On 21 March in Kigali, 44 African countries signed an agreement to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA).
Mahamadou Issoufou, president of Niger, has been leading the negotiations for two years. In this interview, he talks to African Business about how the CFTA will foster greater growth in Africa, the progress being made in reaping the demographic dividend in his country and security issues.
Was it easy for you to mobilise your peers in various African countries?
Yes, because most of the leaders already wanted to create a free trade area in Africa. It is quite normal that there were discussions. The main thing is that we managed to find a compromise on all the points raised.
Was convincing them all to sign the agreement easy?
Yes, I would say that it was relatively easy. I took over responsibility for the negotiations in January 2016. In a short time we reached some major agreements: the framework agreement on the free trade area, the understanding on trade in goods, the understanding on trade in services and on the settlement of disputes. Of course, the negotiations are not yet complete, other understandings will be needed and we will have to conduct another round of negotiations. However, this is already an extremely important outcome and it serves as a basis for discussions between heads of state.
Some countries have been a little reluctant, like Nigeria, which is hesitating to sign the agreement. Is that a bad sign?
Nigeria very definitely wants to embrace the free trade area. However, the state still needs to run an awareness-raising campaign to win over public opinion in Nigeria, particularly the big players in the economy. I recall that when I presented my last report in a private meeting with the heads of state, that the Nigerian president expressed strong support for the conclusions of the negotiations on the four agreements. It is now up to the people to buy into the continental free trade agreement.
The next step will be ratification – each country has its own procedures – and for that we have set a timetable that will probably end in January 2019; a minimum number of ratifications must be reached for the agreement to come into effect.
In practice, what does a free trade area mean for a country like Niger?
The same as for other African countries. A free trade area means more integration, more growth for the whole continent, because it will allow more intense trade between Africans. Today, this category of trade represents 17% of total trade on the continent. What’s more, an African free trade area means more exports to other continents. So, more growth.
A continental free trade area means more consumption; we are organising a single integrated market of over 1.2bn people. That also means more investment, because we are creating the conditions to attract capital into the continent. In turn, perhaps, that will lead to less imports as the area will enable the creation of value, the transformation of commodities that have so far been exported such as raw materials and it will make import substitution possible. Finally, we must never forget that a free trade area is also an integrated labour market as well as a financial market on a continental scale. There is nothing but benefits for Niger, as for all the African countries that have decided to join.
Niger has one of the highest birth rates in the world. How do you plan to transform this population explosion into a demographic windfall?
We have a programme and we are following it. The demographics of our country are not a handicap, on the contrary it is an opportunity if we make good use of it: 75% of the population is under the age of 25. So, how can we seize the opportunity? We must educate, train, care for and create jobs for young Nigeriens. But beyond that, we are concerned about creating the conditions for demographic transition, because Niger has a high birth rate. Annual population growth rate of 4% and doubling of the population every 18 years is simply not sustainable in the long term.
We are focusing on education, particularly for girls, in order to keep them in school for as long as possible and end underage marriages and pregnancies. In that way, we will reduce the birth rate and population growth. We also have a robust reproductive health policy to encourage men and women to realise that there needs to be more time between births, not only in Niger, but everywhere.
Your country is a member of the Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) project. What have the results been so far?
We have received resources from the United Nations and the World Bank that are used for education, mainly for girls. We raise the awareness of opinion leaders – whether they are traditional chiefs or religious leaders – about demographic issues, so SWEDD is extremely positive for the population.
Concerning migrants, your country is on the front line when it comes to regulating the flow. How is the region doing on this issue?
Two years ago, we developed and implemented a plan in Niger to combat illegal immigrants. Niger is essentially a transit country. Before implementation, 150,000 migrants came through Niger to Europe every year. Today, in 2018, the figure is closer to 5,000 migrants. Since 2015, we have had a legal framework to combat illegal immigration and we have also taken measures against the traffickers.
And what about security?
You are aware of the threats. The situation in Libya is chaotic and needs to be resolved quickly. This needs to be addressed by the international community. As for the situation in Mali, we have created the G5 Sahel Joint Force (Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad and Niger). Our forces are carrying out excellent work in the north of Mali and have scored quite a number of victories over the terrorists. In the Lake Chad basin we are faced with the threat from Boko Haram; the combined force from four countries (Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger) is also doing a good job. Boko Haram still poses a threat, but has been considerably weakened.