Riccardo Mayer

World News


The Imperative of African Unity in a Fragmenting World

Africa stands as a veritable treasure trove of potential. Holding 30% of the globe’s mineral reserves, 8% of natural gas, 12% of oil, 40% of gold, and an astonishing 90% of chromium and platinum, the continent’s promise extends far beyond its physical resources. Within the next 20 years, Africa is projected to boast the world’s most significant working-age population, reaching a peak of around 65%. Furthermore, sub-Saharan Africa is anticipated to account for approximately two-thirds of global population growth, its population nearly doubling by 2050, with a median age of only 22 by 2040—a figure still significantly below the often-cited median age threshold of 30 associated with higher human development levels.

The youth dominate Africa’s demographic profile; over 60% of its population is under 25. By the year 2030, these young Africans are projected to make up about 42% of the global youth population. Intriguingly, the majority of new businesses in Africa are launched by those under the age of 35—a phenomenon that the African Development Bank attributes largely to robust economies and large populations. Projections indicate that sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, will undergo rapid urbanization, contributing significantly to this entrepreneurial trend.

With such expansive population growth come inherent challenges—specifically, considerable strains on infrastructure, education, and healthcare. In the world’s economically poorest continent, opportunities for demographic-based economic growth can only be seized if resources are effectively allocated and strategically directed toward nurturing the next generation into becoming effective innovators, business owners, and labourers.

Africa’s ascendancy occurs against the backdrop of a global landscape fragmented by populist nationalism, trade protectionism, violent extremism, and an increasingly zero-sum competitive outlook among great powers. Successfully navigating this complex milieu is a strategic imperative for Africa. Doing so will provide avenues for diversified relationships with regional powers, stimulate increased trade and investment, improve infrastructure, and amplify Africa’s voice in international affairs as the continent’s negotiating clout expands.

Failure to navigate effectively risks plunging the continent into heightened geopolitical tensions, increased competition over resources, disruptive realignments of alliances, and the unrelenting exploitation by foreign powers, keen on extracting resources or engaging in proxy conflicts to safeguard their strategic interests. The determinant of which future will manifest hinges critically on the capacity for improved African unity, a responsibility primarily incumbent upon the African Union (AU).

Moussa Faki, Chairperson of the African Union
Moussa Faki, Chairperson of the African Union. (Isaac Billy/UNMISS)

The AU’s precursor, the Organisation for African Unity, was established in 1963 with a visionary concept of ‘pan-Africanism,’ envisioning a single market, unified diplomatic corps, and a centralized defense department. That ambitious vision, which would have significantly eroded the sovereignty of sitting African presidents, was ultimately rejected. Consequently, the OAU evolved to more closely resemble organizations like the United Nations, the Arab League, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, all of which adhere to a principle of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs.

The founding of the AU in 2002 marked a revival of the aspiration for pan-African integration. Designed to foster cooperation, integration, and development across Africa, the AU is the most audacious attempt yet to transplant the successes of the European Union to another continent. However, the realization of these ambitions requires deeper integration and a coordinated foreign policy, critical factors in fulfilling the promise of regionalism envisioned by the AU, and in allocating resources to promote collective growth and development.

Historically, the continent’s geography—characterized by deserts, rainforests, and savannas—has played a pivotal role in shaping its political and economic trajectory. The absence of navigable waterways has historically hindered trade, communication, and movement, compounded by the Sahara Desert, which serves as a natural barrier between North Africa and its sub-Saharan counterpart.

Governance challenges are exacerbated by the sheer size of Africa’s territories, infrastructure development needs, resource allocation complexities, and the ever-present quest for political stability. Natural resources such as oil and minerals hold a pivotal role in the continent’s economy but are often the flashpoints for conflict and power struggles. These challenges are further complicated by arbitrary borders established by former colonial powers, which pay little heed to ethnic and cultural divisions, and continue to influence modern conflicts and governance hurdles.

In a world increasingly defined by fragmentation, the project of African unity is not merely a lofty ideal; it is a critical necessity. The onus of fostering this unity rests squarely on the shoulders of the African Union—an organization with the monumental task of either making or breaking Africa’s future. As the continent teeters on the edge of transformative change, unity becomes not merely an ideal but an essential key to unlocking Africa’s untapped potential.

