When Nigeria failed to occupy a seat at the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) launch in Kigali last year, many asked why a country that has long considered itself a leader in African affairs would not be grabbing the mantle of leadership in a project of this scope and importance.
After all, the country has some form when it comes to regional integration, having been a leader in the establishment of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in 1975. But nearly 25 years later, Nigeria was one of the last countries to sign the CFTA, alongside its tiny neighbour Benin and ahead of Eritrea.
As Africa's biggest economy stalled at the starting gates of the initiative, questions were asked about its reticence. The country has been a key promoter of the initiative since its launch in 2012. Nigeria continued to be closely integrated with the process leading up to the May 2018 Kigali launch and the Federal Executive Council, presided over by the vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, had agreed that Nigeria's signature would be on the agreement at the event.
However, it fell at the final hurdle when lobbying by policymakers, trade unions and local companies led President Muhammadu Buhari and his team to cancel the flight to Kigali, in response to accusations that the government had failed to consult widely enough on the potential impact on the economy. After further consultations and on the advice of local experts, Buhari signed it in July.
Nigeria's central concern is that its market will be flooded by goods from other African countries, which will undermine local manufacturing and agricultural enterprises, many of which are performing well below their potential and may not survive competition.
Countries such as South Africa and Kenya as well as North African states are specific challengers given their relatively high levels of industrialisation and efficient supply chains.
Not much to show for protectionism
The CFTA has highlighted the soft underbelly of Nigeria's protectionist trade policy, which it has employed for decades --without much to show for it. Although the economy has made significant strides in some areas, particularly in services, the successes are few compared to the opportunities the policy has provided.
The share of manufacturing as a percentage of GDP, for example, has lingered at around 10%, rising slightly to 13% in 2018. Economists say that under the right conditions, Nigeria should be able to increase this to over...