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The Journey Towards Africa’s Continental Integration

Michaela Gyasi-Agyei | Africa Fellow

37th African Union Heads of State and Government Summit. Image sourced from GovernmentZA via Flickr.

The majority of Africa’s borders were drawn by colonial powers, and continue to contribute to a range of issues, including economic limitations and ethnic divisions. Integrating Africa is crucial to increasing the continent’s prosperity and accelerating its development. Transnational initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the reduction of visa requirements have begun facilitating trade and movement between African states. However, there are several challenges to Africa’s integration, including ongoing conflicts, deteriorated bilateral relationships and logistical issues.


The recent celebration of African Integration Day offers an opportunity to reflect on the progress made in connecting the continent and consider additional action which is still required.


A “borderless” Africa


The issues associated with Africa’s borders are manifold. The often arbitrary drawing of national boundaries divided certain ethnic groups between countries, increasing the risks of conflict and political instability. Landlocked African countries face challenges in accessing regional and global trade. This has limited economic growth, causing many landlocked states to be classified as “least developed countries”. In addition, insufficient investment in cross-border infrastructure has made the transportation of certain goods onerous and costly. Such constraints have contributed to intra-African commerce comprising only 13 per cent of the continent’s overall trade.


Continental integration could assist in overcoming these negative impacts, by facilitating trade, increasing the effectiveness of development initiatives, and promoting peace and cohesion. Greater connectivity between African states could also encourage increased engagement from the global African diaspora. This would provide Africa with access to additional capital, skills and networks, which can play an important role in the continent’s economic growth and development.


Integration initiatives


There have been several efforts to make African states more interconnected, including the implementation of the AfCFTA. This is one of the flagship projects in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and is intended to create a unified market for Africa by removing tariffs and other trade restrictions. The AfCFTA Guided Trade Initiative was established in 2022, allowing seven African countries to begin trading 96 goods on a provisional basis.


The Pan-African Payments and Settlement System is complementary to the AfCFTA and was established to facilitate cross-border payments. The Boosting Intra-African Trade Action Plan has also been created to address issues relating to logistics, infrastructure, transportation and finance. Once fully operational, the AfCFTA is expected to create the world’s largest free trade zone, including more than 1.3 billion people.


Other integration projects involve facilitating movement within Africa, in order to increase tourism and improve educational, business and employment opportunities. There has been some progress made, with countries like Kenya allowing citizens of other African states to travel without a visa. The African Union launched a passport in 2016, with the purpose of allowing visa-free travel throughout the continent. However, distribution of the passport is currently limited to government officials. The African Union also introduced the Free Movement of Persons Protocol (Protocol) in 2018, but only a handful of states have ratified the agreement. Advancing these initiatives is imperative for achieving continental integration.


Potential pitfalls


In addition to various opportunities, a “borderless” Africa presents challenges due to the continent’s complex geopolitical landscape. Several African states are experiencing severe conflict, combatting terrorism, or are still under military rule following coups. Without implementing necessary measures, reducing restrictions on movement between borders could exacerbate these security issues. These risks could be mitigated through a renewed commitment to the African Union’s Common African Defence and Security Policy. The collection of accurate data regarding migration and travel could also assist in upholding the safety of citizens.


Other challenges to Africa’s integration relate to strained diplomatic relationships. There are several ongoing territorial disputes, including between Ethiopia, Somalia and Somaliland, and unilateral border closures which have been enacted by countries such as Burundi. Following their military coups, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have distanced themselves from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and maintain ties with Russia’s Wagner Group, now known as Africa Corps.


ECOWAS and other regional economic communities, alongside the African Union, should play a key role in facilitating dialogue between states and increasing confidence in transnational collaboration. Regional bodies will also need to develop a harmonised approach to tariffs and other policies, in order to streamline the integration process.


Shaping the future


Continental integration has the potential to provide numerous advantages to African states and their citizens, and continues to be a focus for regional organisations. The African Development Bank recently released its strategy for 2024-2033, which includes the promotion of regional integration as a priority area. During the 54th World Economic Forum held in January 2024, the AfCFTA Secretariat announced that 24 additional countries will be joining the Guided Trade Initiative, representing a significant step towards the AfCFTA becoming fully operational.


Further attention should be drawn towards the ratification of the Protocol and the reduction of visa restrictions throughout Africa. However, concurrent action must be taken to address issues relating to security and logistics, and to strengthen relationships between African states and regional bodies. This will decrease the risks associated with continental integration, while maximising the anticipated benefits.


Most African countries did not have a say in the drawing of their national borders. However, a “borderless” Africa may allow some of the resulting limitations to be transcended. In alignment with the slogan for Agenda 2063, continental integration could provide an opportunity to create “The Africa We Want”.


Michaela Gyasi-Agyei is the Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She has a Bachelors of Economics/Laws (Honours) from the University of Queensland.


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