The ongoing controversy in Nigeria’s special economic zones is a dicetraction caused by the failure of those in power to put the national interest above the selfish agendas of the few. Read all the news and after the interactions with local and international stakeholders, it is clear that the ministerial committee has become a tool to dismantle and destroy the flourishing Nigerian free zones worth more than $ 30 billion.
Nigeria has always had plans to reform its free zones despite the status quo considered one of the best in Africa. Yet striving for perfection is a great aspiration. And in the free zone sector, two opposing trends have been evident for two decades. The first is the agitation for a single free zone authority for Nigeria under the authority of the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority, NEPZA.
This goes hand in hand with international best practices and this position has been confirmed and projected by successive federal government reports and white papers. There is the second trend, a group’s push to get the son to supplant the father by having an oil and gas free zone from Onne to take responsibility for NEPZA which currently manages around 45 zones in the country.
So far, the crux of the matter is legality and best practice. The Onne Zone (OGFZA) is limited by law to its locality and mandate, but a private cabal has pushed without legal support to illegally extend its coverage. Relying on induced government reports and without amendment to its enabling legislation, Onne zone, a public-private partnership body, has historically embarked on land grabbing, changing its name outside of its law and even by issuing orders that have resulted in ongoing litigation.
Stakeholders had resisted the push from the Onne zone throughout and a bill is currently pending in the legislature to ensure a single free zone authority for Nigeria under NEPZA. This was the genesis of the continued assault on private sector investment in Nigeria’s free trade zones at a time when Nigeria struggles to increase declining foreign direct investment. It all started last year when the private cabal rekindled its drive to subvert free zones by deploying the Minister of Trade and Investment as a voluntary tool.
Apparently, the minister does not seem to be acting alone; it appears that the group enjoys the support of the board of directors and the CEO of NEPZA himself. A ministerial report unilaterally recommended without shameless consultation that Onne Zone take over NEPZA’s mandate against the laws, the interests of investors in the zone, the desire to reduce the cost of governance, Nigeria’s readiness for the AFCFTA regime and the international best practices. The report, through a draft, elicited strong reactions from various quarters.
There are even reports that the trade minister has backed down in a backlash. A group of companies in Kano called Arewa Business Forum were the first to sound the alarm on alleged plots to destroy the Kano Free Trade Zone and other areas to come in the northern part of the country by some. forces within the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment.
In a statement released in Kano and signed by its secretary, Babayako Abdulahi, the forum alleged that there was a plot to stop the ongoing upgrade of the Kano Free Trade Zone when a directive was said to have been issued to stop the licensing of the new project. free zones in the states of Katsina, Jigawa, Kebbi, Kwara and Taraba.
The forum alleged that a cabal within the Federal Ministry of Commerce had devised plots to weaken the North’s efforts to industrialize in its areas of strength by transferring the agency from the Abuja Free Zone to the South-South. in addition to reviewing all of the activities going on in the North. free trade zones. The statement titled: “A Conspiracy Against the North” reads: “We have uncovered ground to hide in the current national crisis to deprive the north of its rights, especially in the area of âânational industrialization within the agricultural value chains.
From late last year to date, the Arewa region has embraced the concept of free zones to address job creation issues in the North. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we heard that a South-South group was plotting to stop these advances from the North. We didn’t take things seriously at first until it was revealed that the Federal Ministry of Commerce was preparing a report to hand over control of the free zone to a south-south body based in the state. of Cross River.
The national body based in Abuja which has supported the North in its process of domestic industrialization is proposed for demolition while the South-South body must take over the national mission. In accordance with this program, the ministry halted the issuance of free zone licenses, especially the five more that northern state governments and people in the private sector have requested.
So far, the ministry has not authorized the issuance of such licenses. This is a serious plot to decapitate the North at a time when its leaders are struggling to deal with the issue of job creation to tame insecurity. âShortly after the declaration of ‘Arewa, investors in the free zones also responded, threatening to start divestment from the zones and calling on the NEPZA board to convene a stakeholder meeting.
In a statement on behalf of investors signed by Yusufu Abdullahi, director, Snake Island Integrated Free Zone Lagos, the proposed reform was described as “a ploy to destroy multi-million naira private investments in free zones,” calling on NEPZA “to call a meeting of stakeholders and investors on the subject.” The staff union took the matter to another level when it petitioned President Muhammadu Buhari, accusing the Minister of Trade and Investment, the Chairman of the Board of Directors and the CEO of the Free trade zone authority in desperate attempt to destabilize free trade zones.
The Minister may have realized the magnitude and implications of the report when news surfaced that he had rejected the committee’s recommendation on the proposed transfer of NEPZA’s mandate to the OG FZA. According to press reports, the trade minister rejected the committee’s report due to emerging reports linking former Vice President Atiku Abubakar to reform proposals as well as alleged corruption allegations rocking the committee.
According to press reports, NEP ZA MD, Professor Adesoji Adesugba said: “It is important for us to understand that NEPZA was created by law of the National Assembly. Reform of NEPZA is certainly not within the remit of the competence of the NEP ZA leadership However, NEPZA is aware that there had been discussions about reshaping government and government agencies for efficiency purposes since the time of Steve Oransaye’s Panel recommendations.
“These discussions, as far as we know, are still ongoing and no decision has been taken or the enabling laws to effect such changes enacted. With regard to the said report of the committee of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and investment, this report has not been officially communicated to NEPZA and at the right time, the position of NEPZA will be conveyed by its board of directors to the authorities â, said the Director General, Professor Adesoji Adesugba. But how to reform the free zone sector.
Here, certain fundamental national interests must be considered as relevant. First, the Onne Zone is a PPP body which by law is limited to the Onne Oil and Gas Zone. Second, investor transactions in free zones have been concluded under NEPZA and cannot be transferred to a non-legally authorized body. Third, investor confidence in Nigeria is shaken by this unilateral anti-business move despite ongoing litigation over the matter.
* Ibrahim, a businessman, wrote from Kano via: [email protected]