Category Archives: African Union

OAU at 50: some reflections on regional integration in Africa under AU

OAU at 50: some reflections on regional integration in Africa under AU

By: Thembani Mbadlanyana*

If it was not for the name change and restructuring, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was going to celebrate its 50 years of existence. This is why its successor, the African Union (AU), has decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the OAU.

Even though the OAU was in existence until the establishment of the AU in July 2002, according to some analysts, the advent of the AU had been  in  the making since 1977,  when  African  leaders  acknowledged  that  aspects  of  the OAU  Charter  had  become  outdated  and  needed  to  be  reformed1.. There  was  an  increasing  realization  that  the  OAU  had  become  a  relic  of  itself  and  the  post-colonial  era;  because  by  the  end  of  the  20th century,  virtually  every  African  country, whose cause  for self‐rule it championed  had  gained  independence.

A new cohort of African leaders decided to rekindle their interest in continental integration in general, and economic integration in particular. But this was for different reasons from the initial decolonization agenda.  This time around, African  leaders  realised the need to address unconstitutional change of governments and to entrench the culture of democracy in the continent through promotion of good governance as demonstrated by adoption of  NEPAD  and  the  African  Peer Review  Mechanism  (APRM)  as  main  flagship  programmes.

However, even though in recent years there have been innumerable  declarations  from  AU  and  African  leaders  about  the  desirability  of  closer  cooperation  and  even  integration, the record shows that the rhetoric has not  been  matched  by  action.  This gives rise to a number of critical questions that Africans need to reflect on as they celebrate 50th anniversary of the OAU. African political leadership needs to ask themselves why African integration  continues  not  to  demonstrate  elements  of  success? Why African  integration  under  the  auspices  of  AU  does  not  seem  to  be  successful  even  though  its  institutional  set  up  has  some striking resemblance  to  that  of, what might seem  to  be  a  successful,  EU  “model”?

Of course,  in  the  context  of  Africa,  regional  integration  is  an  extremely  complicated phenomenon that is conditioned by socio-economic  and  political  dynamics  different  from those found  in Europe. To this end, there are additional and questions  regarding the  discourse  about  regional   integration  in  Africa. What  are  the  necessary  and  sufficient  conditions  for  successful  integration?  Should  regional  integration  be  approached gradually and  indirectly by functionalist  strategy?  Are customs unions preferable? How  can  African integration be made to proceed faster  or  farther  in  some  policy areas  than  in  others?

I argue here that, even  though  economies  of  most  African  countries  were  insulated  from  the  recent  financial  crisis,  African integration  continues  to  be  in bad  state.  More  so,  even  though  this  integration  is  pursued  under  the  auspices  of  AU,  with institutional  set  up  that  resembles  that  of  the  EU,  it  does  not  seem  to  be  going anywhere-­‐ there  is simply no  progress. To  account  for  that  failure or lack  of  progress of the African integration, one  might  be  tempted to only look at the Institutional set up  as  an  only  explanatory  factor. I argue   here  that,  institutional  set up cannot  be  used  as the only explanatory factor-­‐there are other equally important structural  and sociological  factors. Some  of these factors include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Democratic deficit, Political  Instability  and  Unconstitutional  change  of  governments  (e.g.  Mali coup and recent coup in CAR).  Integration demands some level of stability.  Intergovernmental  or  supranational  organizations  can  only assert  their  authority  and  influence  in  a  stable  climate.  Unfortunately that is not the case in Africa.  The continental  body (AU) operates  in  an  unstable  political  climate  marred by  democratic  deficit.
  • AU commission’s lack of legal power (members not willing to share sovereignty). As  pointed  out  by  Santanya,  what  hinders  a  successful  integration in  Africa  is  the  fact  that  “regional  institutions  are  not  independent  enough  to  implement  integration initiatives”.  This  becomes  more  evident  when  one  looks  at  the  powerless  and  weak  AU commission, which  lacks  the  independence,  authority  and  the  legal  power  to  enforce  decisions. 2. 
  • Lack of Political Will. Another  factor that makes  African  integration  less  successful  is  a  gross  lack  of  political  will  on  the  part  of  African  states needed to  translate  goals  and  objectives  into  reality. There is a glaring  disconnect  between  commitment  to  integration  at  public  fore and the creation of an enabling environment for it to be  operational.
  •  Weak  economic  structures.    Many  African  states due to weak economic structures  cannot  operationalize  African  integration.  Lack  of  funds becomes a major impediment to the smooth running of integration iniitatives.  The  epileptic  state  of  the  economies  of  some  African  states  coupled  with  their  obligations  to  pay  annual  dues  to  the various sub regional organizations they belong to largely  contributes  to  the  inability  to discharge  their  financial  obligations.
  • Crowded Integration Landscape. Landscape of  African  integration  is  defined  by  multiple  (14)  Regional  Economic  Communities  (RECs)  with overlapping  and  replicated membership. Only four African  countries  belong  to  one  regional organization, 27  belong  to  two  organizations  and 17 belong to three and  3 belong  to  four. Overlapping memberships of several  regional groupings, with  duplicative  mandates  and  structures,  lead  to  inadequate financing  of the integration  process  and  inefficient  use  of  limited  resources.
  • Skewed distribution of benefits. For  many  African  countries, joining  a  REC  is  linked  to  strategic  and  political  reasons;  economic  reasons;  complementarity;  historical  reasons,  geographic  proximity,  political  pressure,  and cultural  reasons. But  more  importantly,    these  reasons  are  based  on  the  expectation  of  immediate and  long‐term  welfare  gains.  For  instance,  in  situations  where  a  country  loses  out  on  the  benefits accruing  from  integration, there is  a  strong  possibility  of such country either committing half-heartedly to integration  objectives  or  completely  pulling  out.

Like European integration, African integration has had its fair share of  problems, emanating from a wide range of sources and manifesting  themselves differently.  Since the economic, social, political  and  legal  context  in  which  the EU institutions work is strikingly different to that of most AU’s  institutions, the  AU  will  have  to  chart  its own  course,  travel  at  its  own  pace,  find  its  own  rhythm,  and  write  its  own  history.  The  AU  still  has  a  long  way  to  go  before  it  can  claim  to  be  both  effective  and  influential.  Amongst  others,  the  AU  needs strong  independent  institutions  to  organise  a  strong  integration  process. Sharing the same names with the EU institutions  doesn’t  mean  AU’s  institutions  will  have  same  experiences  and  outcomes  like  EU  ones.   Subsequently, the success  of  the  integration  project in Africa  is  dependent on, the willingness of African states  to accept  the  responsibility  of  organizing  for  and  consequently,  reaping  the  benefits of  success.  Then  and  only  then  will  the  African  Union have impact given that   integration will be  aimed  at  reaping  such  benefits.

*Thembani Mbadlanyana is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF regular contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here.


1. Ibid
2.See Santayana George. 2010.  Supranationalism in the African context: A critical  look at past and present  attempts  at  building supranational  organizations  in  Africa.  University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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