Mr. Joe Afolayan is a development consultant with decades of experience in trade related interview. In this interview with newsmen, he insisted that ECOWAS should sanction member states that fail to implement protocols they signed to. According to Benjamin Orisemeke, he also bared his thoughts on Nigeria’s debt debate. Excerpts.
Is the ECOWAS protocol on free trade and movement not an irony considering what Nigerian traders are passing through in Ghana?
I have worked in the sub region and I have realised how difficult it is for other nationals either to trade in ECOWAS member states or move goods across the sub region and it is a serious issue. I am very happy that the National Association of Nigeria Traders is organising this protest over the maltreatment of Nigerian traders in Ghana.
There are complaints over non-implementation of protocols by ECOWAS member states?
ECOWAS member states signed the protocol on free movement way back in 1975. Many member states have refused to really implement. What we have are abuses. Very difficult to move goods around, very difficult for nationals of other countries to live peacefully in those states, harassment have occurred in many places. I saw the way Nigerians were treated in my own time in the Gambia. ECOWAS is a weak organisation, and I think they should do more in relation to having procedures and mechanisms in place to sanction member states that are not adhering to protocols they signed to.
Is it really possible for ECOWAS to sanction its members considering their peculiarities?
Absolutely, they have the power to do so! Once you have agreed to sign the protocol, then you should implement that protocol. And if you area member state and you refuse to implement the protocol that you have signed to, ECOWAS has all the right to sanction that particular member state and that’s why we are trying to see how ECOWAS can be strengthened to be able to have the capacity to sanction member states that don’t adhere to the protocols.
Why use the phrase ‘ECOWAS of meetings’ to classify the sub regional body?
They refer to themselves as ECOWAS of people but I think they are slowly but surely becoming ‘ECOWAS of meetings’. Rather than focus on serious matters and begin to see how they can implement some of the protocols member states have signed. What they tend to focus on is having meetings across the sub region. Today it is Ouagadougou, tomorrow its Accra, you have another one in Cape Verde. They just go round, running around in circles. Some members are beginning to feel that it should focus more on really implementing the protocols that member states have signed to rather than engaging all those needless meetings.
Is it not a way for staff of the body to better their lot?
There are regional bodies in Africa, we have COMESSA, and we have SADC. Thrust me they are doing very well in terms of regional economic cooperation and integration. COMESSA is doing a lot in East Africa in terms of opening up access for free movement of goods and services and even nationals as well. SADC in the Southern region is doing a fantastic work in terms of regional integration. Unfortunately, we cannot compare ECOWAS with those regional bodies. That is why I believe that ECOWAS should step up its game. And for God’s sake, this body was created in 1975, and we need to really begin to see very concrete evidence of what they have been doing. We want them to focus more on infrastructure that would affect access to moving goods freely. We want them to focus on prevailing on national governments to implement the protocols they have signed to. We want them to focus on youth entrepreneurship to see how they can begin to advice member states on how to reduce youth unemployment in the sub region. I mean, those are the kind of serious issues we want ECOWAS to focus on. Government is just an enabler, they are there to basically provide an enabling environment for businesses to flourish. And that is why what NANTS is doing today is right. As a Nigerian national, I should be able to go to Ghana and freely set up my business without any form of harassment. So I believe the Ghanaian should be able to come to Nigeria and freely set up his or her business and become an employer of labour as well as pay his or her taxes to that particular economy. ECOWAS should have policies, programmes to promote those kinds of initiatives; and that is why we are really focusing on that and making sure that ECOWAS step up its game.
Is it not time Nigeria reconsiders it foreign policy on trade in the light of what is happening to Nigerian traders in Ghana?
For me, I have always believed that this is a country that is big in terms of size, big in terms of population and resources. But we have not been able to leverage on the type of power that we have. We provided most of the funding for ECOWAS to fight and end the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and also reconstruction. You would have thought the Nigerian government would have a systematic way of pushing Nigerians who are engineers, teachers, and medical doctors there after things have settled to work in those places. That is what other western or developed countries would do. Not just to spend your money and just walk away. Across the globe not only in the sub region, we provide technical Aid Corp to some of these countries.
