Zambia's Edgar Lungu. Picture: REUTERS
Zambia's Edgar Lungu. Picture: REUTERS

Almost 60 years ago, Africa awoke from a long colonial slumber, rose up and began the process of breaking its chains to assume self-determination.

At the time, visions of our future were sweeping, with promise, hope and also extraordinary caution. Harold Macmillan, UK prime minister at the time, famously described the emergence of African nationalism as the “wind of change” signalling the beginning of a new era. Then President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana declared that Africa’s awakening would become the “cardinal fact” of our modern times, and that nothing would deter the newly independent nations from pursuing their path.

Since that fateful year, 1960, there have been major challenges, crises, and threats to the independence project – and yet our collective successes have overwhelmingly affirmed the promise of Africa. Sixty years later, it is an opportune moment to take stock of our progress and understand our goals for the next century.

It was the enduring spirit of pan-Africanism that delivered us through uncertainties and turmoil during decolonisation. Championed by the likes of Nkrumah, and also echoed by Tanzania’s President, Julius Nyerere, as well as my own country’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, and many others, pan-Africanism was not only the ideological foundation upon which our modern continent was built, it also provided the context for co-operative collective action which birthed new nations, stopped wars and strengthened the continent’s capacity to govern and lead in the global system.

Yet, as is evident from the economic realities that Zambia and its neighbors are facing now, the Africa of the mid-20th century is not the Africa of today. We face new challenges and threats and we can also benefit from new opportunities.  Once again, it is time for us to revive the spirit of pan-Africanism and multilateral co-operation in our region, which unfortunately has faded over time as many nations have looked inward.

Take for example the threat of climate change, which was debated at length during the most recent UN General Assembly in New York. The adverse effects of rising global temperatures on Africa’s sensitive ecosystem can no longer be ignored, and cannot be addressed unilaterally by single members of our group.

We produce less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet we suffer some of the most extreme consequences. There is the increasing rate of desertification in the Sahel region, water scarcity – from Ethiopia to SA – and extreme weather events, such as the successive destructive cyclones in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. A recent poll conducted by pan-African research institution Afrobarometer found that 30 out of 34 African countries reported that weather conditions for agricultural production had worsened over the past decade, but only 28% of respondents were “climate change literate” – meaning that we have a huge informational gap to overcome.

Though we are enjoying the broadest period of peace since the end of the Cold War, there are still pervasive and challenging armed conflicts which require greater regional attention. There are at present seven active UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, highlighting the need for greater pan-African security co-operation and a strengthening of our own peacekeeping capacity.

But possibly the most promising case for greater pan-African co-operation is to realise the long-held dream of regional integration, allowing us to deliver finally on our potential as a formidable global market. Collectively we represent a larger population than Europe, the US, and Latin America; we have 20% of the world’s land mass and we are richly endowed with the world’s most valuable natural resources.

And yet there are fewer areas of the world more fragmented. We are at present divided into 16 regional trade zones, and 80% of our countries require a visa, while we face the geographic challenges of enormous distances and poor travel connections. This is part of the reason why intra-regional trade accounts for only 17% of our exports.

Nevertheless, the greatest promise of pan-African renewal lies in the implementation of the long-awaited African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Last year, 49 countries endorsed the underlying legal framework, which aims to expand on the successes enjoyed by regional pacts such as the Economic Community of West African States, the East African Community, the Southern African Development Community and others to reduce import tariffs, taxes and subsidies, and to increase the sharing of trade data.

The benefits could be enormous. Officials estimate that AfCFTA’s tariff removals could boost intra-regional trade to $70bn by 2040, including a 50% increase in intra-regional exports, making us more self-sufficient, independent and competitive.

But we do not ignore the formidable challenges that stand in the way regarding climate change, conflict resolution and economic integration. This is why now is the time for a new generation of modern pan-African leaders to emerge to carry us into the future and to capture the spirit of our founders, who understood the value of brotherhood in our community. They understood that only by working together would we discover the true extent of our potential.

As our founding president, Kaunda, once said: “Ambition never comes to an end.” We certainly hope that is the case for the future of pan-Africanism.

  • Edgar C Lungu is the current president of Zambia