Financial Times website. The moment when Muammer Gaddafi, Libya’s leader, aspires for the creation of a single African nation has become a perennial irritant at African summits, eating into deliberations on more pressing crises of the day. Many of Colonel Gaddafi’s peers are still struggling to create viable nation states within territories carved out by Europeans in the 19th century. In that context, talk of a United States of Africa – a potentially unwieldy federation of 1bn plus people – seems distinctly premature.
In some ways, however, the Libyan leader is ahead of a game recognised since the onset of independence half a century ago as central to the continent’s development prospects, but on which little progress has yet been made. If African countries spoke with one voice, traded more among each other, and strengthened regional co-operation in keeping peace, they would go a long way towards overcoming the political frailties and economic fragmentation associated with their inherited borders.
To varying degrees over the past decade, regional economic trading blocs in south, west and east Africa have forged ahead with customs unions, eased working restrictions (in east Africa), and started planning common monetary policies and even single currencies.
Equally, in recent years the African Union has sought to enforce better governance, ostracising coup-makers, and this year ushering in new rules that allow unconstitutional behaviour by civilian rulers to be sanctioned too (although there has been only limited success in reining in the likes of Robert Mugabe).
Progress though is still hampered by lack of follow-through on the ground and fears among less developed countries, that they will be dominated by the big regional economic powers: Nigeria in the west, Kenya in the east and South Africa in the south. Moreover in a significant number of African countries the momentum towards further break-up is still greater than the other way round.
Idriss Deby, the President of Chad, warned recently that if South Sudan votes to secede at a referendum on independence due next January, it will be “catastrophic”. Transgressing the doctrine of the inviolability of borders would embolden separatist movements from Nigeria to the Democratic Republic of Congo and spark chaos, he warned.
Other Africans argue that until oppressed minorities first achieve a level of self-determination, free of oppression from centralised states, talk of greater regional integration will remain just that.
On average, only about 10 to 12 per cent of African trade takes place among other African nations according to a joint study published last month by the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa, the African Development Bank, and the African Union. “This is not an encouraging trend, especially when compared with other world regions,” the report says.
The continent’s infrastructure too is still geared towards exports. Railways and roads often lead to marine ports rather than linking countries over land. Even where there have been advances in harmonising tariffs and easing restrictions on the flow of people and goods, such as in the East African Community, reality on the ground often trails.
A recent study carried out by Rwanda’s private sector business association found the cost of trucking a container from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to Kigali, the capital, 1,500kms and three border crossings away, can be three times the price of shipping the same container from the US. Bribery at weighbridges and roadblocks add more than $1,000 to costs. The same story is repeated across Africa.
The momentum though, is beginning to change. Institutions like the African Development Bank now prioritise infrastructure projects that foster regional integration.
The big African banks are spreading from state to state. Telecoms companies too, are harmonising their operations to gain economies of scale. And, when oil and gas investments are stripped out, South Africa is now the largest investor in the rest of the continent, not China, or the US.
Trade statistics do not capture a perhaps even bigger force, the informal sector. Until they were battered by competition from China, cobblers in the Nigerian town of Aba were exporting some 60m pairs of shoes around Africa. Their wares could be found everywhere from Kisangani in central Congo, to Dakar on the west coast.
For all Mr Deby’s fears, South Sudan is another place where regional imbalances are being addressed in spite of the status quo. It is not a member of the East African Community or even a country yet. But educated Kenyans and Ugandans, who lack jobs back home, have flocked there, making up for a desperate shortage of qualified local people.
The integration that is happening has been driven less by bureaucrats, and the likes of Col Gadaffi and more by business people – from suited-up executives to scrappy wheeler-dealers – who have spotted opportunities across borders and gone out to grab them.