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Nigeria: Unions Seek Ways Out of Cotonou Pact Dilemma

Unions Seek Ways Out of Cotonou Pact Dilemma

Vanguard, Lagos

6 May 2004

Victor Ahiuma-Young

AS the impact of the trade agreement between the disadvantaged African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries on the one hand, and the advantaged European countries on the other hand, known as Lome 1-4 Agreements between 1975 and 2000, and the new agreement called "Cotonou Agreement" signed on June 23, 2003 between the developing countries of 77 ACP and European Union (EU).

The issue of how governments of the ACP countries have continued to recklessly enter bilateral and multi-lateral trade agreements without consultations at home and in most cases, discreetly, not minding the repercussions to their countries, trade unions in Nigeria have become restive and worried about the seemingly nonchalant attitude of government towards the crippling effects of agreements like Cotonou Agreement and taking bold steps to correcting the errors of the past.

It was the National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN) in 2002, during the union’s educational programme held in Abuja, that first drew the attention of the nation to the negative impact of the Lome agreement.

Until then and even now, most Nigerians, including government officials that signed the agreement, are perhaps unaware of the implications of the agreement. Another union, the National Union of Chemical, Footwear, Rubber, Leather and Non-Metallic Products Employees (NUCFRLANMPE) whose sector is almost caving in on to the WTO agreement on free trade and globalisation of trade, has taken the initiative to begin a process of sensitising the public and government on the need to critically look inward and put the survival of Nigeria above other considerations .

The union suggests a patriotic agenda for Nigeria when a new agreement will be signed in 2008. For a second time in less than two months, NUCFRLANMPE has organised a workshop on the Cotonou agreement. In collaboration with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), this latest workshop on "Cotonou Agreement and Trade Unions" took place in Akure, the Ondo State capital, and was attended by representatives of unions affiliated to Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) and Congress of Free Trade Unions of Nigeria (CFTU).

Addressing participants at the opening ceremony, Trustee of NLC and President of NUCFRLANMPE, comrade Moses Gbadebo, said Nigerians should not be surprised that government officials were ignorant of the agreement and the magnitude of the problem the agreement posed to Nigeria’s quest for development and industrialisation and lamented that government officials have continued to ignore or shun gatherings where issues like this are discussed. "Comrades, some of you may be wondering why government officials are not here to discuss this important issue. Yes, they signed the agreement, but he who wears the shoes knows where it pinches.

At the last workshop we held in March, two top government officers who should be concerned were invited. One told us he was coming, but never came and the other told us point blank that he was not coming. Again, some of them were also invited, but you can see, none is around. These things do not surprise us because, most of them are ignorant of the implications of these agreements. All they do is just sign and enslave the country.

This particular ( Cotonou)agreement, like the WTO, those that signed it last year, do not know what it entails and the impact on our push towards industrialisation and development. Agreements like this and the WTO have continued to undermine our sector, the Textile, Food and Beverage, Shop and Distributive sector and in fact, the manufacturing sector in the country. Workers have been at the receiving end as thousands of them have either been thrown out of employment, or engaged as casual or contract workers.

Since the government which created the problem in the first place, has not shown enough political will to confront the matter, labour decided to take the initiative on how to tackle the crippling and devastating effects of these multi-lateral trade agreements like WTO and Cotonou agreement". "We are being asked to continue to open our borders to allow them turn our country into a dumping ground, increase their productive capacity, reduce unemployment in their countries while undermining our productive capacity, industrialisation drive, compound the unemployment situation in the country and make us their perpetual slaves.

The question is how sincere are these Europeans to the agreement which involved two unequal partners, where one dictates what happens to the other partners? The agreement is already there, so what we should do is to proffer solutions and ways to salvage the situation so that we can regain the jobs that have been lost, reopen the factories that have closed and revive our quest toward industrialisation".

In his remark, the General Secretary of NUCFRLANMPE, Comrade Emma Ugboaja, told the participants that the Cotonou Agreement represented a policy direction between the ACP countries and the EU and lamented that it was unfortunate that most people in Nigeria were ignorant of the agreement that had been in place since 1975 and was being reviewed every five years to the detriment of the ACP countries. "The truth is that the EU needs us for their raw materials and their finished goods. They seek unrestricted entrance of their products into our market and to continue to enslave us. So, we are here to form labour’s agenda on how to tackle the problem of Cotonou agreement. The idea is to bring our trade union’s experience to bear on seeking ways out of the agreement. If need be, to bring a wider spectrum of the society to put pressure on our government to put an end to this rape on us".

The Project officer of FES, Mrs Remi Iherijika, in her address commended unions for their responses to the workshop and noted that the workshop was important because the issue being discussed affected participants as individuals and their respective industries. "We bear the brunt of this agreement signed by our government whether knowingly or unknowingly. We have to seek a platform to ensure that our government does not just sign any bilateral or multi-lateral agreement without the input of stakeholders and the larger society because it is we that suffer the negative effects of these agreement and not the government. The government only signs and implements".

