African regionalism: historical development

Although economic cooperation and integration activities precede colonialism in Africa, modern regionalism in Africa is generally traced to the late 1950s (Adedeji, 2002). Over time, five discernible, chronological episodes came to be recognised in the historical evolution of African regionalism. The first episode witnessed the development of what has been described as supranational pan-Africanism (Adedeji, 2002) beginning with Ghana’s political independence and culminating in the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. The effort to establish new modes of post-colonial, continental cooperative relationships among the newly independent African states were largely driven by the desire to institutionalise pan-Africanism.

While there was a consensus among the independent African states on the imperatives of African unity, two schools of thought emerged with contrasting views on the form of African integration. The Casablanca group, led by Kwame Nkrumah, favoured a federalist approach of political unification and a socialist path to economic development, indicating that political unification is a prerequisite for the realisation of economic development (Amante, 1986). The second ideological bloc, the Monrovia group with Nigeria in the lead, preferred functional cooperation at regional levels to serve as building block towards the realisation of a higher level of organic unity.

The establishment of OAU was viewed as a product of understanding reached between the two groups (AU Audit Report, 2007). Instructively, despite the rift between the two ideological blocs, there were no dissenting voices as to the desirability of African unity. Nevertheless, while regionalism was couched as a vital component of the OAU Charter, the ideals of integration were enfeebled by the resolution of African leaders to include respect for colonially induced boundaries and non-interference in the domestic affairs of member countries in the Charter. Furthermore, the idea of a common market intended to lead to economic integration turned out to be counterproductive as African leaders, including those who advocated the functionalist approach to integration, appeared less enamoured

African regionalism in pan-Africanism 19 about the economic integration agenda despite acknowledging its relevance (Ikome, 2004).

The second phase in the evolution of regionalism in Africa witnessed a shift in emphasis from continental integration to sub-regional economic integration beginning from the late 1960s. This shift was promoted by states that favoured functional cooperation and backed up by United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), which advocated the developmentalist approach (Ikome, 2007). In their view, continental integration should not be the immediate focus of African states; rather, it should begin with sub-regional economic cooperation within the framework of five identified potentially economically productive sub-regions: West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, North Africa and Southern Africa. Emphasis was placed on developing a viable approach to facilitating cooperation-integration founded on a comprehensive scheme of integrated market and co-investments. According to Aghrout (1992), it was envisaged that this approach would boost economies of scale, induce collective economic revival and serve as the cornerstone of future development in Africa.

The emphasis on sub-regionalism resulted in the establishment of several regional economic communities (RECs) in the second decade of independence, including the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU/UMA), ECOWAS, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). It was envisaged that these economic unions would be fundamental to the subsequent economic integration of Africa. Common defining features of the emergent economic groupings included the aspiration to establish free trade zones, common markets and creation of customs unions. Although they were originally designed as economic integration schemes, they also constituted a bold attempt by the member states to create an intergovernmental authority with political and economic decision-making capabilities and other formal attributes of a political union (Ikome, 2007).

Notwithstanding, the laudable initiatives have not significantly transformed into tangible success. At the root of the problem, Olivier (2010, p. 28) argued, is that African leaders, while fully realising what the challenges were and what solutions were needed to address them, often times allowed ‘narrow nationalistic and political-power considerations’ to outweigh the importance of progress. Most of the RECs established during this period suffered related challenges ranging from problems associated with unequal distribution of costs and benefits of cooperation to domestic instability resulting from crisis of nation-building within member countries, ideological differences and interstate political rivalries, linguistic challenges, poor communication between member states and proliferation of currencies particularly in the case of ECOWAS (Aghrout, 1992; UNECA, 2010). The limitations of these integration schemes in achieving set objectives probably informed Ikome’s (2004) argument that region-building initiatives within the period were no more than a symbolic declaration to promote continental integration.

African governments adopted the LPA and the Final Act of Lagos (FAL) in 1980, aiming to reset Africa’s economy and reenergise regionalism, thus ushering in the third phase of regional integration in Africa. The LPA represented the first major attempt to address Africa’s socioeconomic problems in a truly concerted, pan-African way. A key element in the LPA was the need for Africa to wean itself off overdependence on external assistance and to promote a self-reliant development approach by maximising Africa’s resources (Brown & Cummings, 1994). Rather than look inward, African leaders blamed external forces for Africa’s economic woes arguing that Africa has been most affected by the inadequacies of global development strategies which have made ‘it stagnate and become more susceptible than other regions to global economic and social crises’ (OAU, n.d., p. 4).

Through the LPA, African governments committed themselves to an inward-looking integration strategy that emphasised individual and collective self-reliance, especially the development of domestic and intra-African trade as solution to Africa’s socioeconomic challenges. It touched on the creation of a new international economic framework that will result in the establishment of the African Economic Market and, eventually, the AEC. The LPA’s idea of inward-looking developmental regionalism included sub-regionalism as driver of the eventual establishment of AEC. It focussed on reinforcing the existing RECs and setting up new ones in other regions with a view to establishing a ‘continent-wide framework for the much-needed economic cooperation’ (Lagos Plan of Action, 1980, para. 4.).

