When I arrived as a doctoral researcher at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva in May 2005, I immediately learned that a Nigerian, Dr Chiedu Osakwe, was a director in the organisation. I sought an audience with him, and we met. He was personable and engaging. I stayed in touch throughout my time at the WTO. Several years later, in 2013, the Commonwealth Secretariat asked me and a colleague at the London School of Economics, Dr Stephen Woolcock, to produce a paper on the WTO Doha Development Agenda. Dr Osakwe, former director of the DDA at the WTO, was one of our go-to persons.
At his office, he welcomed us warmly as he fielded our questions authoritatively. He was intelligent, articulate and eloquent, as he always is. As we left, Dr Osakwe, who has published widely on trade issues, gave us a copy of his most recent article. His insights were helpful as we wrote the paper, which we later presented in London and Geneva at events organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat. The paper is on the reading list for the LSE’s Economic Diplomacy Master’s programme!
I have said all this just to make the point that Dr Osakwe is a great asset to Nigeria and Africa. Few Africans boast his impeccable credentials and wealth of experience in leading and managing the processes of economic and trade policy reforms, and trade negotiations, involving developing countries.
At the risk of boring you with granular detail, let’s consider some of his achievements. In his nearly two decades at the WTO, Dr Osakwe had been special coordinator for the least-developed countries (LDCs), heading the inter-agency working group for the Integrated Framework for LDCs; director, technical cooperation division, delivering capacity-building programmes for developing countries; director, textile division; director, Doha Development Agenda, leading on the DDA negotiation process; and director of the WTO Accession Division, helping several developing countries through the difficult accession process, including negotiations, reforms and technical assistance, for becoming WTO members.
Indeed, Dr Osakwe has traversed the entire universe of global trade governance, covering the technical, policy and diplomatic spectra. It’s a no-brainer: A person of such talent would certainly be sought after by governments and organisations. And, thus, it turned out: a call to serve Nigeria and Africa beckoned!
First, Nigeria. After leaving the WTO and following a stint as an adjunct professor at the International University of Geneva, Dr Osakwe was appointed as trade adviser to the Nigerian trade minister, Dr Okechukwu Enelamah, and later, in June 2017, as Nigeria’s chief trade negotiator and director-general of the newly established Nigerian Office for Trade Negotiations (NOTN), which obviously has his imprimatur, as he helped to birth it.
Then, almost in tandem, Africa called. On 5 June 2017, in Niamey, Niger, the African Union (AU) elected Dr Osakwe as chairman of the Negotiating Forum for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Although the AfCFTA negotiations were launched in 2015, little progress was made for nearly two years. But with Osakwe’s appointment, Nigeria was put at the forefront of the negotiations and tasked to bring the talks to successful conclusion.
International trade negotiations are a function of technical expertise, diplomatic efforts and political will. The first two were fully covered by Dr Osakwe, who is also an ambassador, and the trade minister, Dr Enelamah, who was the chairman of the African Union Ministers of Trade, with responsibility for the AfCFTA negotiations at the ministerial level. The AfCFTA treaty and two annexes on goods and services were agreed at the technical level and approved at the ministerial level by African trade ministers.
Of course, the political end of the spectrum proved more difficult. Ten out of the 54 African heads of state refused to sign the AfCFTA agreement in Kigali on 21 March, with Nigeria and South Africa as the two notable refuseniks. Yet, despite this, we must not underestimate the significance of the two levels of approval that were secured – the technical and the ministerial. They involved building consensus among Africa’s 54 disparate countries, a credit to the negotiators and the trade ministers, led, respectively, by Osakwe and Enelamah!
Well, it’s worth noting that Dr Osakwe went ahead full throttle on the AfCFTA project driven not only by a technocratic zeal, but also by historical and ideational convictions. First, he blames colonialism for the fragmentation of Africa’s economies and sees AfCFTA as “an unravelling process”. As he put it in November 2017, AfCFTA “is about shedding the colonial legacy of a divided continent and fragmented markets”. Secondly, he is convinced about the huge geo-political implications of AfCFTA as, potentially, the largest free trade area in the world, given Africa’s population, estimated to be about 4bn in 2050 and its GDP, which, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), could reach $29 trillion by 2050. Then, thirdly, he believes AfCFTA would help Africa to be fully integrated into the global economy, into global value chains.
But is Osakwe like Hannibal, who won battles but lost the war, given that Nigeria, his own country, refused to sign the AfCFTA treaty? Well, the converse, I would say, is true. He won the war but lost some battles. I will analyse the AfCFTA agreement and give my view on its scope in another column. But I can say, even now, that it is hugely significant, indeed epochal, that, for the first time, Africa has a free trade agreement, signed by 44 countries. If the agreement is ratified by the requisite number of countries and enters into force, it could take on a life of its own, just as other trade agreements in history, such as the old GATT, that started off rather inconsequentially but, as they gained more acceptance, became very successful: great oaks from little acorns grow! So, Dr Osakwe may have lost some battles, he seems to have won the war!
Yet, let’s face it, Nigeria’s refusal to sign the AfCFTA agreement is extremely embarrassing. Nigeria has, at least symbolically or rhetorically, been at the forefront of efforts to integrate Africa economically. Think of the 1980 Lagos Action Plan for an African common market or the 1991 Abuja Treaty establishing the African Economic Community. What’s more, a Nigerian was the chairman of the Negotiating Forum for AfCFTA and Nigeria’s trade minister was responsible for the AfCFTA negotiations at the ministerial level. Nigeria was even bidding to host the AfCFTA Secretariat. Yet, when it came to the underlying trade-liberalising agreement, Nigeria retreated! Why? Well, I will adduce three reasons.
First is the failure of Nigeria’s new negotiating body, NOTN. Obviously, Dr Osakwe could not effectively be, simultaneously, Nigeria’s chief negotiator and chairman of AfCFTA’s Negotiating Forum. But, apparently, while he was building consensus across Africa for AfCFTA, none in NOTN was managing the domestic political side of the negotiation in Nigeria. Any serious trade negotiating body must have political strategists, who actively manage the domestic politics through proactive public outreach and engagement with critical stakeholders, including the media. According to the famous negotiation theorist, Robert Putnam, every international negotiation is a “two-level game”, played at the domestic and international negotiating tables. And, as another negotiation expert, John Odell, puts it: “If negotiators take the domestic political landscape for granted, they can step on a landmine”. Nigeria’s AfCFTA negotiators took the domestic political landscape for granted!
But here is the second reason for Nigeria’s behaviour. There is a strong protectionist sentiment in Nigeria, so strong that even if there was proactive public outreach, it probably wouldn’t have mattered.
Finally, there is lack of political will. President Buhari is a Marxist, who instinctively believes that capitalism and free markets are a conspiracy against the poor. So, it’s not surprising that he impetuously ducked out of attending the AfCFTA signing event in Kigali. As The Economist rightly said, “Free trade runs counter to political currents in Nigeria”, and Buhari provides political cover for the anti-free trade sentiments.
Yet if AfCFTA succeeds, if it leads to one African market, well, while Nigeria missed the historic significance of being among its first signatories, a Nigerian, Dr Chiedu Osakwe, would go down in history as the architect of Africa’s economic unification. A great honour indeed!