Martins Schultz, the President of the European Parliament minced no words in describing why Europe is enamored of our President, Muhammadu Buhari, so much as to give him the honor of addressing the continent's legislative arm.
The big endorsement President Buhari got is on account of the outstanding wars he has waged so far on corruption and terrorism, wars that have been described as templates for Africa and the rest of the world. Increasingly, he is admired for delivering good governance humbly and honestly.
This given opportunity, as many have noted, was the first time a Nigerian President—and the second African—had addressed the EU parliament.
In his opening remarks, President Buhari did not miss the opportunity of acknowledging this recognition. " I am honoured and humbled by my choice to address this occasion," he told his receptive audience.
Of recent, the EU countries have proved to be reliable strategic partners of Nigeria.
Historically though, Nigeria – EU relations have been cordial, except for the period between 1993 – 1998 when the EU imposed sanctions on the country over the June 12, 1992 election crisis and then the outrageous killing of the activist writer, Ken Saro Wiwa. However, the relations fully normalised from 1999, following the restoration of democratic governance in Nigeria.
The EU has been a pillar of support for the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria, having sent high-powered election monitors to observe all national elections in the country since 1999. The EU monitors' assessment of the successive elections held had served as a barometer for adjudging their success or failure.
By supporting our democratic process including the election that led to the transfer of power from a sitting government to an opposition political party for the first time in our political history, the EU and the international system have given a new hope for Nigeria.
In acknowledging the support of the EU especially in 2015, the President told the parliamentarians that: "Nigerians noted the huge contributions Europe made towards the realisation of acceptable, free and fair elections in our country. Today, I will tell this August gathering that the European investments are beginning to bear fruits. I am one of the returns-on-the European-investments of a democratic Nigeria. Indeed, the present regime is the product of democratic choice consciously made by the people of Nigeria through the ballot box."
In what was perhaps the President's longest speech outside Nigeria so far-he took 40 of the 45 minutes allotted to his address-he spoke about those hair-raising moments when Minister Orubebe seized national and international attention by stopping further announcement of presidential election results at the National Collation Center.
Clearly, if there was any moment that the last administration came close to abrogating the nascent democracy, this was it.
"The drama that took place at the National Collation Centre was a momentarily frightening situation," said the President, as it was "unleashed by desperate agents of the status quo, with the purpose of maintaining their grip on the national resources for their selfish interests.
"The maturity and patience, with which the officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), under Professor Attahiru Jega, handled the matter, saved the struggle for democracy and the huge European contributions. We must thank God that Nigeria survived this drama.
"As I have stated in other fora, the action of Nigeria’s former President, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, is commendable. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, a Presidential Candidate and sitting President, conceded electoral defeat in defiance of calls by strong forces and agents and benefactors of the regime not to do so."
The Europeans have equally been very supportive of Nigeria's war against terror and the ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the victims of the violence in the North-East.
It is noteworthy that the Organization has remained sympathetic and supportive of Nigeria in its efforts to tackle the menace of Boko Haram as it did support the country to tackle the Niger Delta crisis. In the course of these meetings, the EU acknowledged Nigeria’s counter-terrorism efforts and pledged continuous support to the endeavour. As part of such assistance aimed at tackling the root cause of the Boko Haram insurgency in the North, the EU pledged at an earlier meeting to provide intervention targeted at the North to reduce poverty and empower the youth for gainful employment to wean them off the tendency, as was done in the case of Niger Delta in the wake of militancy in the region.
As a leader with a genuine interest to work for the greater good of all peoples and not just about self or national interest, President Buhari showed his acute awareness of the problems, not just facing his own country but Europe as a whole.
His own government, he told the EU countries, is making concerted efforts to address the push-factors that propel migration, especially from Nigeria, as both destination and transit country. "In this year’s budget, the Government has provided for over Five-Hundred Thousand graduate employment in the teaching profession alone. We are equally collaborating with the States and Local Governments, to strengthen Skills Acquisition Centres, in order to train the teeming youth in various vocational skills, so that they can be self-employed, and eventually, become employers of labour. We are also making efforts to diversify the economy, giving impetus to agriculture and solid minerals exploitation, to create wealth and employment."
The President made clear that through support for our democratic process, the EU and the international system have given a new hope for Nigeria.
Now it seems, the EU is saying to Nigeria that it is time to move forwards by boosting trade and investment.
In this regard,there is the big outstanding issue of Economic Partnership Agreements, EPAs, a section of it drawn up between Europe and ECOWAS in succession to the APC (African Pacific Caribbean ) agreement that bound trade relations between Europe and West Africa which has since run out.
The new agreement has been signed by all but two of West Africa's fifteen countries. Nigeria is yet to sign. This is evidently casing frustration with our country in Europe.
The negotiations of the EPAs have achieved some progress, albeit with many fundamental issues still outstanding. The sticking points include the ECOWAS Community levy, Rules of Origin, dispute settlements mechanism, Most Favoured Nations clause, ECOWAS demand on EU for provision of more funds outside the usual sources for the funding of the EPA Development etc.
