African Union and the reinvigoration of African regionalism

The launch of the AU in 2002 marked the beginning of the most recent phase of African regionalism. The AU has since become the foremost driver of African regionalism. The organisation has introduced progressive ideas geared towards repositioning African integration. While designing economic programmes for Africa’s development, it has also advanced institution-building and normative frameworks with respect to democracy, human rights, good governance, peace and security. The establishment of pan-African bodies, for example, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Pan-African Parliament, signifies progress and resolve by AU to reinvigorate the process of continental integration.

A notable innovation by AU was the jettisoning of the principle of noninterference in support of a more interventionist stance. Unlike in the past where the OAU promoted a non-interference doctrine, Articles 4(h) and 4(j) of the AU Constitutive Act support the right to intervene in respect of ‘grave circumstances’ (war crimes and genocide against humanity) or where a member

African regionalism in pan-AJricanism 23 country requests intervention in order to restore peace and security. With peace and security at the top of its agenda, the AU created the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) including the Peace and Security Council (PSC), the AU Commission, the Continental Early Warning System, the Panel of the Wise, the Peace Fund and the African Standby Force (ASF) to realise these objectives. The RECs have also been incorporated into APSA and largely coordinate with the AU on issues of peace and security on the continent. They equally constitute vital building blocks in AU’s efforts towards continental integration (UNECA, 2017).

Although the AU has leveraged on its continental reach to lead Africa’s continental integration, not much progress has been made in terms of economic integration beyond initiating ambitious plans to promote political and economic integration. In recognition of this lack of meaningful progress, the AU established an Independent High Level Panel to audit its activities and fast-track the goal of socioeconomic and political unification of Africa. The audit report observed that ‘Africa is still a long way from the achievement of the goals of political and economic integration’ (AU Audit Report, 2007, para. 349). The report recommended a review and incorporation of NEPAD as an important AU instrument to accelerate the process of integration, particularly the improvement of the transcontinental and inter-regional infrastructure. It also recommended the implementation of the Abuja Treaty which sets out the integration blueprint for Africa.

Accordingly, NEPAD was adopted as the overarching development mechanism for Africa and a principal tool in the integration process. Commitments were also made to follow through the six-step integration process over a period of 34 years, which will culminate in the AEC as elaborated in the Abuja Treaty. The audit report identified some benchmarks on the basis of which integration could be actualised over time, including the imperative of rationalising the RECs and accelerating progress towards the African Economic Community. However, given the experience of integration process in Africa, realising the AEC seems an ambitious and difficult project; any demonstrable success with regard to advancing the frontiers of African unity and integration would require popular acceptance and willingness of AU members to make political and economic sacrifices.

Furthermore, the lack of convergence among the existing RECs poses a challenge to continental integration. Not only is there a proliferation of RECs across Africa - most with overlapping memberships — they also operate divergent protocols and operational guidelines. The absence of a harmonious approach to integration and the differentiated levels of advancement in several areas and components of regional integration remain a challenge to the creation of the AEC. For example, most of the regional institutions are at different levels of progress in terms of free movement of good, capital and labour, as well as the adoption of single currency. These inherent weaknesses equally encumber the capacity of the RECs to engineer robust intra-regional trade among member countries. In name, African nations display a near unrivalled zeal for free trade.

Yet, in fact, levels of trade between African states remain disappointingly low at just 15% (AFREXIMBANK, 2018, p. 15). The AU audit report noted that the abysmal level of intra-African trade could be linked to:

The failure to address structural issues associated with trade such as employment creation, diversification of production structure... (and)... the failure of RECs to effectively remove tariff and non-tariff barriers as a result of multiple membership in different RECs with conflicting or overlapping standards, procedures and obligations and the failure to coordinate and harmonise extra-community import policies in key sectors.

(2007, para 352)

To address these limitations, African leaders at the 18th ordinary session of the AU in 2012, endorsed the creation of an AfCFTA to become operational by 2017.

2063 was adopted the following year as Africa’s blueprint for economic transformation, outlining strategies and plans for achieving Africa’s vision of ‘an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa ... within a 50 year period’ (AU Commission, 2015, p. 2). The establishment of AfCFTA constitutes one of its flagship programmes to fast-track intra-regional trade and enhance Africa’s global economic competitiveness.

AfCFTA entered into force on 30 May 2019. It established a single African market for products and services, and a customs union that guarantees unencumbered mobility of labour and capital. AfCFTA requires that member countries commit to the removal of tariffs on at least 90% of the commodities they produce. It has been argued that with 55 countries, home to over 1.2 billion inhabitants and a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion merging into a single market, AfCFTA could potentially transform Africa into the biggest free trade area in the world (Ighobor, 2018). According to UNECA (2017, p. 96), the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, if properly implemented, could boost manufacturing and increase intra-African trade by 52% by 2020. It is yet to be seen how its implementation will unravel and whether the agreement will live up to its billing as Africa strives towards attaining a successful economic integration.

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