The African Union, Africa’s Integration Project and its Challenges

Since its inauguration in Durban on July 9, 2002, the African Union (AU) is yet to stamp its mark on the continent in concrete terms. The vast majority of Africa’s populations are yet to feel the Union’s impact in their everyday lives, and quite frankly things are a bit too quiet on the African integration front.  Evidently the momentum, the spark that is needed to set the flame of integration ablaze has not happened yet this far.

This trend of affair is not because the relevance of the integration idea is in any question or doubt. In deed, the birth of the AU was greeted with euphoria across the continent and among people of African descent in the diaspora. It was viewed as a re-emergence of the Pan-Africanist dream and a reawakening that would lift the continent out of the doldrums. 

So if the debate about the relevance of the AU project has been concluded and settled, why then is the process of integration faced with so many hurdles? Experts have advanced various explanations in this regard, one of them being that some African governments are simply reluctant to empower the supra-national institutions required to propel the integration process, for fear of losing their sovereignty or power to make policies. Another reason is attributed to the poor state of infrastructure on the continent. There is also the issue of inadequate trade finance mechanisms.

Added to these are the excessive number of regional blocs (the count now is about 14) which are supposed to facilitate intra-African trade but many of which are weak and resource strapped. The argument that Africa remains a continent whose nations produce what they do not consume and consume what they do not produce, presents yet another challenge.

The sad reality in all this, however, is that a greater proportion of Africa’s trade is with partners outside the continent, while trade amongst African countries continues to register low figures. Intra-African trade accounted for about 15 per cent of Africa’s total trade in 2019. This contrasts with 60 per cent trade among nations in Western Europe, and 40 per cent for North America. 

At the sub-regional level, intra-regional trade has been put at 10 per cent within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) zone, another 10 per cent amongst countries in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) zone, and 5 per cent in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) area. These figures pale against trade among countries in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) zone which stands at 20 per cent,according to available data.

The pertinent question here is why intra-African trade remains so low, as compared to what pertains in other regions worldwide. Despite its vast agricultural potential, Africa has remained a net importer of agricultural products in the last three decades. In 1980, Africa had a balanced agricultural trade when both exports and imports were at about US$14 billion, but by 2010 its agricultural imports exceeded exports by about US$20 billion, according to FAO statistics.

The status quo gives cause for concern considering the fact that regional integration, including increased trade in goods and services, is one of the key aspirations of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, as expressed in the Ten-Year Implementation Plan (2014–2023) adopted as the Malabo Declaration in 2014. Within this context, the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a flagship programme of the Agenda with its headquarters in Accra, is expected to significantly accelerate growth and sustainable development through a doubling of overall intra-African trade by 2022, and a tripling of trade in agricultural goods by 2023.

To date, however, there is still a wide gap between legislation and implementation; the slow pace at which policies and agreements are being implemented often impedes their adoption and creates numerous obstacles to cross-border transactions in Africa. According to a World Bank source, the formalities entailed in crossing the border from Burundi to Rwanda adds an additional 14.6 hours or 74 kilometers to the trip, while for trade between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, the border formalities add an extra 1,549 km, or 35 hours.

Adding to the cost of transport are uncountable roadblocks along the way. A USAID study in 2012 reported that trucks on route from Lomé to Ouagadougou are stopped at an average of between 17 and 23 times. Many other studies affirm that bribery is an essential part of cross-border trading in the West African sub-region. Evidence obtained from a USAID study in 2011, for instance, found out that along the Burkina Faso, Ghana and Benin corridor, the cost of obtaining the requisite clearance documents for maize, often necessitated paying a bribe, and added about US$40 per tonne, or 9 per cent of the farm gate price, to the over all cost.

Way forward:

In many ways, therefore, the arrangement that is currently in place on the AU front is at best integration by protocols signed by states, and which many of them do not adhere to. Policy makers are persistently pushing the top-down approach, while paying very little attention to the epicenter where integration could rapidly take place – People to People, Business to Business. In other words, the processrequires a bottom-up approach. 

