The African Union Can Do More to Support Regional Integration

Earlier this May in Cape Town, South Africa, economists at the World Economic Forum reaffirmed that regional integration will play a key role in unleashing the continent’s growth potential. More than 10 regional economic communities (RECs) are working toward this goal in Africa, but the main framework behind this effort is the African Economic Community (AEC). The AEC was established by the Abuja Treaty in 1991 and ratified in 1994. The treaty aims to build the AEC gradually through harmonization, coordination and effective integration of Africa’s RECs, eight of which have been chosen as “pillars” of the AEC. It proposes the establishment of a continental free trade area (CFTA) by 2017, and integration of the RECs into a single customs union with a common currency, central bank and parliament by 2028. The Abuja treaty does not lay out precise, top-down steps for achieving this goal, but the African Union (AU) and the RECs have defined their relationship in working toward the AEC in the 2007 Protocol on Relations between the AU and the RECs. Towards this end, the Africa Union has embarked on various programs at the regional and sub-regional level to promote integration. Indeed, at the January 2012 AU Summit, heads of state from around the continent renewed this mission by agreeing to speed up plans for economic integration. The tone of the 2012 Summit implied an ambitious AU agenda of promoting and coordinating African integration and its accompanying benefits more quickly than before.

Like the European Union, the AEC would enjoy increased intra-African trade, improved self-sufficiency in meeting Africa’s import demand, lower poverty levels and a more peaceful interdependent existence. However, in contrast with these grand plans to move toward a CFTA, Africa’s RECs are grappling with numerous challenges. Though it is the responsibility of the RECs and individual countries to implement protocols and integrate, the AU Commission is charged with monitoring the continent’s integration process. The integration process has remained slow despite numerous efforts and working committees formed by the AU to coordinate the RECs, suggesting more work remains to be done. Now, many RECs have missed their target dates for implementing customs unions and common market requirements. For the RECs to achieve integration objectives and a CFTA to still take hold by 2017, the AU may have to play a more active role. Indeed, as the AU celebrates its 50th anniversary this May, the progress made and challenges encountered by Africa’s RECs offer valuable lessons as to how the AU can best act to improve integration, development and growth moving forward. Consider the progress of two RECs from Central and East Africa.

The East African Community (EAC) is composed of five countries in East Africa: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. The EAC has achieved considerable milestones, having established a customs union in 2005 and a common market in 2010. It is scheduled to move to a monetary union by November of this year and ultimately to a political federation by 2017. In addition, the EAC has taken steps towards further economic integration by signing a free trade agreement with two other RECs, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). This progressive tripartite agreement eases the transitional problem of states’ memberships in multiple RECs and therefore multiple sets of requirements and regulations. Despite this progress, the EAC has not fully implemented their Common Market Protocol. While the EAC has made tremendous progress in eliminating tariffs, poor infrastructure and other non-tariff barriers remain. Lack of roads, railways and energy networks add to cost of doing business and make it difficult to increase intra-African trade and attract investment in the region. Moreover, neither the EAC nor the AU has effectively explained the benefits of economic integration to citizens, so the democratic leaders of member states do not feel pressure to improve their progress. In addition, national governments fear a loss in tax revenue, and, despite the elimination of border tariffs, different domestic tax rates still exist within the EAC. Indeed, harmonizing the various economic policies in the EAC has been challenging. As a result, member states are struggling to converge their macroeconomic policies in the prescribed time. Most notably, as the EAC has achieved its successes and struggled with its challenges, the AU’s efforts have barely influenced the integration process in the region.

Another REC, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), was first formed in 1983 and remained mostly dormant for 16 years until 1999. The group suffered first from states’ unwillingness to pay much-needed fees, and later from a war between some of its member states. Once the ECCAS began operating, it faced renewed challenges from competing economic communities—Rwanda left the group in 2007 to focus on its COMESA and EAC memberships. Unlike the EAC, which includes Kenya, the ECCAS lacks a high-growth country to provide leadership and capital in supporting regional infrastructure and pushing trade liberalization efforts. As a result, the ECCAS remains a group of states of varying levels of development focused on their own self-interests. The AU has an opportunity to educate the member states and apply informal pressure to make progress. In spite of these challenges, the ECCAS has achieved some successes. Many ECCAS members utilize a single currency, and capital moves freely across borders. Steps have been taken to eliminate tariffs as well, though these have yet to be fully implemented. The ECCAS has enjoyed more success in tackling peace and security—leading peace operations in the Central African Republic on two occasions and laying the foundation to host one of the AU’s planned Standby Forces. Indeed, the AU has been effective and proactive in assisting with these security gains (and also throughout the continent), yet the role of the AU in assisting with ECCAS’s economic integration successes has not been visible.

As the African Union reflects on its achievements 50 years since its creation, it should balance its successes in minimizing African conflict with the importance of doing more to promote economic integration. While addressing flashpoints of violence is an important short-term necessity, increasing intra-African trade, building an African consumer base, and networking African interdependence may offer great long-term promise. These are all steps toward the same goal of a prosperous and peaceful Africa. While the AU does not have the authority to overcome poor capacity, a lack of political will, or other challenges that African countries and RECs may face or bring to the table, it can and should better follow its mission in encouraging integration.

Under the 2007 Protocol, the AU is directly charged with working to facilitate and implement regional integration. If the AU hopes to realize its goal of a united Africa by 2028, it must better engage the continent’s RECs and assist in resolving the numerous obstacles they face. It should consider expanding its efforts to coordinate regional initiatives within low-capacity countries and work to ensure that future programs are better targeted and more visible. Further, the AU should exercise leadership in countries that seem not to have the domestic political will to move towards integration. It could also move from biannual meetings to more common ones and more vigorously assist in mobilizing resources and coordinating their application toward regional infrastructure projects to boost trade. The AU could even consider launching voluntary international governance initiatives, such as a two-term limit for political leaders or the teaching of a common language base. It can also more closely oversee and facilitate the long and difficult negotiations of protocols, and may use scorecards and penalties while monitoring their implementation to ensure that states feel pressure to meet their benchmarks. A continental free trade area in Africa holds as much potential as the one seen in Europe, but achieving success of this goal by 2017 will require the African Union to engage its regional economic communities more robustly.