The importance of regional integration highlighted by COVID-19

The African Union (AU), regional economic communities (RECs) and regional mechanisms (RMs) held their second mid-year coordination meeting on 22 October 2020. Initially planned for July, the gathering took place in a virtual format, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although a proposal on the division of labour between the AU and RECs/RMs was tabled at the meeting, the finalisation of this important continental priority has been postponed to the 35th AU summit in early 2022. The division of labour was noted in the declaration that followed the 22 October meeting as ‘work in progress’, which signals that the proposal is still incomplete due in part to the restrictions put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The meeting also examined the 2020 African integration report, entitled Status of regional integration in Africa: Advancing intra-African trade for post-COVID recovery

The report, prepared by the AU Commission’s Department of Economic Affairs, looks at the state of regional integration on the continent, as well as the short- and long-term effects of COVID-19 on Africa, and proposes solutions to remedy their impact. It states that the pandemic has highlighted the urgency of effectively integrating the continent, including developing a manufacturing base in various sectors and boosting intra-African trade.

The question of coordination between the AU and RECs/RMs came to the fore during the AU institutional reforms beginning in 2016. A decision was taken by the AU Assembly in January 2017 ‘that there should be a clear division of labour and effective collaboration among the AU, RECs, RMs, Member States, and other continental institutions, in line with the principle of subsidiarity’. 

Defining subsidiarity – and its actual application – has proven challenging, particularly when it comes to peace and security

Defining subsidiarity – and its actual application – has proven challenging, particularly when it comes to peace and security. This is an area where some RECs have taken the lead or been left to do so, hence raising questions about the role of the AU vis-à-vis RECs in addressing crises on the continent.

Progress since 2019

Last year’s mid-year coordination meeting, in July 2019, centred on the division of labour between the AU, RECs and AU member states, the first African Regional Integration Report and the draft protocol amending the 2008 protocol on AU–REC relations.

The division of labour was to focus on six specific areas, namely policy planning and formulation; policy adoption; implementation; monitoring and evaluation; partnerships; and joint resource mobilisation. The AU, RECs and AU member states were to develop a matrix for the division of labour based on those areas.

The AU Commission, alongside RECs and the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF), produced the first African Regional Integration Report. Acknowledging that some progress has been made in regional integration, the report notes that ‘the eight RECs recognised by the AU face teething challenges of funding and human capacity constraints, overlapping memberships, weak implementation of key regional integration programmes and projects, and a lack of focus and institutional alignments’.

The report is based on the African Multidimensional Regional Integration Index (AMRII). AMRII measures eight dimensions of regional integration: trade integration; free movement of persons; infrastructure integration; political and institutional integration; monetary integration; financial integration; social integration; and environmental management (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. AMRII dimensions
Figure 1. AMRII dimensions
(click on the image for the full size)

Meanwhile, the draft protocol amending the 2008 protocol on AU–REC relations provides for a number of mechanisms/structures to improve coordination, including:

  • The mid-year coordination meeting, composed of the Bureau of the Assembly and chairpersons of the RECs, in charge of, among others, assessing the state of continental integration and coordinating the implementation of continental decisions 
  • The Committee on Coordination, composed of the chairperson and chief executives of financial institutions of the AU and the AUDA-NEPAD, which will provide policy orientation for the implementation of the new protocol 
  • The Coordination Secretariat, composed of the representatives of the AU, RECs and other AU organs, which is tasked with preparing and submitting reports to the Committee on Coordination

Both the overall framework that determines the six technical areas of the division of labour and the new protocol on relations between the AU, RECs, and RMs in the areas of peace and security were adopted by the AU Assembly in February 2020.

Division of labour still a work in progress

In an attempt to clarify how the division of labour would be determined, the AU Assembly decided that the AU would focus on thematic areas with a continental scope, such as peace and security, governance, integration and global representation. This would entail a realignment of AU institutions to achieve results on these priorities.

This, however, is not consistent with the reality that peace and security, governance and integration, for instance, are areas in which some RECs and RMs play a pivotal role.

ECOWAS has consistently taken an active part in peace and security, governance and integration in West Africa and is in many ways better positioned than the AU

For instance, ECOWAS has consistently taken an active part in peace and security, governance and integration in West Africa and is in many ways better positioned than the AU to handle such matters. This suggests that the division of labour between the AU and RECs could be specific to the capacity of each REC, with the AU providing the appropriate support.

Nonetheless, the AU Commission was tasked in February 2020 with finalising details of the division of labour between RECs, RMs and member states. The Reform Unit in the AU Commission was put in charge of delivering a proposal on the subject, which the AU Commission tabled at the 22 October meeting.

The declaration from the second mid-year meeting, however, requested the AU Commission, AUDA-NEPAD, RECs/RMs and member states to complete the gaps in the proposal on other facets of the division of labour. This has to be considered at the latest at the 35th Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly in February 2022, essentially postponing the finalisation of the full matrix on the division of labour.

As a component of the AU’s institutional reform, it is interesting that the finalisation of details on this division of labour is still ongoing, while the new AU Commission structure has been approved and will be implemented from February/March 2021. Some analysts, in fact, argue that the recent AU institutional reforms were a missed opportunity to properly realign continental institutions and make them truly fit for purpose.

The various consultations show that it will take time before any tangible progress is made in the effective division of labour between the AU, RECs/RMs and member states.

Finding consensus on what should be the preserve of either the AU or the RECs/RMs is no easy task, as each of them want to retain if not grow their areas of intervention. Regional supremacy often takes precedence over continental involvement or oversight. Should they eventually agree on a final framework, its implementation – depending on how the labour is divided – will be another big hurdle to clear.

Regional supremacy often takes precedence over continental involvement or oversight

ECOWAS leads the way

Understanding the state of integration in each region is crucial to improving coordination and deciding on the division of labour between the AU, RECs and RMs. Hence the importance of assessing the level of overall continental integration but also of each REC/RM, as there are stark differences between them, including in terms of their financial and other resources.

Figure 2. Overall AMRII score for each REC
Figure 2. Overall AMRII score for each REC
(click on the image for the full size)

Using the eight AMRII dimensions and its 33 indicators, the 2020 report, like the 2019 African Regional Integration Report, argues that African regional integration has seen some progress since the creation of the various RECs and RMs. However, it remains below the threshold derived from expectations as per the Abuja Treaty.

The breakdown of the average performance shows how each of the eight AU-recognised RECs/RMs has fared. As the report states, RECs and RMs cannot be ranked according to their performance given that they were created at different times, with distinct objectives, have evolved in various ways over time, have different funding models, etc.

Nonetheless, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC) lead the way as they are furthest along in their integration process, with the EAC just meeting the threshold and ECOWAS going above it (see Figure 2).   

The status of regional integration and the state of each REC/RM should ideally form part of any discussion on the division of labour.

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