Africa is in desperate need for greater unity and stronger leadership to realise its pan-African ambitions

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      As noted by the Economist last December, and confirmed by a recent report by Invest AD and the Economist Intelligence Unit, Africa is on the rise to become one of the most attractive regions for investment and a pole for growth. The challenge is to transform these opportunities into concrete deliverables for equitable, inclusive and sustainable development throughout the continent. Committed political drive and vision will be key in this process.

      This week’s African Union Summit of Heads of State was meant to bolster such Africans aspirations. The Summit was dedicated to providing the highest political support for “boosting intra-Africa trade” by fast-tracking the move towards greater effective integration and the setting up of the Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) by 2017. Unfortunately, as is all too often the case in African affairs, a unified and strong political leadership was lacking. As a result, the Summit, which had started in the glory of the inauguration of the new AU Conference Centre offered by the Chinese, ended in disarray.

      The Heads of State failed to reach an agreement on who should lead the African Union Commission. Jean Ping, the current AUC Chairperson from Gabon, failed to win enough support - which in itself is a strong rebuke to his leadership role - as did his challenger, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from South Africa. Jean Ping and his current Commission will remain in office until a new election set for the next Summit in June in Malawi. Several factors may explain this current stalemate, including: (1) some resentment towards Jean Ping for some insufficient leadership at the head of the AU and notably the slow response to the Arab Spring; (2) an old fashioned split between Francophone and Anglophone countries; and (3) some frustration at a perceived hegemonic role South Africa could play in pan-African affairs. It is probably better to postpone a nomination than settle for an unsatisfactory candidate. But the current split and antagonism among countries may hamper future efforts to identify a consensual candidate that will have enough charisma to lead the African Union over the next few years. And Africa is in desperate need for greater unity and stronger leadership. One lesson from the Europe Union is that settling for second or third tier candidates for lead positions is no recipe for success.

      The lack of a cohesive leadership grounded in real pragmatism was also at play in the regional integration agenda of the Summit for “boosting intra-African trade”. The main outcome of the proposal put forward by the AU Commission and endorsed last December by Trade Ministers for a timetable, roadmap and action plan of accompanying measures towards the CFTA by 2017 encountered some robust opposition, from President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. They insisted on the need to focus first on infrastructure development and addressing the numerous capacity constraints plaguing Africa, including tackling the various barriers to trade and bottlenecks to facilitate trade. As a result, the proposal will now be examined further by a committee of seven Heads of State, whose report will be presented at the next meeting in Malawi.

      Clearly, the 2017 target for a CFTA is not only unrealistic, but is also meaningless per se in economic terms. Africa must focus on effective integration, not new grand designs disconnected from the political and economic realities of the continent. As such, Nigeria and Ethiopia brought a most needed sense of reality in the pan-African ambitions. But the objective of fostering current regional integration efforts, focused on trade and other accompanying measures to promote effective integration, notably in terms of infrastructure development and trade facilitation, could only benefit from a new impetus and collective support at the pan-African level. The Heads of State missed an opportunity to instill some much needed political commitment and leadership in this endeavour, perhaps illustrating once more the gap between their pan-African rhetoric and their actions, too often entrenched in national views that fail to grab the development potential offered by collective action and integration at a regional level.


      San Bilal heads ECDPM's Economic Governance Programme.


      This blog post features the author’s personal view and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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