In our contemporary moment, Africa faces a labyrinth of challenges: from a post-pandemic economy marred by health disparities, malnutrition, and pervasive poverty, to the grim irony of experiencing some of the worst effects of climate change despite being among the world’s most modest per capita carbon emitters. Compounding this is the alarming reality that over 100 million Africans are ensnared in a severe food crisis—a quandary further inflamed by ongoing climatic turmoil.

The African Union’s ledger on security offers a variegated tapestry. On the one hand, its Peace and Security Council has been an active theater since 2004, emboldened by military interventions in hotspots like Burundi, Somalia, and Darfur. Yet, its reputation is tarnished by glaring oversights—its incapacity to quell a recent series of coups, predominantly in West Africa, and its limp response to Ethiopia’s civil war, which rages distressingly close to the AU’s own headquarters. The Union’s recourse to sanctions and membership suspensions has proven to be more symbolic than prohibitive.

Electorally, the AU teeters on a precarious ledge. Observers who were supposed to function as democracy’s referees have often faltered, unwilling to chastise regimes that manipulate electoral outcomes. While one must situate this critique within the broader context of the hurdles facing democracy in Africa, it underscores an unsettling instability permeating the continent. Further exacerbating the AU’s existential struggle is the financial delinquency of member states, leading to crippling sanctions.

A Ugandan soldier with AMISOM in Qoryooley, Somalia in 2014
A Ugandan soldier with AMISOM in Qoryooley, Somalia in 2014. (Tobin Jones)

Collaboration across this vast and varied continent is imperative, yet recent events expose a fragile sense of unity. Case in point: the AU’s failure to broker an agreement between Kenya and Djibouti over a coveted non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Ordinarily, the AU’s imprimatur would back a single, unified candidate; this lapse fractured Africa’s global stance. Similarly, the Union’s inability to coalesce around a candidate for the Director-General of the World Trade Organization highlighted not just a missed opportunity but a chasm between Anglophone and Francophone Africa.

Despite this disunity, the AU’s Agenda 2063 outlines a vision of a more cohesive future. It lays the groundwork for an “integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa,” hinging on five pivotal programs: the African Continental Free Trade Area (AFCFTA); the Programme for Infrastructure Development; the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme; the Science, Technology, and Innovation Strategy for Africa; and the Accelerated Industrial Development for Africa.

The AFCFTA—poised to become the world’s largest free trade zone, covering 1.2 billion people across 55 countries—holds immense promise. Yet, the fruits of this ambitious endeavor are contingent on resolving issues like ‘rules of origin’ and creating mechanisms for settling disputes. Furthermore, AFCFTA should be leveraged to forge a unified African trade policy—one that transcends the mere flow of goods and services and conceives a powerful customs union capable of singularly taxing imports from non-African nations. Such a regime could partially alleviate the AU’s budgetary reliance on external sovereign donors, which currently account for a staggering 25% of its financial resources.

In the European Union, such import duties and VATs have become self-sustaining revenue streams, channeled into diverse programs ranging from agriculture to research. Africa could adopt a similar model, with revenues funding not just the AU’s activities but also empowering its member states. A harmonized trade policy could also serve as a safeguard against Africa’s transformation into a dumping ground for substandard goods and expired drugs, elevating the health and quality of life across the continent.

In an era teeming with uncertainties, the AU must recommit to its mission of integration. Now, more than ever, Africa’s prosperity is tethered to the strength of its unity—a unity that can drive economic growth, buttress global influence and ultimately fulfill the promise of a continent on the cusp of transformation.

As Africa grapples with staggering levels of debt, the continent finds itself at a financial crossroads. At the center of this predicament is China, which has become Africa’s most significant creditor through its expansive Belt and Road Initiative. Billions have been funneled into infrastructure projects, some of which have proven to be more of a boondoggle than a boon. Case in point: a host of new rail lines crisscrossing eastern and central African nations. Though built, these projects have yet to generate sufficient revenue for governments to service their loans.

