In theory, Africa’s regional economic communities are destined to form the building blocks of an integrated African Union (AU). However, this again failed to transpire at the fourth mid-year coordination meeting between the AU, regional economic communities (RECs) and regional mechanisms (RMs) on 17 July in Lusaka, Zambia.
The uneven integration of RECs and RMs, and some countries’ membership of multiple RECs stand in the way of the vision of incremental integration. This was set out in the Abuja Treaty, one of the blueprints of the Organisation of African Unity-AU transformation.
Uneven performance by RECs
A report presented at the coordination meeting reiterated that the East African Community (EAC), with its regional parliament and plans for a confederation, is economically, by far the continent’s most integrated region. This is followed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) is the least integrated of the RECs. It is a relic of past years when Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi dreamt of being the president of a ‘United States of Africa’ and created an organisation of states loyal to him. CEN-SAD, with 24 members and based in Ndjamena, Chad, last had a proper summit in 2013. In 2019 it made plans to revive itself with a new secretariat and a plan of action.
However, it is difficult to see what value such an organisation can add since all its members already belong to other RECs. These regional organisations draw resources from their member states and host countries. If the political will no longer exists to keep them going, bold decisions need to be made to disband them.
North African states without a home
The Maghreb Arab Union (UMA), with five member states, is another weakly integrated REC that suffers from the perennial Algeria and Morocco conflict and the 2011 implosion of the Libyan government. UMA is sustained through a secretariat in Rabat and represented at meetings in Lusaka, although not at a high level. Incidentally, UMA contributes the most to the AU-budget since Morocco and Algeria are members of the big five contributors in this region.
Member states of UMA have tried to apply for membership of established RECs, showing the value of belonging to a regional organisation, but with little success so far. Morocco first applied to join ECOWAS in February 2017. Having been led to believe it had the green light, albeit with reluctance from Nigeria, the bloc’s biggest member, its membership is still unconfirmed.
Tunisia, meanwhile, has also tried to deepen its ECOWAS links and signed an agreement with it in 2018. Neither Morocco nor Tunisia geographically border any ECOWAS member state. Having left ECOWAS in 1999, Mauritania champions the newly founded G5-Sahel structure to combat terrorism in the Sahel. The organisation, which is headquartered in Nouakchott, has not gained much momentum due partly to external funding issues. The need for UMA states to overcome their differences and establish a viable REC is evident.
According to the integration report presented at the summit, the eight RECs and two RMs have 106 members. Yet the AU has only 55 members. Multiple memberships are rife and are often referred to as the spaghetti bowl of overlapping regional organisations within the AU structure. While the membership configuration of regional organisations should keep abreast of fast-moving continental economic, political and security realities, states have limited resources to participate fully in more than one African multilateral institution.
Already, the AU is struggling to get its member states to pay their annual dues to fund the organisation. Embassies in Addis Ababa are notoriously understaffed, as are diplomatic representations at the headquarters of RECs. Often the non-implementation of decisions and plans made by heads of state at summits is due to a lack of capacity, and it undermines the reputation of these institutions in citizens’ eyes.
The latest country to join another REC is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which became a member of the EAC in April 2022. It is already a member of SADC and ECCAS. Joining the EAC is seen as having significant economic advantages for the other six members of the organisation – Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan.
The DRC has significant natural resources. And, with its population of 90 million expected to grow significantly in the next few years, it is a very lucrative market for any regional configuration, especially the EAC, which is well integrated economically. One official quipped that it now gives the EAC a reach from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, with the DRC port of Matadi coming into its fold.
Plans are now afoot to send a new EAC military force to the eastern DRC. If the country were to fully participate in all activities of the three RECs to which it now belongs, its diplomatic capacity would be significantly stretched.
At the mid-year meeting in Lusaka, multiple RECs were noted by high-ranking officials as potential stumbling blocks to coordinated integration of the continent. AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat pointed out that overlapping RECs should have clear direction to maximise efficiency. Others said multiple memberships created ‘chaos’ and should not be allowed to continue, given the constraints and lack of cohesion it entails.
Advantages of inter-REC cooperation
At the summit, the advantages of inter-REC cooperation, such as those of the tri-partite free trade agreement of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, the EAC and SADC, were praised. This agreement is a successful example of greater economic cooperation involving various RECs and now includes 27 member states, but it has yet to come into effect.
Meanwhile, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which, theoretically, will overtake this agreement, is advancing rapidly. As of July 2022, 43 states had ratified the AfCFTA, while 54 out of 55 had signed the agreement, with Eritrea being the only country outstanding.
Beyond the obvious value of regional groupings to facilitate intra-African trade, which is still notoriously low, RECs are also about political coherence and shared historical values. RECs are called on to respond to crises such as coups d’état, unconstitutional changes of government and security threats such as violent extremism.
ECOWAS has been fairly successful in taking a united stand against military coups. However, attempts to enforce decisions against third-term bids by the leaders of its member states have repeatedly failed due to political divergence of views on the issue.
SADC is, for the most part, still politically linked by the historic bond among former liberation movements that are in power in several of its member states. However, as a REC, it has not managed to implement the free movement of people. The strength and viability of RECs and RMs also depend largely on the capacity of their organisational structures and the buy-in of citizens.
Relations between the AU and RECs/RMs remain problematic, despite several attempts to achieve a strict division of labour. As was evident at the Lusaka summit, the principles of complementarities and comparative advantage between the AU and RECs have become an accepted basis for this relationship.
In addition to the 2008 Protocol on Relations between the RECs and the AU – and the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Area of Peace and Security between the AU, RECs – a draft AU and RECs memorandum of understanding on the African Standby Force and closer cooperation on the implementation of the roadmap to silencing the guns have been cited as progress.
According to Mahamat, consultants will submit a proposal on the division of labour for discussion at the next summit of heads of state in February 2023. This will be crucial for better coordination between the RECs and the mother body, the AU. A decision on overlapping RECs will also go a long way to ensuring greater coherence and efficiency of Africa’s many sub-regional organisations.
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