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Talking Policy: Okechukwu Enelamah on Global Economics in the Trump Era

As nations like China step up their investment in African infrastructure, countries across the continent have expressed interest in forming a regional bloc to promote economic activity and facilitate international trade negotiations. World Policy Journal editor emeritus David A. Andelman spoke with Okechukwu Enelamah, Nigeria’s minister of industry, trade, and investment, about Abuja’s plans for global economic partnerships and engagement with the Trump administration.

DAVID A. ANDELMAN: I was talking earlier to the president of the African Development Bank, and he was telling me that China is the number-one investor in Africa and that the U.S. isn't really even on the list anymore. Are you concerned about that? Do you see it as a problem or an opportunity?

OKECHUKWU ENELAMAH: There are different types of investments and it’s important to be discerning about them. Infrastructure investments are by their nature very large, and China is extremely interested in financing large-scale infrastructure projects in Africa that run in the tens of billions of dollars. The U.S. is less so, right? But General Electric is working in Nigeria on railway concessions, and we are also working to bring $2 billion in investment into our port. So, it really depends. There is no question that China has shown a lot of appetite for investment in Africa, particularly in infrastructure, which is something we need very much. The Nigerian government sees attracting investment as a very important part of its mission.

DAA: There is a sense that the Trump administration doesn't really recognize Africa. In fact, they don't seem to have any appetite for any foreign involvement unless there is a crisis somewhere in the world. Does that concern you? The State Department is totally understaffed as far as Africa is concerned. Are you concerned that this administration does not understand Africa's needs, desires, and opportunities?

OE: We clearly would like more engagement going forward, but let me say that there are also some good signs. President Trump has sent signals in recent months to African leaders and had a call with the president of Nigeria. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did a lot of work in Africa as the CEO of Exxon Mobile. So the signs and signals seem positive. But like you said, we need more engagement, and we certainly will work toward that.

DAA: Unfortunately, when we see Africa in the press these days it’s usually about problems like Boko Haram and terrorism. How seriously do you see these issues impacting foreign direct investment, the agricultural sector, the development of industry, and so on?

OE: That is an excellent observation, and I'm sure you know the saying that bad news travels faster than good news. One of the challenges for African countries—for governments and for stakeholders who are interested in attracting foreign direct investment—is getting beyond those headlines. They are socially significant, but frankly we need to get beyond them for economic reasons, because investors read the daily media and they watch CNN. I think that’s a real challenge, and it’s important to get the word about what we’re doing and why it’s significant so the bad news doesn’t crowd out all the good work that is going on.

DAA: One of the Asian leaders who spoke at the U.N. General Assembly suggested that regional development blocs need to take up and fill the vacuum that the United States and other developed countries are creating right now. I sense that some of the leading countries in Africa, like Nigeria, are moving to incorporate into larger blocs that could make trade negotiations go more smoothly in places like the EU or China. Do you believe this is happening quickly enough?

OE: There are several points I want to emphasize. The first is that each country—I’ll go even further and say each region—has to factor in its own development, the time it takes to attract domestic investors, and the things that must be done when working with a firm. The second point is that in Africa we’re seeing an increasing appetite for regional integration and regional trade. The continent wants to promote intra-Africa trade because right now we are way below what we would consider acceptable. That will be the case until we have a continental free-trade agreement, which would encourage African countries to trade more among themselves. That would be not only good for Africa but for the world in general. And we still need to create global agreements, which is why we are undertaking domestic reforms that will make it easier to trade and do business internally and in other parts of the world. Those are the priorities of the Nigerian government.

DAA: Do you think countries such as Nigeria are prepared to give up some of their sovereignty for the regional common interest? Many African countries came out of colonial rule within the past century— do you think they’re willing to give up the kinds of freedoms that would be necessary to bring about a real working partnership?

OE: It’s a spectrum, right? Before anything else you need cooperation, you need to have a mutual economic interest in expanding a trade bloc before going all the way to a political union. I think the whole thing is limited to economic cooperation, to working with trade. There is no question that the agreements have to be endorsed by the different countries, and there is no question that ultimately we may travel down the line to a common understanding on other things, but we are in the early stages. Our primary objective is to increase trade, and for that we don't need to give up sovereignty. Trade in Africa is tiny compared to the numbers in Europe. I wouldn’t say organizations like NAFTA require giving up sovereignty; they’re free trade agreements.

DAA: If there was a move toward common currencies I think some questions might develop. There are some common currencies in Africa, but I guess the conversation isn’t really at that stage yet.

OE: That is correct, we have common currency unions such as the West African Bloc, but in general the journeys to create them can be painstaking and long. The goal is to pursue the right strategy of economic cooperation and to do it in a way that respects the sovereignty of the nations.

DAA: You recently attended a series of meetings at the Nigerian Investment Promotion Council. Did you find there was considerable interest in that kind of an entity?

OE: It was a diverse group of people: There were people and multinationals that have already invested in Nigeria, people looking to invest, and everything in between. From all the feedback we got, it was successful—the room was full. I would say that’s as good a response as we're going to get. Now, I'm sure you know that it takes a lot more than just an investment conference to convert an industry. Right now, we simply want people to come and meet with us and other investors in the region, and we want to work with potential investors to translate their interests into initial investments that can produce returns for them and for Nigeria.

DAA: What do you want from the Trump administration? What would you like to see from them that would improve the lives of the Nigerian people, or move along investment and development in Nigeria? Or that would do this for the African continent generally?

OE: Well, we have several initiatives going that we want to preserve or strengthen—for instance, the Africa Growth Opportunity Act. We had a very successful meeting with the new U.S. trade representative a few months ago, and we’re interested in seeing how we can make the Commercial Investment Download, which we signed with the previous administration, work under the current administration. A number of U.S. trade organizations that have worked with us in Africa, like the Corporate Council on Africa, want to promote the shared interests of our countries, our two regions, and we think that’s good. It can be the backdrop of our work with the new government. Frankly, what we want is just to strengthen and deepen our relationship with United States, which right now is in a good place. 

DAA: Do you think that is really going to happen? Trump and Tillerson's first move when they came into power was to slash the development budget considerably. I think Congress is going to reverse that in part, but it doesn't seem like they are off to a very good start compared to what the Obama administration was prepared to do for the continent and particularly for Nigeria. 

OE: I don’t know what the development budget was under Obama and what it is now is with Trump. I do know is that if you look at our strategy domestically and in Africa, we have clearly emphasized trade and investment and building the right sort of regulatory environment for American, European, and Asian interests. I hope the new administration doesn’t slash the development budget, but I also will tell you that whatever happens we're not going to be stuck in a comparison trap, we're going to move on. It’s very important to work with the new administration. We are a government that represents the people, and we want to engage going forward.

DAA: Have you found administration officials who are prepared to engage? If you pick up the phone to call Washington will there be someone on the other end of the line?

OE: My sense is yes. I was with Secretary [of Commerce Wilbur] Ross at the Private Sector Forum and he was very interested and very warm. You have to go beyond rhetoric and engage key people. My sense is that engagement will continue. 

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews.

[Photo courtesy of World Trade Organization

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