Coauthored with Drew D’Alelio, intern in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The rise of populism has been widely interpreted as a global phenomenon, from Donald Trump’s surge in the United States to Brexit in Europe to the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. At last month’s African Union Summit in Rwanda, however, few gave integration a bad name. Heads of state lavished praise on the African Union’s (AU) efforts to develop a common passport, while subregional blocs made advances toward a single currency. Having seen the downside of decades of fragmentation and severe restrictions on the free movement of people and goods in Africa, leaders appear determined to buck the trend. Nevertheless, the anti-globalization wave across the West ought to give Africans pause as they speed ahead in their quest for a unified continent encompassing twice the population of the European Union.
Prior to the founding of the AU, its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), placed a premium on respect for national sovereignty as leaders sought to establish order and territorial integrity in the post–colonial era. As African nations consolidated independence, those principles became less essential, while the organization’s commitment to noninterference drew criticisms in the 1990s when the OAU failed to prevent war and atrocities in Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Somalia. African leaders replaced the OAU with the AU in 2002 and committed to balance the demands for sovereignty and those for integration. Since then, the AU has wasted little time setting lofty goals, enshrined in the body’s guiding document, Agenda 2063. These include a high speed transportation network, a common passport, a free trade area, an end to all violent conflict, and more.
The cornerstone of this pan-African vision is a common passport using biometric data, which the AU hopes to complete by 2020. Advocates argue that this African e-passport will increase cross-border economic activity by eliminating visa costs and removing barriers to intra-African trade. An e-passport would also centralize recordkeeping of people’s movements and reduce risks of identity theft.
In parallel, African leaders are attempting to complete a Continental Free Trade Area by 2017. This would include all fifty-four African countries, encompassing a market of 1.3 billion people that currently generates $3 trillion in GDP. Today, intra-African trade accounts for an abysmal 11 percent of total African trade. (Comparable figures are 60 percent for Europe, 25 percent for Asia). A single market could increase intra-African trade volume by as much as $35 billion annually. Whereas electorates in Europe and the United States are increasingly skeptical about mega-regional trade agreements, all fifty-four African heads of state have signaled support for the deal. Already, twenty-seven African countries from Egypt to South Africa agreed last year on a Tripartite Free Trade Area, which commits members to lower tariffs and removes non-tariff barriers.
Meanwhile, planned subregional currency agreements should provide a platform toward an eventual African monetary union. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has committed to finalizing its “eco” currency by 2020, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is testing a cross-border payment system and encouraging more member states to adopt the South African rand, and the East African Community (EAC) plans to have a subregional currency within the decade. These monetary unions should help attract foreign investment and reduce exchange rate uncertainties.
These are grand ambitions. But they could easily be derailed, given Africa’s weak institutional capacities and competing security priorities. Consider the e-passport: today, only thirteen out of fifty-four African countries have a biometric passport system, and just one-fifth have a functioning civil-registration system. Visa fees also bring in substantial revenue, suggesting some governments might not play ball if the appropriate economic incentives are not in place. Finally, open borders could further the spread of terrorist groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabab, other affiliates of al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Preventing the spread of terrorism while simultaneously ensuring the free movement of goods, money, and people will require continental strategies to fill security voids, invest in poverty reduction, and counter extremist ideologies.
Europe’s Schengen Area experience suggests that before opening their borders, Africans should put in place adequate intelligence sharing systems. This in turn will require building trust and overcoming longstanding rivalries among neighboring countries. African nations must also agree to protect the rights of migrants under the Kampala Convention and the International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families—treaties that many conflict-ridden countries have not yet ratified. Finally, African governments must establish domestic employment adjustment programs to assist citizens who lose jobs to migrants—or risk the sort of anti-migrant backlash that has gripped South Africa in recent years.
In parallel with these steps, the African Union needs to achieve fiscal sustainability, an issue with which it continues to struggle. The AU’s operational budget is $782 million, but only $200 million of that comes from African member states. This dependence on external sources has slowed the development of the AU’s own crisis response capabilities. From 2008 to 2011, the AU funded only 2 percent of its peace and security operations, and depended on a select few African countries for the bulk of that funding. In early 2015, African heads of state promised to fund 25 percent of AU peacekeeping operations by 2020. Given the AU’s history of not following through on ambitious proposals, such as the African Standby Force, donors are understandably skeptical. But in a promising sign, at last month’s summit in Kigali, leaders approved a new AU Peace Fund, which would raise $65 million from each of the AU’s subregions through a 0.2 percent tax on certain imports. Success will depend on overcoming significant obstacles to implementation, notably ensuring transparency and compliance among all fifty-four member states.
The United States and other Western partners should support the AU’s Peace Fund, as well as other continent-spanning integrationist initiatives, including the new African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, established in the wake of the Ebola epidemic. Washington should also continue to promote economic liberalization through the African Growth and Opportunity Act to further remove trade barriers between the United States and Africa.
Deepening integration should advance African prosperity, stability, and security. Free movement of people, goods, and capital promise increased competition and growth, and stronger continent-wide institutions should enhance human security and human development. Still, fulfilling the promise of Agenda 2063 will require difficult compromises among the AU, heads of state, and African citizens. National governments will have to cede some authority over border management, and sacrifice some tools of economic statecraft such as exchange rate control and currency intervention. If the EU experience is any guide, AU leaders will need to anticipate growing populist resentment over perceived sovereignty losses, inadequate accountability, and the distribution of benefits and losses of integration. If the AU does advance toward an “ever closer union,” it should do so with its eyes open.