Regional integration: make Africa win

Friday, March 25, 2016

As Africa emerged from the colonial period, regional integration was seen as a rational response to the difficulties faced by a continent with many small national markets and landlocked countries. However, neither the 1980 « Lagos Plan of Action » – which imagined the division of Africa into five regional economies – nor the Abuja Treaty which replaced it in 1991 can be qualified as « successes ». Indeed, the Abuja Treaty which proposed to implement a single currency across Africa by 2028 is quite unlikely to happen.

There are many reasons to that: first, the economic context has not been favorable to the development of regional commitments. Most African States have suffered from severe macroeconomic disequilibria and member states were mostly not willing to invest into necessary infrastructure projects while the economic benefits were long-term and uncertain and often unevenly distributed among member states.

Despite these issues, regional integration remains key to narrowing the gap between the continent’s promise and its reality. According to the World Economic Forum, the potential gains from increased regional integration in Africa are substantial: almost half of Africa’s 54 countries have a population of less than 10 million, and more than a third are landlocked, making it the most fragmented continent in the world. Thus policymakers need to understand that in many development sectors, the optimal solutions are regional: this concerns various areas such as energy generation, healthcare, transportation, education, industry, etc…Very often I do hear people saying that regional integration is useless and only a utopian dream. But I must say I do not agree at all. Regional integration will definitely help the African countries to better set their priorities and strategize.

This is the reason why the NEPAD tackles projects on a regional level. And we take into account the fact that priorities are different from a region to another. For instance, in East Africa, it is very important to have a regulatory and industrial infrastructure to support a pharmaceutical industry that more efficiently and autonomously manages the treatment of AIDS (let us remember that Africa currently imports about 70% of its pharmaceuticals). In West Africa, on the other hand, we prioritize climate change adaptation because of the issues of climate change in the Sahal.

Today, Africa is the least integrated continent in the world and infrastructure remains the continent’s top priority. It is vital for economic advancement and sustainable development. Again, this can only be achieved through regional and continental cooperation and solution-finding. The Programme for Infrastructure Development for Africa (PIDA) has an ambitious plan to revamp Africa’s infrastructure: that 30-year strategy focuses on regional trans-boundary projects such as the Dakar-Ndjamena-Djibouti Road/Rail project or the Optic Fibre link between Algeria and Nigeria via Niger. These projects are critical for Africa, and all of them are (and need to be) regional.

These are the reasons why I do believe in the necessity and efficiency of regional integration. The NEPAD has a responsibility to liaise with the regional economic communities to enhance their capacity. And this is a virtuous circle: by increasing the capacity to plan, to monitor, to evaluate and to create coherence at the regional level, we increase the regional integration process. This will entail a new climate for development, and will increase peace and security across the continent (the fight against terrorism also needs to be regional as each country cannot face by itself this expanding threat). I definitely believe this can be a win-win situation.

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