PROSPECTS AND CHALLENGES OF REGIONAL INTEGRATION IN WEST AFRICA
It is widely acknowledged that Africa’s integration efforts have thus far failed to bear satisfactory fruit. While other regions have successfully used their integration mechanisms to improve their economic welfare, Africa lags behind with respect to GDP growth, per capita income, capital inflows, and general living standards. This is a problem across most of the continent, in spite of the existence of a plethora of policy plans and grand visions. The first major blueprint for Africa’s development – the Lagos Plan of Action and the Final Act of Lagos – was adopted almost three decades ago, and set out a vision of an integrated African market by the year 2000. It was given further impetus by the Abuja Treaty which was approved in 1991 and came into force in 1994. According to this Treaty, the African Economic Community (AEC) would be in place by 2028. Some of its milestones would include strengthening of existing regional economic communities and the formation of the new ones (between 1994 and 1999); stabilization of existing tariffs, and integration and harmonization of economic sectors (1999 to 2007); establishment of a free trade area and customs union (2007 to 2017); harmonization of tariff systems across various regional economic communities (RECs) (2017 to 2019); the creation of a common African market and harmonization of monetary, financial, and fiscal policies; and the establishment of a pan-African economic and monetary union (2023 to 2028). This plan envisaged that, through RECs, deep-seated challenges of poverty and underdevelopment would be eradicated. Among the latest initiatives has been the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), as well as the vision for the ‘United States of Africa’. The establishment of the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) in March 2004 can be regarded as an important achievement towards this strategic objective. While the previous plans placed a premium on intra-regional trade, agriculture, technology and the environment, it would seem as if the new initiatives are emphasizing ownership, economic reform and political modernization. It is unclear if and when the fruits of the latest initiatives will begin to manifest. The question is: In view of the fact that the plans that were articulated by the first generation of postcolonial leaders failed to materialize, what gives force to the new-found optimism that characterizes today’s proponents of Africa’s integration? Could there have been something fundamentally wrong with the initial casting of this vision that today’s elite can successfully rectify, so that Africa can be set on a promising developmental trajectory? The contention in this paper is that too little has changed since the 1980s to advance regional integration and to ensure developmental progress on the continent. It would seem that Africa’s elites are focusing on the wrong set of priorities with too little genuine commitment towards the goal of Africa’s development. For regional integration in Africa to be a success, Africa’s leaders will have to move beyond grand gestures and abstract visions. Africa’s challenges call for pragmatism and a sense of urgency in action. More focused and gradual steps that are carefully executed at the domestic level may be the best place to start. The focus of such steps at the domestic level should be on bold and sustainable political and economic reforms. At the regional level the focus should be on developmental coordination and gradual harmonization of policies and regulations, which could form the foundation for greater integration. As Percy Mistry contends: ‘African governments need to be less ambitious and more realistic and pragmatic aboutthe objectives and intermediate targets for integration, taking into account the constraints and capacities of integrating national governments.