President Muhammadu Buhari on Sunday finally signed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.

The signing comes several months after the Nigerian leader initially refused to sign the agreement which has already been signed by about 52 other African countries.

Mr Buhari signed the agreement in Niger Republic on Sunday. The president left for Niger Republic on Saturday afternoon for the African Union (AU) summit holding there.

Niger, which borders Nigeria to the North, is hosting the 12th Extraordinary Session of the Assembly of the Union on African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in Niamey.

Mr Buhari had refused to sign the agreement saying more consultations were necessary before Nigeria can append its signature to it.

His reluctance to sign had been criticised by many diplomats and other Nigerians including ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Mr Buhari recently criticised the AfCFTA, and outlined his own vision of what African free trade should be.

“Our vision for intra-African trade is for the free movement of “made in Africa goods”. That is, goods and services made locally with dominant African content in terms of raw materials and value addition,” he said.

It is not clear if the Nigerian leader’s concerns were reflected in the agreement he signed.

Nigeria had delayed signing the deal, which entered into force on May 30, this year, to allow consultation with stakeholders and advice from a specially constituted committee.

The committee, which was set up to assess the impact of the free trade agreement and Nigeria’s readiness to join, submitted its report on June 27.

The presidency, however, indicated that Mr Buhari would soon sign the agreement following the recommendation of the committee that he should sign.

Nigeria became the 53rd state to sign the agreement but such commitment is also expected of Benin Republic today. AU trade commissioner, Albert Muchanga, had on Friday disclosed that Benin had also confirmed it will sign up in Niamey today.

With Nigeria and Benin included, 54 AU countries have signed since March 2018 when 44 countries signed the deal in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Only Eritrea is now being awaited.

The committee had recommended that Nigeria should sign the agreement.

The initial delay by Nigeria, the continent’s largest economy, had raised concerns across the continent and in the international development circle.

“This state of affairs contrasts sharply with Nigeria’s prior activist roles on matters African in years gone by,” said a former vice-president at the African Development Bank and director at the World Bank, Aloysius Ordu, who spoke when Nigeria had not signed. “In the past, Nigeria has used its political heft, economic power, and diplomatic and intellectual pedigree to seize the mantle of leadership that changed the course of African history.”

The deal has varying steps of commitment, the highest being ratification. More than 22 countries – the threshold required for the deal to enter into force by article 23 of the agreement – have already ratified the AfCFTA.

Intra-African trade is in a low state. Just a mere 17 per cent of African countries’ exports go to other African countries – compared with intra-continental trade of 69 per cent in Europe and 59 per cent in Asia – according to the Foresight Africa publication of the Brookings Institution this year.

The concerning trend in African trade is expected to change with the AfCFTA in the years ahead. Africa’s combined GDP is $2.5 trillion.