African Unity, regional integration and ‘Boosting Inter-African Trade’ have been on the African policy agenda for decades in some form or another.
The AU anniversary summit in Addis Ababa last month reiterated some big aspirations for African integration with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam proclaiming that “during the next 50 years, Africa must be fully integrated. We hope all member states of the AU will implement their people’s recommendations expeditiously”. But if the last 50 years are anything to go by, aspirations are nothing when faced with the complications of reality.
That Africa is not well integrated becomes clear on the short trip along the North-South Corridor from Lusaka to Chirundu, a trip we took recently for the ECDPM-SAIIA project on the Political Economy of Regional Integration in Southern Africa.
The need for integration can be interpreted at many levels, and most African economies need them all: all farmers need to be connected to roads, water and electricity, villages need links to towns and markets, and towns to cities and ports. The lack of integration is both a cause and a consequence of under-development.
But regional integration is perhaps where the biggest challenges lie, and where the gaps between policy and practice are most visible.
The North-South Corridor is a concrete effort to address this. Launched in 2009 as a pilot Aid for Trade Project for the EAC-SADC-COMESA Tripartite Initiative, it aims to link the ports of Durban in South Africa through Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, with spurs linking to Angola, the DRC and Mozambique. Combining investment in hard infrastructure and “soft” infrastructure to reduce bureaucratic burdens, the corridor concept conjures up images of smooth roads winding across the African continent with trucks effortlessly shifting goods in and out of ports and across borders, keeping society and the economy running.
Indeed, with donor support, transport is improving, investment is rising, roads are being built and borders are becoming more efficient. Efforts are being made to improve border crossings, with the Chirundu border hailed as a model for the rest of the continent as the first One Stop Border Post in Africa.
But while regional integration is often seen as a technical issue for trade negotiators, technocrats and engineers, the real challenges seem to stem from the practical reality on the ground: major transport arteries also serve as local pathways and markets; small economies mean road transport is the only real commercially viable option in the region; without regular, expensive maintenance road surfaces quickly deteriorate; addressing this takes Herculean efforts to coordinate and cajole a whole range of government agencies to work together within and between countries; and since reforms by definition upset the balance of political, economic and administrative power, these are often blocked or simply dragged out.
Our trip, on what is a miniscule stretch of the North-South Corridor, highlighted several of these challenges. Steep hills for heavy trucks coming down from the Zambezi escarpment to the Chirundu border had just caused an accident; at various points baboons, dogs, goats and cows were crossing or encroaching on the road; numerous abnormal, wide loads destined for the mines obliged on-coming traffic to pull-over; and holes in the road meant swerving and stopping and more than one accident spotted in this one short trip. And this is not to mention petty corruption – a small fee of 20 Kwachas was required to ensure smooth passage with a cracked windscreen.
And still, these were nothing as compared to the 5-day wait endured by some truck drivers at the border, and the queue of 20-odd trucks queueing at the Kafue weighbridge, obliging cars to drive use the wrong-lane. Peering over the border to Zimbabwe from the nice new One-Stop Border building, there were more stationary trucks queued up than seen on the road back to Lusaka, and most of these had likely been through similarly long waits at Beitbridge, the major border from South Africa to Zimbabwe.
Drivers reported taking one full month to drive the 4000km round-trip from Durban to Lusaka and back. That is around 140km per day, or an average speed of less than 12kmph for a 12 hour working day, little more than jogging pace!
What does all this really tell us?
Firstly, we should not conclude that reforms have failed and donor support has been wasted. The pace of reform and improvements simply need to keep up with the demands of booming African economies.
But in addition, whatever the political proclamations, regional integration is extremely complex – though expensive, building roads and border buildings actually seems to be the easy part.
Even at the one-stop border there are 8 or 9 different government institutions controlling paperwork for trucks going from one side to another, in the absence of agreement on who should have the role of controlling a more simplified, coordinated process. When a government agency’s entire revenue depends on maintaining a strong presence at the border post, cutting the red tape can be “challenging” to say the least.
There are bigger issues as well. For all the talk around PPPs in infrastructure, while Zambia had taken what could be seen as an innovative step to handing its DRC border over to a private concession to improve efficiency, the concession was recently taken away amid rumours and accusations of wrong-doing and claims of political score-settling.
So what more can policy-reformers do? Regional integration is really about the reality of transport on those roads, getting government agencies to work together, and a good measure of politics.
