It is necessary to reflect on the broader importance of the National Trade Negotiations Council (NTNC). It replaced the National Committee on World Trade Organisation, which undertook multilateral trade consultations and negotiations with inadequate attention paid to regional and bilateral trade.
NTNC has a broad membership drawn from the government, civil society and the private sector. It can also co-opt members or appoint nominees on specialised aspects.
Its terms of reference are also expansive. They include co-ordinating with inter-government bodies on trade-related issues at bilateral, regional, inter-regional and multilateral levels.
NTNC is also required to provide guidance on trade disputes, participate in East Africa Community trade policy reviews undertaken by the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, and participate in outreach programmes involving the business community regarding export-readiness.
NTNC is chaired by the Trade principal secretary. Housed by the State Department of Trade, NTNC secretariat has several key functions.
Apart from mobilising resources, organising meetings, and following up on trade matters, it must prepare terms of reference for studies, research and analysis, implement a communication strategy, disseminate information on policy developments, and facilitate public awareness on matters related to domestic and international trade.
As NTNC sets about the task of developing its work plan, several important issues must be considered.
First, it must outline an appropriate response to current issues and challenges. In the EAC, Kenya has experienced trade disputes with Tanzania regarding cooking gas, and recently saw the destruction of chicks and the impounding and auction of livestock.
In Comesa, Zambia has restricted imports of Kenyan milk products on grounds they contain high bacteria levels which are beyond the country’s required standards.
Further afield, Kenya has huge trade imbalances with fellow WTO members China and India. NTNC should also move quickly and establish specific working groups.
One such working group could provide insight on means of capitalising on intra-African trade. There is no doubt of the potential benefits of the Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) to Kenya’s business community and professionals in terms of new markets and unprecedented business opportunities.
The working group could work alongside government negotiators and highlight concrete opportunities to raise the visibility of Kenyan goods and services, using mechanisms such as the Kenya E-Trade Portal.
Similarly, there is need to identify opportunities to get value from trade relations with key trading partners.
In the wake of uncertainty over the Brexit vote, NTNC must suggest opportunities to continue to actively engage with the EU and fill any void created. Similarly, there is need to seek trade and investment agreements with a post-Brexit Britain.
Similarly, NTNC would need to find ways of redressing trade imbalances. For instance South Africa exported to Kenya $423 million (Sh43.5 billion) in goods in the first eight months of 2017, up 34 per cent from the amount exported in a similar period in 2016. By contrast Kenya exported a mere $48 million (Sh4.9 billion) in the first eight months of 2017.
Another working group should focus on highlighting the potential economic and political impacts of key global trade and investment treaties.
The US has, in recent months, embarked on a policy of renegotiating or terminating its trade treaties such as the Northern American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
In view of the potential implications for Kenya’s multilateral and bilateral negotiations around specific issues, NTNC would advise on means of negotiating treaties in ways that do not jeopardise national interests.
Similarly, NTNC should sensitise government negotiators on different perspectives and means of navigating the challenging global economic landscape: apart from competing economic ideologies, there are differing philosophies of government.
In additional there are notable differences of opinions regarding appropriate means of addressing negative social, environmental, labour, and human rights abuses within the context of trade and investment treaties.
The establishment of NTNC represents a welcome development. Even then, it still represents the beginning of a long journey. Much needs to happen for it to fulfil its potential.
In the final analysis, Kenya’s business community, exporters and citizens are key stakeholders and beneficiaries of NTNC’s work.
They deserve to know how the government should conclude trade agreements, not on the basis of unreflective action, but in ways that address pressing national social and economic challenges of poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality.
It now falls upon NTNC to outline feasible means of enhancing Kenya’s trade relations, given its short and long-term needs, and the specific concerns of stakeholder groups.
Nicholas Ndegwa Kimani is an Advocate of the High Court.