On that score the sure way forward is to envisage the African Union, ECOWAS, or any of those sub-regional blocs as a community of peoples and not simply of states. It is crucially important to begin to see regional integration not only through the prism of accords and treaties. Time has come to engage the non-state actors too – the people and businesses that in many ways are already on the front-line of regional integration. Perhaps, it is high time ECOWAS/AU member countries revisited the “pays frontières” (or border countries)concept  muted sometime ago by former President Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali. It was meant to serve as a key factor for accelerating regionalintegration, reinforcing decentralisation and preventing border conflicts. According to the concept, the populations of an adjoining geographicalarea of two or moreneighbouring states could come together with the principal objective of achieving the common management of the border area, and thus creating a local economic integration zone for the border population.

Promoting cross border investments by African companies and investors and ensuring that the rules are favourable and fair, is another way forward. The challenge for policy makers is to engage with these businesses and empower them to do more. Linked to this is the need for African nations to aggressively mobilize investments from countries within the continent rather than look to Europe, America or Asia for investors.  

Obviously, no progress will be made if the continent’s glaring infrastructure deficit is not addressed to enable people and goods to move from one country to another with ease in terms of time and cost. There is the need to provide efficient solutions for road, railway, air and maritime transport. To this end, the private sector could be empowered to partner with governments to tackle the issue of infrastructure comprehensively and create an enabling environment for the continent’s economic surge.  

Institutions like the African Development Bank (AfDB) can help through special windows to promote and fund projects that will facilitate regional integration, especially with regard to infrastructure and cross border investments. The regional blocs and some financial institutions like the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), Banque de Dévelopement des Etats de l’Afrique Centrale (BDEAC) and others could collaborate their efforts and recapitalize to fund projects, particularly those initiated by private sector players. 

In addition to physical infrastructure, there is also the need to revamp the AU’s institutional infrastructure because without robust, functional institutions there can be no successful policy formulation/implementation and the entire project could be handicapped. Member countries need to significantly strengthen their institutions both at national and regional levels in order to bring about regional integration. This is critical because there are still glaring disparities within and between the 55 AU member nations economically, socially and administratively. In view of these disparities, there ought to be some hand-holding, with the ‘heavyweights’ and the not-so-strong member countries all working in concert towards the ultimate goal.

It is important for Governments to focus more on collaboration in the area of facilitating cross-border trade by investing in physical infrastructure, simplifying transit procedures, harmonizing standards, streamlining licensing and certification requirements, improving market information and finance, and improving professionalism of customs/border officials. Another area of urgent action is that of improved trade data, the absence of which could lead to inconsistent policy-making.

Promoting intraregional trade would also mean reducing the afore-mentioned obnoxious barriers to trade, which today often push traders towards using informal channels, thus avoiding compliance entirely. It is particularly important to address procedural issues by stepping up efforts to simplify paperwork, and to replace systematic inspections with risk profiling.

Fact is, Africa has no option but to embrace regional integration. Smaller and economically handicapped countries simply have no chance going it alone, and that makes it imperative for them to integrate to optimize the continent’s growth potential and for Africa to play a lead role in the global marketplace.

Even though its original purpose sought to foster peace/unity among warring European nations, the European integration project whose success is being touted today, began on the economic front with the joint establishment of the European Coal and Steel Commission (ECSC) in 1951, comprising what is commonly referred to as the ‘original six’ member countries, namely France, Italy, the Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg. With time, what began as an economic project spilled over into cooperation in other sectors including security and defense.

In Africa’s particular case there is no history of bloody inter-state armed conflict comparable to the scale witnessed in the two World Wars that set European countries in the search for peace, but there is nonetheless the combined scourge of poverty, unemployment, hunger and disease. The  devastation that these conditions have continued to wreak on the Continent over centuries, surpass by far the tragedies experienced by Europe in the two great Wars. It should, therefore, suffice as a motivating factor to bring African countries together in the search for a common ground to bring to an end the continent’s paradoxical nightmare of poverty in the midst of abundant resources.

At one of their meetings in Sirte, Libya, way back in July 2009, AU leaders rightly emphasized the need for increased collaboration in the agricultural sector as the continent’s way out of the global economic crisis. Committing more resources to agriculture would not only enable them to make food available for the continent’s teeming population, but would also generate jobs for the unemployed if pursued with the requisite commitment and consistency devoid of lip service. Without doubt, agriculture is one area that could provide a springboard for increased economic cooperation and the launch-pad for Africa’s sustainable industrialization programme.

By Mohammed Nurudeen Issahaq

 *The author is a Journalist and Communications Consultant (Email:

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