What do we get back in return? Do we leverage on what we give them to draw some power. No, we are not doing that. I think it’s time for us to really begin to see how we can leverage on the kind of power we have in size to be a leader that we really should be, not only in Africa but in the world as well.
Is it not asking too much when you talk about focusing on infrastructure considering that many ECOWAS countries are among the poorest globally?
I agree with you. We are surrounded by a lot of countries in economic terms that are classified as Least Developed Countries (LDCs). But even at that, I think in our own way we can begin to see how we can open up roads, railway networks that can cut across the sub region. Infrastructure does not have to be funded by national governments. You can do a Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement in which you bring in international or local financiers to finance the project. And what you’ll do is that they can say ‘look, you have a toll gate, and within 25 years we will be able to recoup our money’. We don’t need ECOWAS to initiate a programme where they will begin to task member states to do this kind of infrastructure. Their own is to reel out policies, be the hub to coordinate this particular initiative to develop infrastructure. Once we develop infrastructure there will be free movement of goods and that will be better for the 350 million people who live in this sub region. Commerce will flourish and there will be economic development because when taxes are paid they will be able to use those taxes to better the lot of their people. So, national governments don’t have to use their money alone. What they can do is to use their capacity to harness infrastructural development.
Instead of borrowing, why don’t national governments attract more private capital to help develop infrastructure?
There are two areas. There are some areas all across the globe that you find national government or sub national governments coming to develop infrastructure. Even in developed economies, national governments have their rail system, their road network. However, people are moving increasingly from that to PPP arrangement. If private sector players see a genuine need to be able to engage those governments I think they will come in. They are here to make money and if they see opportunities, there are laws, you have an enabling environment for them to put their money in infrastructure I think they will put their money to do that. On one hand, government can borrow to develop infrastructure as long as you are not borrowing for consumption, you are not borrowing to pay salaries, and you are not borrowing for things that you will consume. If you are borrowing to develop infrastructure that will have a multiplier effect on the economy that fine but don’t be overburdened by the debt. You should bring private sector players who will bring in their resources as well. Once they find out that there is an enabling environment to recoup their money they will be happy to do that and there are so many private sector players who are doing that across the globe.
There is this fear by private sector about government insincerity in project execution?
I tend to agree! We’ve seen cases like that. I remember the concession given to a company in Lagos on a PPP arrangement on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway that was revoked by the federal government. I don’t know what happened. Dr. Dare Babalakin was also given a concession for Muritala Muhammed 2 airport as well. He did complain about issues relating to PPPs in Nigeria. These are the kind of things that we should look into, to make sure that you have a good enabling environment, an arbitration system, good industrial port system that people can have confidence in. There will be issues but the important thing is for you to have mechanism in place to quickly resolve them. Once private sector players find those kinds of conditions in place; of course they will come in. But if there are issues and bottlenecks people will be reluctant to really put their money down.
Is Nigeria overburdened by debt?
Yes, I think so. I listened to the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, Amina Muhammed, and she was able to eloquently tell us that we are overburdened by debt. At this time we should be very careful because when Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala came she was able to get debt relief for Nigeria. And the money that should have been used to service debt was channeled into infrastructure and back into the economy. The middle class came back. Before 1999, you were either extremely rich or extremely poor. There was nothing in between. All of a sudden you started seeing people getting good jobs, the likes of MTN, Globacom came. People got good jobs; they were paid good salaries. Things were getting better in terms of the middle class. I think right now we are being overburdened and we need to be very careful; not only about external debt but domestic as well as payment to local contractors. I think the debt management office has a responsibility to make sure that debt ratio to GDP is carefully managed.
Is it not a contradiction to always compare our debt to GDP ratio with advanced economies?
It is ridiculous for them to do that. For instance, we are a major oil producer, the same with Norway. Norway has the largest Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) in the world. There are economic shocks or when oil prices are down they have their SWF that they can fall back to for the next 30 years and they will be fine. But we have always been consuming and consuming. And you cannot compare those types of economy who have reserves and they have a large tax base that they can deploy with Nigeria. I think we have to be very careful when we make this kind of comparative analysis.