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French military at the Ouallam military base north of Niamey in Niger. Picture: AFP/GETTY/BERTRAND GUAY.
French military at the Ouallam military base north of Niamey in Niger. Picture: AFP/GETTY/BERTRAND GUAY.

There has been a return to military coups as means for change, or redirecting power relations in a group of West African countries. The recent coup in Niger, and the “fraternal solidarity” pledged by Mali’s military government, represent a closing of ranks among West African countries. It also inspired the imagination of pan-Africanists who believe the time has come for creating a US of Africa. 

There is no clear idea, nor consensus about pan-Africanism across 54 states, an estimated 3,000 different ethnic groups that speak at least 2,000 different languages. Add to this the fact that each of the 54 countries has different systems of governance, and indigenous traditions all situated within a mangle of local, regional and global agreements. 

We may settle on an explanation of pan-Africanism as the functional integration of diverse polities and societies, of social movements and cultural institutions into a stable and coherent whole towards achieving greater prosperity, stability, to protect common pool resources, invite and encourage technology transfer, knowledge sharing and, in particular, the sharing of burdens. 

On the face of things, the prospects for a US of Africa seem remote. We will probably see a living biological creature surviving on Mars before Africa becomes functionally integrated like, say, the EU, the best example of successful integration, and the creation of supranational institutions. 

The European experience was accumulated over centuries, with much of its success coming only after World War 2. Institutionally the EU took almost five decades, from the end of the war (formally in 1948) to the Maastricht Treaty of 1993, to officially come together. The European Parliament first sat in 1958, almost three centuries after it was envisioned by English writer William Penn in 1693. 

The notion of a united Europe appeared during the Pax Romana, projected initially from Rome in about 27 BCE to 1453 CE, when the Roman empire lost Constantinople to Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. There were many twists and turns, notably long periods of war, collapse and disintegration across that period. As historian Michael Howard explained, peace in Europe existed “only in exceptional and precarious oases of time and place”. Time and space do not allow elaboration here, but the point is that the early idea of a united Europe sits deep in the history of that continent. But it was not until the end of World War 2 that the first serious steps were taken to create a supranational body.    

There is absolutely no indication, beyond romantic idealism and rhetoric, that African countries can establish a union even remotely similar to the EU. The obstacles seem unsurmountable. As things stand, countries on the continent have to stop conflict, establish conflict resolution mechanisms that are agreeable to 54 states, secure market stability, tame financial volatility and ensure reliable banking systems. The Geneva Graduate Institute estimates there are about 35 “noninternational armed conflicts” in Africa. This means there are 35 countries in Africa where there is domestic conflict.

Simultaneously, finance systems on the continent are under pressure because of volatility and a lack of dollars to facilitate cross-border trade. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), there are at least 42 different currencies circulating on the continent. These currencies have differing degrees of convertibility, which represents a huge obstacle to integration. If we are to avoid the problems the Great Depression revealed, better regulation may be necessary and blind liberalisation of capital markets has to be avoided. 

At the outset, African politicians and policymakers may have to rethink things such as “decoupling” from the global political economy, and cease permanent ideological hostility towards foreign investors. Individual African countries cannot possibly afford to invest in neighbouring states when they themselves have to make do with limited foreign currency and depleted savings. If African states want to move from being rule-takers to being rule-makers, it is important that highly skilled technocrats and trusted public officials participate in global financial rule-making. This would ensure that appropriate levels of banking flows get to states on the continent.

There were murmurs of a pan-African parliament in the early 1960s, notably when the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the AU, was established in 1963. The OAU’s main objectives were to promote self-government, respect for territorial boundaries and social progress throughout the African continent. The next significant steps towards political, economic and financial integration were taken with the Entebbe Summit for Peace and Prosperity in 1998, which reaffirmed that the OAU would guide the policies and integration of African countries into the global political economy, and that they were “as flexible and creative as those applied to post-war Europe and Asia”.

The success of European integration, as exemplar, was attributable at the outset to creating transnational institutions, free movement of goods and services and a common belief that conflict and war were antithetical to establishing a pacific community. The policy ideals about pan-Africanism have to be matched by mature analyses that would urge individual states to address domestic conditions that will create incentives for functional integration. A US of Africa will not become reality by wishing it into existence. 

• Lagardien, an external examiner at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, has worked in the office of the chief economist of the World Bank as well as the secretariat of the National Planning Commission.

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