But China isn’t the lone actor in this drama; other key stakeholders include the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, France, and the United States. Amid the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has led to ballooning expenditures and stymied growth, the financial predicament of many African countries has worsened. Presently, eight African nations are grappling with debt distress, while another 13 are on a perilous precipice, according to the World Bank. A dark shadow looms over these nations, reminiscent of Sri Lanka—currently engulfed in an economic crisis and defaulting on a staggering amount of international debt.

In stark contrast, Europe has developed a sophisticated arsenal of debt-restructuring tools. The European Stability Mechanism, the European Financial Stability Facility, and the European Commission’s balance-of-payments assistance program each offer distinct lifelines to nations in fiscal peril. The EU also extends financial aid through investment vehicles like the European Development Fund and the European Investment Bank.

It’s not that the African Union lacks the intent; it has laid the groundwork with initiatives such as the African Debt Management Forum and the African Peer Review Mechanism. Yet, these mechanisms are far from comprehensive, lacking a specialized institution focused on debt restructuring. The imperative for Africa is clear: further integration must be aggressively pursued. Doing so would empower the AU to conduct continent-wide debt restructuring, reducing the burden on individual countries to navigate these treacherous financial waters alone.

Moreover, the specter of a unified continental currency looms in the distance—a tantalizing vision that requires setting debt-to-GDP ratios on a sustainable footing as an essential precondition.

In a century that many believe will be Africa’s to define, the question of how to effectively manage its debt crisis may well be the linchpin upon which its future prosperity hinges. Thus, it is high time for the African Union to take inspiration from its European counterpart and construct a more formidable bulwark against a future defined by debt.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has coined the term “travel apartheid” to encapsulate the stark contrast in migration opportunities between African citizens and their counterparts in wealthier nations. This inequity is largely due to Western perceptions that associate Africans with heightened risks—ranging from security concerns to disease, asylum-seeking, and visa violations.

Throughout the pandemic, Africa recorded the lowest infection rates across continents, a feat attributed to its youthful demographic, sparse population density, swift and rigorous lockdown measures, and accrued experience battling infectious diseases like Malaria, HIV/AIDS, and Ebola. While the underreporting of cases remains a caveat, the inequitable travel policies adopted by Western nations underline the urgency for Africa to bolster its bargaining position on such matters.

Migration is not merely about movement; it is an avenue for cultural exchange, educational advancement, investment influx, and the enhancement of national reputation. Accordingly, the African Union should advocate for migration reciprocity with nations beyond the African continent. This would ensure that an African passport holder enjoys the same visa-free travel privileges extended to non-African travelers.

Yet, the unsettling truth persists: the most consequential decisions affecting Africa are often orchestrated beyond its borders. To put this into perspective, France alone boasts a GDP that eclipses the combined economies of all African nations. Recognizing this, the AU has established diplomatic missions to a myriad of international bodies, including the EU, the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF. Despite this diplomatic web, an overarching document delineating a unified African foreign policy is notably absent.

Over the years, the AU has inched closer to continental unanimity through its cultivation of Common African Position (CAP) papers. These negotiated texts encapsulate shared stances on a gamut of themes or policy subjects that bear continental or transcontinental significance. These CAPs are instrumental in guiding the AU’s interactions with global entities like the UN, and they are vital touchstones in defining Africa’s developmental and strategic priorities on the world stage.

This growing consensus is slowly but surely amplifying Africa’s voice on the global stage. A unified trade and economic framework could provide the scaffolding for a comprehensive African foreign policy. Such a policy would not only fortify Africa’s stance on climate change, foreign aid reliance, and global geopolitics, but also offer a counterbalance to the influence of power blocs like the BRICS nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, or the European Union.

As Africa’s demographic landscape shifts and its economic foothold strengthens, the AU is poised to gain increased geopolitical sway. Demanding that foreign actors engage with Africa as a singular economic entity would enhance the dividends of continental integration. Only the AU, with its unique amalgam of natural, human, and organizational resources—and a clearly defined mandate—can undertake this monumental task.

The stakes for Africa, without doubt, are higher than for any other region. Yet, the AU stands as a beacon of untapped potential for transformative dialogues on climate, economics, and global security. It has laid the groundwork for realizing the lofty ideals of pan-Africanism, which encompasses lasting peace, continental integration, sustainable development, and global influence. Unity isn’t just a pipe dream; it’s the linchpin for tackling Africa’s multifaceted challenges and ambitions.