The political breaks on African integration

2013-11-03 14:00

It’s been on the cards for 50 years and is now routinely touted as the continent’s top economic priority. So what’s holding up the African integration agenda? Dewald van Rensburg reports

Africa’s economic integration is now firmly at the top of every talkshop’s ?agenda, but there is a fundamental disconnect between the technocrats driving it and the political realities blocking it, argued a few academics at this week’s African Economic Conference.

For the continent, the economic imperative is a “no-brainer”, argued Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank, (AfDB), the conference’s host and the major promoter of the integration project.

At the same time, the “Afrocrats” driving the plans and negotiations seem to be doing so in a political vacuum.

“Sometimes technocrats try to be above politics, but integration is a political project,” said Thandika Mkandawire, a Mali-born professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Integration plans usually revolve around “what is good for Africa, but do not ask good for whom, when and how,” he said.

“You have to spell out the national, regional and class interests, and how they look at this project. There has never been a referendum on regional integration in an African nation. The regional projects are not part of national politics,” said Mkandawire.

According to him, the investment of the political elite in his home country, Mali, in the road transport of oil was key to retarding the more rational building of a rail link to supply the country.

From xenophobic jealousy among workers and small businesses to entrenched bureaucracies and vested economic interests, the enemies of integration are very real.

Pedro Conceição, chief economist of the UN Development Programme’s Africa bureau, said the “net benefits” of integration might not be the same for everyone.

And South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said political will needed to be matched by “bureaucratic will”.

Much of the integration agenda’s nuts and bolts come down to roads, rail and ports to facilitate the transport of goods.

Roads were not enough, said Kaberuka. He pointed out brand-new cross-border highways, funded by the AfDB, where trucks still queue for days due to byzantine customs procedures.

Africa is not a island either. The rest of the world is pursuing its own, varied projects that affect the integration agenda.

Some might like our regional integration, some might not, said Mkandawire. “Regional integration by definition involves preferential treatment. It is incompatible with neoliberal plans which, by definition, oppose preferential treatment.”

Most African countries still did not have an industrial policy, said Mkandawire. “Why now expect a regional industrial policy?” he asked.

The lack of a manufacturing base across most of the continent limits the extent to which intra-Africa trade can actually grow and several delegates said integration had to go hand in hand with an industrial revolution on the continent.

The magic number is 12%: the general estimate of intraregional trade in Africa, which compares poorly with the EU’s 60%, North America’s 40% and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ 40%.

According to one presenter, this paltry figure doesn’t reflect the reality of Africa’s economy, but rather the overwhelming dominance of the big-three economies: South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt.

The big three are far more outward facing than African economies in general, argued Ilan Stauss, an AfDB consultant.

South Africa largely trades with Europe and China, while Nigeria’s oil economy is tied to North America and Egypt is more aligned to the Mediterranean world.

In contrast, east African economies are massively integrated with intra-African trade, often dominating their exports and imports. But the big three make up half the continent’s economy and influence the aggregate statistics.

On average, African countries actually have intraregional imports of 24% and exports of 18.35%.

Ibbo Mandaza, executive director of the Southern Africa Political and Economic Series Trust (Zimbabwe), said Africa “lacks industry and it is hard to see how this will be overcome in an era of globalisation”.

The uneven and unequal development on the continent, between countries and inside them, was another problem, he said.

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