No one-size-fits-all on the path to African regional integration – Fellows’ seminar by Abena Oduro and Andreas Freytag

14 September 2022

“It’s a project with lots of twists, in which we have made the very pleasant move from a traditional European narrative to broader perspectives,” said Andreas Freytag of the School of Economics and Business administration, Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena. “We started with a very European perspective – that integration is mainly economic, and the European Union model is the most progressive. We took it for granted that Africa would also be following the European lessons. But we have realised that African integration is complex – a spaghetti bowl. The recognised regional integrations are scattered, overlapping and incomplete. They don’t follow the EU or World Trade Organisation textbook rules but they do follow their own logic with some successes. We’ve realised it’s not good to model integration one-to-one. Regions must develop their own perspectives, go their own way.”

STIAS Fellows Andreas Freytag and Abena Oduro during their seminar on 5 September 2022

Along with Abena Oduro of the Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa and the Department of Economics at the University of Ghana, Freytag was reporting on their long-term STIAS project which started in 2017, has included workshops and conferences, and will result in an 18-chapter book in the STIAS series which they are currently editing.

Although African nations have been working on regional integration for many years with different attempts at economic integration in sub-regions, including free-trade areas, customs unions and monetary unions, recent bolder steps include the African Union’s Agenda 2063 development framework and the comprehensive African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). This ambitious project became effective in 2019 and comprises 54 out of 55 African nations – making it the world’s largest free-trade area in terms of number of countries.

Freytag and Oduro pointed out that because the EU has supported African integration efforts in the past the perception has been created that the EU model can serve as a role model for the continent. However, it has become increasingly clear that the model cannot easily be applied to African countries and their citizens, and also that it is not obvious that it should be. Many African policy-makers and scholars have pointed to historical, institutional and cultural differences between the two continents as well as shortcomings in the European model which have become more obvious in the last decade.

Freytag and Oduro and their collaborators therefore believe there is a need to draw lessons for Africa from the experience of other continents and, in particular, that African integration can benefit from a thorough study of integration successes and failures in Asia and Latin America.

“The STIAS model provided the ideal opportunity – a multidisciplinary setting that explicitly considers an African perspective,” added Freytag.

The book, with contributions from scholars in Africa, Europe and Latin America, will challenge the assumption that the European model is the model for Africa. It will examine the state of intra-African cooperation – discussing different approaches to regional integration, the political economy dimensions and obstacles, challenges and achievements. It will also critically analyse over 60 years of European integration, examine the experiences of regional integration in other continents to understand whether they provide answers for Africa, and make proposals for future directions.

Complexity and specificity

Oduro presented some issues raised by authors in the book’s chapters. Highlighting a few of the myriad complex issues raised in the book thus far, Oduro pointed to different authors’ call for the development of  alternative theoretical frameworks. “The current frameworks don’t reflect either the complexity or specificity of Africa,” she said. “Many African institutions are in a state of “being or coming into being”. Power is not concentrated at any one level. It’s been suggested that a flexible integration approach should be adopted – where countries can join at different stages and choose what to implement.”

In her presentation, Oduro noted the recommendation by one of the authors that “African renaissance and an African worldview should be the basis for an alternative framework”.

She also highlighted the shortcomings of  using traditional indicators to measure progress in regional integration – “quantitative indicators have been criticised because they ignore the complexity of factors that influence African regional integration – we need qualitative analysis, mixed methods.”

And although integration is about much more than economics, it’s clear that trade is often the trigger for expanded benefits in other spheres but also that trade cannot be used to cushion conflicts or inequalities.

As an example, Oduro pointed to how the effects of integration differ by income group and by gender. “Six of the currently officially acknowledged Regional Economic Communities contain gender provisions but it’s a challenge to translate these into national laws – to move from rhetoric to action. It needs willingness. Norms and behaviours take a long time to change but we shouldn’t give up. We have to hope that with time regional level laws and protocols will provide the legal basis for change.”

“Integration in a context of general inequality has not been handled yet,” she continued. “There is an unequal distribution of benefits and goods which is another reason why implementation is slow. We need institutions and mechanisms to smooth out wrinkles caused by trade.”

She also noted that proposals around the adoption of one African language and the establishment of hegemon states are as challenging in Africa as they have proven to be in Europe – “If Africa has a hegemon – which country should it be  and which language or languages should be adopted?” she asked.

“Above all context matters,” she added. “Everything is influenced by histories. Context explains the responses of different countries. Rules are not being implemented on a blank sheet.”

“But,” she added. “We have seen that the Regional Economic Communities are not static, they are responsive, not cast in stone, they do have agency.”

Spaghetti and noodles

The exploration of other continents has also shown that many challenges are not unique to Africa. “If Africa is a spaghetti bowl, Asia can be described as a noodle bowl,” explained Oduro.

Freytag highlighted some of these challenges including infrastructure, the scarcity of professional services, the need to change fiscal regulations, build administrative skills, adjust trade barriers and, above all, address corruption.

“Investment is needed to tackle these,” he said. “Africa needs institutional reform – but who doesn’t?”

He also pointed to the need to fully understand the vested interests and roles of external forces – “the big players – China, Russia, the EU and United States – in the new scramble for Africa”.

“External forces could be pulling Africa apart and conflicts also detract from the issue of integration,” added Oduro. “The external pressures could be stronger than those keeping us together.”

“Regional integration should be treated as a national event – an open process, with different interests and ambitions,” said Freytag. “Emancipation from  external actors is needed. African integration should follow its own patterns, create a completely different model. Integration as an open process without fixed end points. There is a need to learn and relearn.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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