2022 SBL CONFAB: Nigerian Lawyers Ponder their Prospects Under AfCFTA

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The African Continental Free Trade Agreement came under renewed scrutiny at the 16th Annual International Conference of the NBA Section on Business Law as a high-powered panel considered the various opportunities that abound for the Nigerian Business lawyer desirous of building a profitable and sustainable presence on the Continent, as well as challenges to its effective and sustainable implementation.

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The panel, which comprised of lawyers and other stakeholders invested in the growth of the African economy and the expansion of Nigeria’s footprint across the Continent, made the following observations and recommendations:

  • While acknowledging the barriers and bottlenecks still militating against free trade, it must be noted that Nigerian businesses have already expanded into neighbouring countries – especially in the banking and fintech space as well as in media and entertainment, aviation and the food industry. The trick, the panelists said, is to ensure that Nigerian lawyers are in on the transactions that enable these expansions.
  • The hangover from Africa’s colonial heritage is also an inhibiting factor in free trade – with nations divided into Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone entities. This, according to Rasheed Olaoluwa, is one of the reasons for the failure so far to actualise the eco, the proposed West African common currency, for example. The panelists agreed with Francis Anatogu, another panelist, that perhaps a more feasible project such as a common customs union should be the priority for now. Secondly, there must be a conscious and deliberate effort by all stakeholders to wean Africa – and especially it’s Francophone component – from the umbilical cord of France and other former colonial overlords.
  • Nigerian lawyers need to have accurate and current information about what other economies and jurisdictions are doing at present, and what they are willing to put on the table as far as free trade is concerned. Trade, as Anatogu put it, is not just economics; it is also about cultural understanding and integration, and lawyers must take all this into consideration as they plan their cross-border engagements.
  • A panelist, Muda Yusuf discussed the relative merits of protectionism vis a vis an open, market-driven trade profile, and urged the drivers of the Nigerian economy to consider the production size of things first, in the implementation of AfCFTA. The most important factor in trade, he said, is competitiveness, and an economy is adjudged to be competitive or otherwise according to the strength of its enabling laws and the institutions that enforce and undergird them. For too long, Yusuf lamented, Nigeria has been seen only as a huge market for goods and services from elsewhere. The value of AfCFTA will be in how it helps turn Africa’s largest economy into an investment destination.
  • What dispute resolution mechanism is best applicable to the Kigali Agreement? At present, as explained by Tola Onayemi, there are four ADR regimes under AfCFTA: conciliation, mediation, panel, and an appellate court. This mechanism, like the Agreement as a whole, is subject to review every five years.

All in all, the panel urged the need to engage across sectors, and urged the Nigerian lawyer to think out of the proverbial box as far as exporting his legal expertise is concerned. Another thing the panel emphasised on was the need for cross-partnerships and mergers in order to maximise the economies of scale and other benefits envisaged by the Agreement in the medium and long terms.

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