Although intra-African trade increased in terms of size and value, recording a yearly average growth rate of4.8% between 1983 and 1989 (UNECA, 1991, p. 5), the LPA did not provide the needed economic boost and structural transformation of Africa. There were other circumstances that limited the initiative and hampered Africa’s economic performances such as the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), the sharp decline in export commodity prices and currency and debt-servicing crisis. However, the LPA failed principally because the degree of commitment of member states needed for the initiative to succeed was significantly lacking (Ikome, 2004). Most of the states were unwilling to make the necessary short-term economic and political sacrifice in order to achieve the long-term benefits of regionalism. Furthermore, the LPA’s lack of effective mechanism to monitor implementation and institutional power to sanction non-compliance left many governments reluctant to do so, even totally defaulting on their regional commitments (UNECA, 1991; Ikome, 2007). This constituted a setback for African regionalism as cooperation remained nominal and the objective of development unachieved.

The Abuja Treaty of 1991 signalled the fourth phase of Africa’s regional integration process. Though the Treaty jettisoned the LPA’s inward-looking integration approach in support of the liberal economic policies of the Bretton Woods institutions, it nevertheless built on the aspirations of the former. The most significant aspect of the Treaty was its focus on establishing the AEC that would bring all existing (and future) RECs under one supranational authority

African regionalism in pan-Africanism 21 to coordinate and harmonise policies among them with the aim of realising greater economic integration. Article 6 of Abuja Treaty outlined a six-stage implementation process towards complete integration within a period of 34 years, beginning with strengthening existing RECs and creating new ones in regions where they did not exist, removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to regional and intra-community trade, strengthening sectoral integration at both regional and continental levels, and harmonisation of activities among the RECs. It was envisaged that these processes would ultimately lead to the establishment of a free trade area and a customs union at the level of each REC, and then coordination and harmonisation of tariff and non-tariff systems among the RECs, with a view to establishing a customs union at the continental level. The fifth stage involved establishment of an African Common Market and, ultimately (sixth), a union where all sectors - economic, political, social and cultural - are fully integrated.

Unlike the past where integration project was largely state-centric, the Abuja Treaty, in Article 89, provided a cooperative role for non-state actors including civil society, development and donor agencies and other private organisations with a view to mobilising technical, material and financial support towards the accomplishment of sub-regional and regional integration goals. Furthermore, it introduced a sanction regime by empowering the Assembly of Heads of State and Government (the highest organ of the Treaty) to sanction members who persistently failed to honour fundamental commitments made in the treaty, thus, instituting for the first time a binding force on member states regarding compliance with regional engagements.

Nonetheless, the adoption of the liberal economic paradigm raised concerns that the Abuja Treaty could further expose Africa to the vagaries of the global economy. Yet, the Treaty, in other ways, signified a progressive approach to Africa’s regional integration. The changes introduced by the Treaty in many ways inspired important institutional and operational reforms and transformation of the sub-regional economic groupings in Africa. For instance, the SADCC metamorphosed into the SADC in 1992; ECOWAS reviewed its Treaty the following year; the Preferential Trade Area (PTA) transformed into COMESA in 1994; and ECCAS was repositioned in 1998, while the East African Community (EAC) was revived the following year (Olivier, 2010). These innovations contained elaborate measures that would make the RECs more effective in implementing the objective of coordination and harmonisation of national strategies and policies in line with regional commitments and refraining from pursuing unilateral actions that could undermine regional objectives.

The NEPAD, adopted at the June 2001 OAU summit, advanced many of the ideals of the Abuja Treaty. NEPAD reflected the recognition that genuine integration will not occur in a continent bedevilled with poverty, bad governance and a general socioeconomic underperformance. Thus, it focussed on poverty eradication, promoting sustainable development and Africa’s incorporation into the global economy as a competitive participant. NEPAD pursued an outwardlooking, market-driven regionalism with specific emphasis on reframing Africa’s relationship with other global actors. It also recognised the RECs as thebuilding blocks of its programmes and initiatives as well as the strategie vehicle for actualising its development and integration objective. However, rather than blaming Africa’s problems almost entirely on external factors, NEPAD significantly linked Africa’s economic woes to internal governance challenges. To address this deficit, it instituted domestic governance reforms through the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) - a voluntary assessment initiative to enhance governance practices and promote sustainable development in Africa.

Despite its progressive disposition towards addressing Africa’s challenges, NEPAD seemed another indication of the contradiction and lack of consistency with regard to the design and execution of regional agenda in Africa. For example, its outward-looking regionalism posture negated the inward-looking, collectivereliance model advocated by the LPA. Its subscription to liberal economic principles is viewed as dangerous to Africa’s economic health and an attempt to deepen Africa’s dependence on the global economic system. Moreover, implementing NEPAD was always going to be problematic as it was near impossible to request African leaders (known to be very defensive and protective of their sovereign authority) to subject their internal political and economic governance to external scrutiny. Ikome (2004, p. 5) argued that ‘by linking the sensitive issue of political sovereignty to Africa’s economic development agenda, the architects of the NEPAD greatly increased the cost of compliance to states for its sustained implementation’. Notwithstanding, the mechanism successfully peer-reviewed 17 countries out of the 35 participating members as of 2015 (Rashed, 2015). However, the APRM remains, largely, a technical exercise lacking frank discussions about the governance failings of most of the participating countries, thereby raising doubts about its capacity to significantly alter the continent’s governance landscape (Turianskyi, 2019).

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