A good start then would be to better understand who benefits from the current state of affairs. If regional integration really is the priority that governments say it is, what would it take for politicians to get their governments to act in a more coherent way? Why can governments in the regions not agree on apparently simple things like a standard axle load for trucks? Is there simply no demand?
Policies and support formed with a better understanding of these political, economic and inter-agency drivers and constraints might help get the average truck speeds up from a jog to a run.
Bruce Byiers is Policy Officer Trade & Economic Governance at ECDPM.
This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.
Thanks for the detailed response Mark. On your first point we are in agreement - it is completely superficial to measure the level of integration of Africa based on a day-trip to a border crossing. But that wasn't really the intended aim, and neither was the post aiming to say that the regional integration process is broken. The idea was simply to take advantage of the trip, taken as part of wider research, to illustrate some of the different challenges and complexities of making regional integration work on the ground. The illuminating examples you give further add to that - truckers waiting at the border to save their engines from the steep hill ahead, inefficient/slow clearing agents, slow importer payment and multi-consignment trucks all inevitably cause congestion, slowing down the movement of goods - thus the point in the blog that for regional integration "the real challenges seem to stem from the practical reality on the ground". The 5-day wait we heard about was from speaking to two small groups of truckers standing at the edge of the road - so granted, this is hardly scientific and entirely open to exaggeration. Nonetheless, given the level of traffic we saw queueing I would be interested to know the recorded passing times when we were there in June. Overall, the post perhaps puts too much emphasis on the government agencies operating around the border, without pointing to the important role of supporting institutions and markets behind the border - again though, symptoms of relatively small and developing markets. So yes, we agree that technical/practical issues are a major challenge for implementing the regional integration agenda - but can we really say that putting measures in place to address these is therefore an apolitical process?
It is somewhat superficial to measure the level of integration of Africa based on evidence collected on a day-trip to a border crossing, even if that border crossing is Sub-Saharan Africa's first true one-stop border post (OSBP). The establishment of an OSBP (as well as regional integration in any part of the world) is a process rather than an event. The Chirundu OSBP has been operating as such for a number of years and the two governments (Zambia and Zimbabwe), with support from donor and other agencies, continue to make improvements. There is a relatively sophisticated border monitoring system, based on GPS positioning of trucks, being rolled out, together with Time Release Studies (TRS) and evidence from these monitoring systems indicate that the volume of goods traffic moving through Chirundu has increased considerably since the opening of the OSBP in 2009 yet, using the OSBP systems, the time taken to cross the border (which includes the time taken to go through the control zone as well as the "holding areas" adjacent to the control zone) continues to go down, even without additional staffing, infrastructure or increased border opening times. There is still plenty of room for improvement but, even with the delays witnessed, Chirundu is a success story rather than an indication that Africa is not serious about regional integration. The example given of a five-day wait for a truck at Chirundu needs to be explained. The border monitoring exercise suggests that the average time taken to clear the border is less than a day. So what causes delays? Delays can be caused by truckers waiting for their clearing and forwarding agents to pay the necessary taxes and duties and they are, in turn, waiting for the importers to pay. This is especially complicated if the truck is carrying cargo for multiple customers and so each cargo will have its own consignment documentation. Delays can also be caused by truck drivers choosing to stay at the border post (either side of the control zone) for social reasons or waiting for the cool of the evening to tackle the escarpment and avoid engine over-heating, or for mechanical reasons (as most of the truck horses used on this section of the North South Corridor are second hand from the USA with high mileage already when bought). There are many reasons why a truck will stay at a border post before and after clearance formalities are completed which do not suggest that regional integration process are broken.
I think its a mistake to always look at African Development through the eyes of donor agencies and by Eurocentric standards. Development must really be an African thing by Africans for Africans with African objectives, the African way. As in Middle East and many parts of South and Central Asia business and trade is often underpinned with social rapport and local trade, not the goal of super efficiency and distant trade (not that Africans don't have a history of international trade, beside the slave trade, I mean) . The many advancement of Africans, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mali in times past, shows Africans are more than capable, of taking ownership of their own destiny, as they see it. Finally, let's not forget the author of African Union, demonised by the West, Colonel Gaddafi, whom had a vision for the integration and rapid development of the continent, investing £5 billion dollars across the continent, to achieve this goal, as well as grants and support for education. He was brutally murdered under 'donor' nation bombing, all but killing the dream of a single African, official language, currency, cheap, flexible loans, unhampered by rigid,heavy terms and inter- African trade.