African leaders on regional integration

By Dr. Adekeye Adebajo on August 25, 2015

Group photo of the African Leadership Forum 2015 participants

Last month, I attended the African Leadership Forum in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam on the theme of “Moving Towards An Integrated Africa.” The meeting was hosted by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa’s Uongozi Institute, and attended by former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria), Festus Mogae (Botswana), Jerry Rawlings (Ghana), Bakili Muluzi (Malawi), and Hifikepunye Pohamba (Namibia). The Executive Secretaries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC) were also present, as were invited civil society actors.

Delivering the keynote address was Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, who has long fancied himself as a “Bismarck of East Africa”, with dreams of creating a political federation in a subregion consisting also of Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda. These aspirations were reflected in his address which pushed for a larger regional market in East Africa to increase the leverage of the subregion to negotiate more effectively with external actors. Citing the high level of cultural integration in the subregion – reinforced by the common lingua franca of Swahili – he called for a political union, noting that for such efforts to succeed, East African leaders would need to explain to their 140 million citizens how regional integration could directly enhance their prosperity and security.

I had the opportunity, from the audience, to challenge president Museveni – who has been in power for 29 years – on the issue of presidential term limits, noting that on assuming office in 1986, he had criticised African leaders for overstaying in power. Museveni deflected the question by arguing that the issue was not about overstaying in power, but rather overstaying “in the resistance”– presumably to “neo-colonialism.”

Contradicting his reputation as a brash, arrogant, no-nonsense former General, Obasanjo came across in his interventions as wise, witty, and adept at using first-hand experiences to illustrate his points. He called for a core group of African leaders to drive regional integration in Africa, much as Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, and Senegal had done in creating the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) during his own presidential tenure.

He pushed for the abolishing of visas to facilitate the free movement of Africa’s one billion citizens; advocated the improvement of infrastructure and communications; criticised African leaders for talking regional integration while planning on a national basis; and condemned the negative role that external actors have played in sabotaging regional integration efforts in Africa, specifically citing France’s role in West Africa.

Obasanjo went on to praise the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to promote the free movement of its 340 million citizens: 68% of West Africa’s international migrants remain in the subregion, enjoying one of the world’s most impressive mobility rates. Obasanjo, however, condemned Nigeria’s expulsion of three million West Africans – declared “illegal aliens” – between 1983 and 1985, as having contradicted Africa’s culture of hospitality.

He criticised African governments for rejecting the ideas of an African Union (AU) committee that he had headed, which had recommended that continental leaders raise $750 million to fund their organisation through such schemes as hotel levies and airline taxes. He noted that the lack of sacrifices by African governments was clearly evident in the fact that 80% of the AU’s operating budget was covered by external donors, while AU member states that could afford their dues often failed to keep their accounts current.

Some of the challenges within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) were also discussed: the failure to work more closely with the private sector; lack of effective coordination between national committees and the Botswana-based SADC secretariat; the need for the SADC secretariat to be empowered to make binding decisions; and obstacles to the free movement of Southern Africa’s 231 million citizens, with recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa on SADC and other citizens being widely condemned. It was also observed that some SADC leaders viewed efforts to secure alternative sources of funding from regional sources as an encroachment on their sovereignty. As with the AU and other subregional bodies, the lack of sufficient time devoted to issues of regional integration at SADC summits was criticised. Some of the organisation’s plans were also said to reflect efforts at political alchemy. For example, a free trade area was launched in 2008 that represented more of a political statement than economic reality, as no rules of origin have ever been defined.

The East African Community was, in contrast, praised for its success at increasing intra-regional trade (by 16% from 2005 to 2010). It was, however, noted that though the organisation has had a customs union since 2005, a disproportionate amount of its time has been spent on removing barriers to trade against the private sector. More positively, some innovations have been crafted such as Rwandan customs officials being deployed to clear goods at the port of Dar es Salaam.

With intra-regional trade a derisory 12% on the continent, it was noted that Africans needed to change their mind-sets in order to succeed in their efforts to achieve regional integration. The phenomenon of African countries creating regional organisations with similar goals and overlapping memberships was criticised as inefficient and profligate. Several African regional bodies also lack constitutions and legal frameworks that define their rules, while there are often no independent mechanisms for monitoring the implementation of their activities. A need was thus strongly expressed for a clear division of labour between the AU and subregional bodies, and the use of innovative schemes such as the ECOWAS community levy to fund these organisations.

It was further noted that many African leaders are too preoccupied with political survival at home to prioritise economic integration abroad. These rulers, however, need to act more like economic technicians than politicians. As Botswana’s Festus Mogae – himself an Oxford-trained economist – noted, African leaders have not engaged enough with each other to discuss removing obstacles to regional integration. Africa no longer needs continued negotiations, but the urgent implementation of existing plans. There were calls for a “two-speed” Africa and an “inner core” to drive regional integration. The role of regional hegemons – Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya – was also highlighted as potential catalysts for integration in need of credible visions that require carrying greater burdens, and even sometimes incurring short-term losses.

Finally, it was noted that Africa is often ill-prepared for most trade and other negotiations. The continent is rarely at the top table of global institutions such as the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), but often on the margins. Africa often has plans, but no implementation strategy. Its power in these global institutions is often fragmented, and its voice therefore diluted.

African representation on these multilateral bodies is often weak. There were thus calls to tap into the African Diaspora which now contributes $60 billion annually to its home countries: more than the continent receives in foreign aid. Small and medium-sized enterprises are to be strongly supported. Young entrepreneurs should be encouraged to continue to drive change on their continent. Regional infrastructure projects increased, and the same spirit and determination which won the battle for the political decolonisation of Africa must be employed in the current struggle for its socio-economic decolonisation.

  • Dr. Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.


Dr. Adekeye Adebajo is a Nigerian Rhodes Scholar and the current Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, South Africa. Dr. Adebajo is a leading authority on Africa’s international relations and security issues.

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