Can Africa Unite?


— When African Union (AU) members pledge to “continue to speak with one voice and act collectively to promote our common interests and positions in the international arena”, they recognize that this is not an easy feat. As with Rome, the “Africa we want”, the global powerhouse of the future, will not be built in a day.

Convening for the European Union-African Union summit in Brussels this month, African and European leaders will discuss how the partnership between their two unions can be both deepened and broadened. But when it comes to trade cooperation, the devil is in the details. The AU must heed the lessons (both the successes and the failures) of the EU’s own integration project. Only then can it build a strong foundation for a partnership of equals with Europe.

The EU is a globally recognised model of regional partnership and integration. Born from the ashes of war, suffering, and destruction, it used economic integration to create the conditions for lasting peace and security. It is now one of the world’s three largest trading powers, alongside China and the United States.

Africa is taking promising steps along the same path. There has been impressive progress in expanding its Regional Economic Communities(RECs), country groupings designed to facilitate economic integration, and in January 2021, the African Continental Free Trade Area entered into force. The hope now is that the AfCFTA will help lift millions of Africans out of extreme poverty by boosting growth, creating jobs and increasing incomes, all while spurring us toward even deeper integration.

The AU and the EU, both together and individually, must focus their efforts on the appropriate vehicles for attaining this goal. For its part, the AU will need to establish stronger institutions capable of nurturing economic growth and ensuring that its gains are widely shared. As recent coups in West Africa show, many African countries have a long way to go to establish good governance and thereby provide for their populations.

This is where the EU’s own past experiences (both the good and the bad) could prove useful, particularly when it comes to managing tensions between bilateral and multilateral initiatives. For example, the subsidiarity principle, whereby the EU takes charge of an issue only when supranational governance is clearly more effective than national, regional, or local governance, has served the EU well.

How might we in Africa use this principle to strengthen relationships between RECs? One promising model, epitomised by the pan-European venture that created Airbus, is projects that tap into common economic interests. African projects in this mold could mitigate vulnerabilities in the continent’s value chains and industrial capabilities, shortcomings that the pandemic highlighted.

African countries also can make better use of individual RECs’ competitive advantages to shape strategic programmes to manufacture products that can be fully sourced and assembled on the continent. For example, an African electric vehicle program could rely on aluminum from Guinea, technical parts from Rwanda, and assembly processes in Kenya or Morocco.

As for the EU, it must empower continent-wide bodies such as the AU and the African Development Bank to support sustainable integration programs. China’s recent allocation of $10 billion to African financial institutions could be a catalyst for strengthening these institutions and uncovering more homegrown financing solutions. Again, we can look to the EU’s own experience to improve how we allocate funding for regional integration, agriculture and infrastructure development.

However, we must be mindful of the EU’s own fragmented trade policy toward Africa. If African countries are trading with the EU on bilateral terms, that could undermine trade integration within Africa itself. It also weakens Africa’s ability to negotiate as a united bloc, “speaking with one voice”.

The EU-AU summit is an opportunity to consider vital questions about Africa’s economic future. Can Africans negotiate as one bloc, and will the EU commit to widening its cooperation beyond the traditionally aid-centred approach? Both questions are crucial, in part because Africa will need financing to support its climate mitigation and adaptation efforts alongside the project of regional integration.

When we sit down to negotiate with the EU, let us remember that achieving unity is a lengthy process, and that trade, development, and cooperation are not smooth, easily managed processes. There will be wrong turns, dead ends, and accidents. But let us also remember that if Africans can speak as one, the EU-AU summit could take us further down the path of growth, prosperity, and, ultimately, unity.

Malado Kaba, managing director of Falémé Conseil, served as Guinea’s first female minister of economy and finance and is a member of the Amujae Initiative at the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Centre for Women and Development. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.