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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

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21 February 2000

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 1, No. 6

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Kubi, Nigeria and Free Trade with Africa

by Jerome F. Winzig

As this column goes to press, my wife is on her way to Nigeria with four other Lutherans for a 12-day mission-oriented visit. For her and another member of our congregation, a highlight of the journey is a visit to our sister congregation in Kubi (Kobi), a small village in eastern Nigeria that is within walking distance of Cameroon. The sojourn -- the second for members of our small congregation -- is not a tourist expedition. The group will travel mostly by van. There are no paved roads that lead to Kubi, which is quite remote and not on many western maps of Nigeria. Kubi lacks the utilities most Americans consider basic: electricity, telephone, water, and natural gas.

Perhaps the connection between this visit and free trade with Africa is not obvious. After all, the material contrasts between our neighborhood and Kubi and between the United States and Nigeria are enormous. But it is precisely those contrasts that make free trade an issue of justice and fairness. And those same contrasts provide African nations with the ability to compete and succeed in the world market.

Packed in my wife's suitcase is a supply of lead pencils, colored pencils, small pencil sharpeners, and lined paper for the children of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria, Kubi District. These modest gifts are items not readily available in rural areas in Nigeria. But when I went to a local office products superstore to purchase these gifts, I walked past displays of computers, printers, copiers, fax machines, cash registers, and cell phones. There were lots of electric pencil sharpeners, several kinds of wall-mountable crank-style sharpeners, and quite a few battery-operated sharpeners. But there were so few of the hand-held sharpeners that I had to go to a second superstore to find enough.

The spiritual and religious contrasts are not as great. If anything, Christianity is more alive and vibrant in Nigeria than it is in the United States. The country as a whole is 35 percent Christian, and Christians make up more than three-fourths of the population in the eastern states. A Nigerian Catholic bishop has even been mentioned of late as a possible candidate for the next pope.

All this is to say that the differences between the people of the United States and the people of Nigeria -- and the rest of Africa -- are not as great as some Americans might think. So what accounts for the vast differences in income and prosperity?

One important reason is the lack of access to world markets, and in particular, to U.S. markets. According to U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers in 1997, only 1 percent of total U.S. trade is with Africa. He also estimated that trade protectionism cost the region about $11 billion a year in lost trade, far more than all U.S foreign aid to the region.

Asian countries that have had access to U.S. markets have been able to use their material contrasts with the United States to their advantage, improving their domestic economies while providing low-cost products that have benefited the U.S. standard of living. As a result, countries such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and others are far better off than they would have been without freer trade. The same thing is already underway in Latin America and in Eastern Europe. Check the labels on your clothes some day, and you will find that most labels are from China, South Korea, Thailand, Guatemala, Honduras, and Malaysia, to name a few.

But Africa is an exception, in large measure because of U.S. protectionist legislation against African imports. In 1998, a Republican-backed Africa trade bill, the Crane-Lugar bill on sub-Sahara Africa, narrowly passed the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill stalled at that point because Democrats, Republicans, labor unions, environmental organizations, and business interests in the United States each insisted on various provisions that had little to do with free trade.

Republicans vigorously insisted on provisions that would force African countries to submit to harsh strictures of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), even though the IMF's track record indicates it has done more harm than good in countries such as Indonesia, Russia, Malaysia, Thailand, and South Korea. The U.S.-backed IMF, of which most Americans are ignorant, is not very popular in many countries. When our son was in Korea as a student in 1997-98, he noticed it was common to see "because of IMF" signs around Seoul as businesses were forced to liquidate their inventory at a loss because of IMF measures.

Democrats just as vigorously argued for provisions that would require additional foreign aid to Africa, even though it is not at all clear that foreign aid significantly benefits the people of the countries that receive it. One amendment proposed a ten-year ban on any reductions in foreign aid to sub-Saharan Africa. Democrats also argued that the U.S. government should pay off much of the debt of African nations, even though the chief beneficiaries might be American banks that made ill-conceived loans to corrupt governments.

U.S. textile and apparel manufacturers refused to go along with eliminating U.S. protectionist provisions against Africa. The American Textile Manufacturers Institute said that African states where workers' salaries average $490 were a serous threat to U.S. industry, even though sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 1 percent of U.S. textile and apparel imports, or $383 million per year out of a total of $46 billion. By contrast, illegal transshipments from China through other countries alone accounts for between $4 billion and $8 billion in U.S. textile imports each year.

U.S. labor unions lobbied that any reductions in U.S quotas against Africa should be contingent on African countries meeting American standards for labor laws, workers' rights, and environmental protections. However, in 1997, Chitmansing Jesseramsing, Mauritious' ambassador to the U.S., asked, "How can the United States tell countries in sub-Saharan Africa that they have to liberalize their markets, allow unions, balance their budgets and have elections, but deny people the right to work only because a few members of Congress from the Carolinas are worried about votes?"

Environmental groups argued vociferously against reducing U.S. trade barriers against Africa. Ralph Nader said it represented "the corporatisation of American foreign policy vis-a-vis Africa" and Friends of the Earth argued it would promote industries such as mining, logging, and export agriculture. But Ambassador Roble Olhaye of Djibouti argued in 1998 that the proposed legislation "is designed to help African countries gradually shift from dependence on foreign assistance [to trade] based more on the private sector and market incentives. As such, [the bill] merely continues an approach that has been initiated by Africans themselves."

It is peculiar, if not tragic, that the United States today wishes to deny to African countries the opportunity to raise their standard of living, even though the manufacture of low-cost textiles in this country once helped raise America's standard of living and helped it catch up to European countries. Perhaps all parties to this discussion should look beyond their narrow, short-term self-interests to consider that a just solution which truly opens U.S. markets to African imports is in the long-term self-interest of both Africa and the United States. It could mean that, some day, the Christians and Muslims that farm the fertile land in Nigeria might export food as well as oil. Maybe one day it will even benefit our brothers and sisters in Christ in Kubi.

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