Nigeria had indicated her reservations due to the fact that signing on to EPAs, in its current form will negate its industrial revolution plan. The industrial plan is aimed at changing the country from an importer of most goods to a manufacturing nation that could meet, at least, its domestic needs. Nigeria also believes that the agreement will undermine the regional economic integration, as it has already created three different trade regimes in West Africa.
In a clear demonstration of apparent frustration with the slow pace of EPA negotiations, which were slated to be completed between periods 2000-2008, the European Commission in 2011 adopted a proposal to amend the Market Access Regulation 1528/2007 governing trade with ACP countries involved in EPAs negotiations. Under the proposal, the EU would end in October, 2016, the existing preferential regime of duty-free, quota free market access to EU markets for ACP countries that have concluded, but not signed or ratified EPAs. It will be replaced by a new recalibrated generalised system of preferences (GSP+) which is designed to cut the number of countries benefiting from EU trade concessions by more than half, to around eighty. Majority of ACP countries, especially those from Africa, will fall victim to this plan, as only the Caribbean countries have so far signed and ratified the EPAs on the platform of their regional group, the CARIFORUM.
The ACP Group views these proposals as a ploy by the European Commission to arm-twist them to rapidly conclude the EPA negotiations, in spite of their legitimate reservations and objections to some of its conditions.
In proposing steps to break the logjam and kick-starting the momentum of negotiations before the 2016 deadline set by the Europeans, President Buhari first laid bare the concerns of the Nigerian businessmen and labour unions before the EU. He said given the mismatch of the two regions (Europe-ECOWAS) in terms of technology and manufacturing experience, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) and Associated Trade Unions in particular have raised concerns over the negative impact of the EPAs on Nigeria’s industrialisation programme. He gave assurance that "Nigeria is working towards addressing her own side of the issues. I'am therefore urging our European Union partners to also address our own concerns to allow for Economic Partnership Agreements that are mutually beneficial and contribute to the prosperity of our people, in the context of our shared values and interest at promoting cordial bilateral trade relations."
One thing clear from these discussions is that although a majority countries in the West African subregion have signed onto these agreements,even where they is perceived to have come short of their domestic, national interest requirements, the Europeans don't seem much impressed. The absence of Nigeria, Africa's largest economy and manufacturing hub of West Africa will make any such agreement a nullity.
Hopefully, the two groups will go back to the drawing board to see how they can achieve accommodation with each other.
Beside the contentious issue of trade, there are various others that had been discussed and agreements signed with the previous administration. Although these are agreements that were well written, they are largely awaiting implementation.
Under the EU’s instrument for stability and peace as part of the security cooperation cited earlier, the sum of ten million euros (€10,000,000) was earmarked in support of Nigeria’s efforts to fight terrorism.
Development programming proposed for the interventions in Nigeria are in the areas of Governance, Health and Resilience in Northern Nigeria and Electricity sectors. This is consistent with Nigeria’s priorities as contained in the Nigeria Vision 20: 2020. In the meantime, the EU has earmarked the sum of 512 million Euros to Nigeria for the three identified programmes and projects listed above.
Following Presidential assent to the legislation prohibiting same-sex relations in Nigeria on 15th January, 2014, the European Union swiftly reacted to the law at two important levels. These were at the level of the European Commission, the executive arm of the Union and at the level of the European Parliament. It must be appreciated of the Europeans that they did not raise this potentially divisive, if not explosive issue in their meetings with President Buhari.
It is also assumed that other issues of concern to them, such as border on child labor and human rights have been left for discussion at consular levels.
At the economic level, Nigeria has remained EU’s major trading partner in the West African sub-region, accounting for about 60% of the region’s external trade with the bloc. However, the trade has largely been limited both in terms of products and destination market, with oil and gas making up about 94% of exports to the EU, followed by agriculture and animal products, constituting 3%. The EU absorbs about 22% of all Nigeria’s exports and it accounts for 25% of Nigeria’s trade, second to the United States. Hopefully, this should witness a rapid increase upon the conclusion of outstanding agreements.
To further deepen relations between both parties, Nigeria under the previous administration and the EU agreed to hold a Political Dialogue annually, to review their relations, to agree on ways and means to strengthen them as well as share perspectives on global issues, developments, with a view to forging common positions on them. The one scheduled for last year did not hold following the transition in the administration of the country.
It is expected that the sixth forum will hold sometime this year, to be hosted by Nigeria.
With new plans to boost investment and trade, experts on the Nigerian side believe that there are strong hopes for growth in the strategic partnership between this country and Europe.
In addition to bringing respect and strength to the country, opportunities such as the one offered the President to address the EU parliament are the building blocks of political and economic development. It is expected that following this address, the legislators will give backing to their heads of government who have since last year received President Buhari's shopping list. Although some have begun meeting up on promises made, Nigeria is still to hear from some others.
The President has an unenviable job at a difficult time but the reception the EU parliament gave home is the type to make the burden fell a little lighter. The last time Nigeria got this type of reception on the international stage would be hard to remember.