The concept of the unity of Africa’s nations became possible after the wave of independence in the 1950s and 1960s, but it began long before then. The plan for the cooperation and integration of the African continent was embodied in the Organization of African Unity Charter in 1963 and made more explicit in the OAU Summits in 1973 and 1976. In 1991, the Abuja Treaty, established the African Economic Community program, has been in force since 1994.
The African Economic Community plan lays out steps that are to culminate by 2028 in an African common market:
By 1999, Regional Economic Communities were to be created or established. For all practical purposes, this has been completed. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara) is not participating in the Arab Mahgreb Union because Morocco still claims control of the territory, and Somalia understandably is not participating in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) it helped to establish in 1986 or the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) it joined in 2001.
By 2007, cooperation among and within the Regional Economic Communities was supposed to have taken place. While there has been progress, this phase cannot be said to have been completed because the IGAD not yet coordinated and harmonized activities of member states nor removed tariff and non-tariff barriers. This process is made more difficult by the fact that IGAD members also belong to other RECs, such as CEN-SAD, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) rules and regulations.
By 2017, a free trade union and customs union is to be established in each REC. This is now fully in force in the EAC, as well as the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA). The process is still stalled in IGAD and CEN-SAD, although there is progress elsewhere.
By 2019, a continent-wide customs union is to be established.
By 2023, an African Common Market is be to be established.
By 2028, a continent-wide economic and monetary union and currency union is to be established, along with an African parliament.
Only when all this is accomplished can discussion of the United States of Africa be realistically undertaken.
This economic union plan is an ambitious one, and while possible, it will be very difficult to achieve. Supporters of African unity often overlook the difficulties of similar efforts worldwide. There are European countries that still refuse to submit their economic and political policy decisions to the European Union structure or their currencies to the Euro. The very thought of increased union among the North American Free Trade Area countries (Canada, the United States and Mexico) send some people into fits of fury over conspiracy theories about usurped sovereignty.
The African countries attempting the colossal feat of economic and political union must bridge not only varying languages (Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and numerous ethnic dialects), but also differing legal systems and currencies. Moreover, the RECs have varying degrees of financial and human resources to put into accomplishing this task. There is dependency among some on outside funding.
The goal of harmonizing infrastructure is daunting. Transportation links were created to serve the colonial powers that put them in place and don’t serve the purpose of a united Africa. Overcoming that historic legacy is not easy to say the least. It is still easier to go through Europe to go from one part of Africa to another than traveling direct. Even when you can avoid going through Europe, it is often necessary to go through a third country before getting to the one next door.
Corruption, inadequate pay and lack of full government control over security forces and military means that unofficial checkpoints make inter-country transportation more costly than it should be. There is persistent conflict among countries regarding tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade; it’s as though the people in charge can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak. Then it must be acknowledged that some governments just don’t want to open up to free trade among their neighbors for various reasons – some short-sighted, but some valid. There are, after all, legitimate concerns about international criminal activity being aided by open borders.
All of us who want to see the goal of African unity realized must admit the difficulty of this effort and try to help identify the challenges and help devise means of overcoming them, taking into account political obstacles from inside Africa and from without. We also must acknowledge that the lack of unity makes Africa attractive to those who make money from the lack of cohesion among its constituent parts. African unity is not in everyone’s interests, and there are those who have frustrated its progress and will continue to do so.
The African Union can become more than the name of an organization, but buckle up because it’s going to be a bumpy ride to get there.