Delivering a paper on the Historical Appreciation of the Nigerian Foreign Trade Policy and Implications for Trade Unions, a fellow of the United Nations University, Mr. Emeka Iheme, said there seems to be no clear and consistent policy on import prohibition and the implication of this is that Trade Unions lost many jobs through the closure of several industries and the union membership on the whole stagnated if not declined even as new jobs have not been created as fast as expected and the rate of employment has continued to rise. "Policy makers in Nigeria have failed to work out a dependable way of ensuring that Nigeria is able to organise itself and earn from the rest of the world the money that it needs to buy things from the rest of the world.

This is the implication of our continued dependence on oil, a natural resource that generates revenue for us without any effort or exertion on our part. Our industries, founded on the lazy philosophy of import-substitution, and highly dependent on external sources for equipment, spare parts and raw materials, are ill prepared for the realities of the export market. Fundamentally, also, our system of education has failed to produce people with useful or adequate skills.

Some of the people that passed through our educational system are unemployable because of no skill acquisition. As a result, our army of unemployed have taken to crimes and other vices". "Apart from issues of poor implementation, the reform measures introduced since 1986 do not seem to have gone far enough in bringing about an economic re-orientation, a new way of ensuring that we harness our manpower resources and begin to export to the world what it requires so that we can pay the world for what we need and cannot advantageously produce.

Nigerians should become less ignorant; they should seek to understand the economic forces of the world, so that they can be part of the cause rather the effect. This is the simple way to articulate the need for a sound foreign trade for Nigeria. I have no doubt that an effective trade policy will result in full employment, and full employment will give a boost to trade unionism".

In his paper on "Issues of Concern to Trade Unions in Cotonou Agreement and Economic Partnership Agreement and the Need for Social Partnership", human rights activist, Mr. Femi Aborisade, highlighted a few opportunities inherent in the ACP\EU agreement and noted that it expressed commitment to respect for human rights, including basic labour rights, taking account of the principles laid down in the relevant conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), democratic principles, the rule of law, good governance, the maintenance and consolidation of a stable and democratic political environment, security, healthcare, infrastructure, education, transparency, and others ingredients of good governance.

"Improvement in the coverage, quality of and access to basic social infrastructure and services, taking into account local needs and specific demands of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, thus reducing the inequalities of access to these services. Special attention shall be paid to ensuring adequate levels of public spending in the social sectors. As spelt out in Article 25 of the Agreement, cooperation shall aim at: Improving education and training, and building technical capacity and skills, improving health systems and nutrition, eliminating hunger and malnutrition.

Ensuring adequate food supply and security, Integrating population issues into development strategies in order to improve reproductive health, primary health care, family planning, and prevention of female genital mutilation, promoting the fight against HIV\AIDS, increasing the security of household water and improving access to safe water and adequate sanitation, improving the availability of affordable and adequate shelter for all through supporting low-cost and low-income housing programs and improving urban development and encouraging the promotion of participatory methods of social dialogue as well as respect for basic social rights."

"As provided in article 26 of the Agreement, Cooperation shall also support the establishment. Cooperation shall support policies measures and operations aimed at protecting the rights of children and youth, especially those of girl children, promoting the skills, energy, innovation and potential of youth in order to enhance their economic, social and cultural opportunities and enlarge their employment opportunities in the productive sector, Helping community-based institutions to give children the opportunity to develop their physical, psychological, social and economic potential: and reintegrating into society children in post-conflict situations through rehabilitation programmes.

Mr Aborisade added that the Agreement also expressed commitment to the fight against corruption. "All of the above principles contained in the Agreement are worth fighting for. Therefore, the Agreement has armed the trade unions and their allies in the civil society, standards with which to measure the performance of governments in the course of fighting for the welfare of the vulnerable groups in the society. It is important to appreciate, however, that those pro-poor measures in the Agreement will not be implemented if left to the state alone. Indeed, their incorporation is more to induce the support of the poor classes for the Agreement because the logic of the fundamentals of the Agreement negates implementation of any welfarist programmes."

"Trade unions and other Organisations of the working class should seize the advantage of the international character of the Agreement and universalisation of the down sides to build international movements to put an end to a world of injustice. In particular, unions are encouraged to build the Nigerian social forum as a part of the World Social Forum as a counter force to the world Economic Forum in the aspiration to build a new world based on enjoyment of fundamental freedom".

In a paper on Exploring the Cotonou Agreement: Assessment and Critique, executive director, Socio Economic Rights Initiative, Mr. Eze Onyekpere, noted that the Cotonou Agreement has been described as a no-win situation for Africa and what could be done is mere damage limitation, stressing that all hope is not lost. " The rapid integration and enhanced cooperation in Africa and other ACPs may help in sustaining the tempo of whatever gains have been made by ACPs at the multilateral level.

There is the need for ACP countries to insist on negotiating the substantial issues for the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) at the ACP level rather than region as proposed by the EU. Civil society must take up the challenge of understanding the issues (no matter their complexity) and engage more meaningfully as stakeholders contributing to government’s negotiating position.

The challenge is to build large constituencies while engaging in policy work". "Development cannot be imported and imposed. It is a peoples’ work in progress constantly responding to the dynamics of the changing society, its needs, expectations and demands of other nations. The challenge is for us to enthrone and deepen democracy and thereby start the construction of the basis of our development. Capacity building, economic development with social equality and technological development hold the key".