to make their state an integral and initial link in a value chain for the AfCFTA. One that starts in their state and ends in another continent with the benefits leading to growths in internally generated revenue of the state.

Interviewer: Good to know the Nigerian government had set up a National Committee. So far, how has the impact of this committee been felt?

Robert Rubem: Well, in my opinion, The National Action Committee for the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement in Nigeria started on a good note by first developing a national strategy for the AfCFTA implementation. their strategy was okay for me because it covered three thematic areas that summarize the AfCFTA generally which include: trade in goods, trade in services, and trade enablement. Their strategy also covers how Nigeria’s export volume can double by the year 2030 and as well identifies key sectors, services, and products which could be Nigeria’s trademark in Africa. The committee has also done well by summarizing according to ‘The Book of States’ every state’s strength as to what they can offer in contributing to the AfCFTA implementation at their regional levels.  However, my reservation about the committee’s efforts so far has to be first the pace of implementation, considering the many advantages that abound within the AfCFTA one would have expected the committee to be more proactive in their implementation programs so that Nigerians can begin to benefit more. Also, there is no structure or system to hold states and another organized private sectors on AfCFTA implementation accountable for their lack of zealousness towards the implementing strategy of the National Action Committee. Lastly, More can be done in terms of general awareness and towards ensuring that the impact of this agreement is felt within the rural communities.

Interviewer: You mentioned that most states have not set up a technical committee for the AfCFTA in their states, what then can be done to make them proactive in this area so that no state will be left behind.

Robert Lubem: Simple, Hold the Nigerians governors forum accountable; set deadlines and penalties. The states form part of the whole, and according to the book of states, there is a lot each state can contribute in terms of goods, services, and even skills so that the AfCFTA can thrive. There should also be routine monitoring and evaluation of performance indicators at various state levels to observe and follow up with what the states are doing in line with the National Action Committee’s strategy.

Interviewer: Very well.  Talking about structures, let’s look at how the Nigerian government could improve on its infrastructure to fully benefit from the AfCFTA. What’s your opinion on this?

 

Robert Lubem: You see… quality structures or if you like infrastructure is basically the foundation for development. Structures contribute to a government’s policy objectives in areas including industrial development, trade competitiveness in global markets, efficient use of natural and human resources et al. working structures are an indispensable element in economic integration, which is what the AfCFTA is all about. Poor infrastructural development poses a threat to the AfCFTA. For example, if the seaports in the Gambia are all functional and digital, and the seaports in Lagos are still run manually, the rapport between the two systems will obviously not be spontaneous 

Lack of adequate capacity to provide quality assurance services by public institutions, the inability of industries to meet target market standards, and unaffordable costs of compliance with international standards will be the main development challenges here. A country’s infrastructure should go along with its GDP. If Nigeria must meet its current drive to find ways to encourage and improve alternatives to oil as export products, attention needs to be given to quality infrastructures such as product testing laboratories, development of seaports, cargo ports, and other basic infrastructure. There should also be comparative research to study quality infrastructure in other African countries through its standards enforcement agencies, to observe what needs to be improved upon for the AfCFTA to thrive. It is relative to say that strong institutions (which of cos are part of structures) or lack of them as well as basic infrastructure or lack, will greatly improve, impede, slow down, discourage or encourage the success of the implementation of the AfCFTA agreement in Nigeria.

 

Interviewer: Speaking of standards, we know that lack of quality standards has over time been a problem for many of our entrepreneurs as most of their products do not meet up the standards for export. What then should we focus on as a country to make sure we meet up with standards to make our goods marketable even on the continental stage?

Robert Lubem: About this, I would say it’s a result of a lack of strong institutions. There are institutions in place already that are supposed to oversee this very issue. Look at the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, look at the trade unions, Look at the Standards Organization of Nigeria.  All these institutions have a mandate. These institutions should ordinarily have schedules that bring them closer to the people, train them, to prepare them on international best practices so that we can also begin to favourably compete in product quality. Now that the AfCFTA agreement is providing the market, more needs to be done to improve the quality of our goods and services so that we can also be able to export.