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African integration is great but has its hurdles
Publish Date: May 26, 2010
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Collaboration between Uganda and its neighbours, particularly the pending East African Common Market (EACM) is primarily based on geographic proximity. For political and economic reasons, I will refer to it as regionalism. But, it isn’t without obstacles.

Supporters of free trade, including some senior officials within the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other international organisations disagree with such protectionism. They argue that regionalism breaches the most favoured nation clause in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) rules, which states that “if one country is given preferential treatment, then other member countries of the WTO are entitled to similar treatment”. The exemption to this was Article XXIV of 1947, which allowed regionalism that discriminates in favour of member countries. The main reason for its introduction was to activate post-World War II Western Europe reconstruction. Actually, one of America’s conditions for giving European aid under the ‘Marshall Plan’ was the requirement of the beneficiary countries to pursue economic recovery through self-help on a collaborative basis, of political as well as economic unification of Western Europe. America saw this approach as part of a strategy for the containment of Communism.

African countries, characterised by increasing debt and balance of payments problems, are in a perpetual economic crisis. Consequently, they deserve a similar treatment. In fact, Africa also requires a ‘Marshall Plan’. Karooro Okurut (The New Vision, December 9, 2009) highlighted the different types of regionalism and the potential benefits that member countries could accrue from the EACM. It is clear that political considerations mostly come into play in a political union, which is the last stage and highest level of regionalism.

Unfortunately, regionalism comprising African countries although still at lower level stages, has been established with major focus on political than economic considerations. This emphasis has created certain problems. Political differences have occasionally triggered off misunderstandings that have led to de-integration, as was the case of the Colonial EACM (CEACM) in 1978.

The CEACM was set up by Britain as a colonial mechanism to simplify the governance of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, but was not significantly different from the other regional blocs. Regionalism among developing countries can optimise economic benefits if its foundation is based more upon economic than political interests. Nonetheless, because it is often difficult to disentangle politics from economics, ‘political will’ is instrumental for the survival of any form of regionalism. A major challenge for regionalism is to ensure that member countries benefit equally from the collaboration.

When levels of economic development disparities exist among member countries, the more developed countries often get most of the benefits. Even when member countries exhibit the same level of development, problems may arise from market failures. For instance, if there are no private entrepreneurs to take advantage of the new opportunities, the public sector must intervene to help set up new businesses.

Political agreement is required under such circumstances, about where the companies should be located. Each country will look after its own interests and obviously prefer to host as many projects as possible. Kenya, for example, monopolised projects during the CEACM. Serious political disagreements can result from such selfishness. To make matters worse, the low share of intra-regional trade (an indicator for the capability of economic integration) in African blocs suggests that the potential to progress towards beneficial regionalism is small.

Because of their poor economic performance, African countries have very low per capita income and, hence, small market sizes (purchasing power); low financial bases; low technological capacities and capabilities; poor infrastructure; and lack of a comprehensively skilled labour-force. Even the combined market may not achieve a critical mass in each of these attributes.

Most African countries have stronger colonial than Afro links. That is why English-speaking Africa has more allegiance to the Commonwealth, while French- speaking Africa is more inclined to Francophone states. Even within the Commonwealth for instance, individual African countries have more Anglo- than Afro-economic links. This ‘white is better than black’ attitude must be reversed to enable African regionalism to thrive. Africa tries to emulate regionalism in other continents without thorough exploration.

The circumstances that propelled economic growth in certain regions for instance vary considerably from those of Africa. The Southeast Asian countries benefited from investment spillovers from Japan, the ‘lead goose’. Similarly, Central American countries, and Western European countries benefited from USA’s investment. Africa on the other hand has no lead goose to benefit from. Conflicting priorities often short-circuit Africa’s efforts. For example, the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is regionalism extending from Libya in the North to Swaziland in the South. But some COMESA member countries have commitments elsewhere. For instance, Swaziland is strongly committed to the South African Customs Union (SACU); and Angola, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Mauritius and Congo are strongly tied to the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have put aside their differences and revitalised the EACM. This definitely implies that there is a difference in priority. It partly explains why, for instance, Angola, Lesotho, Namibia and Tanzania quit COMESA in favour of SADC. One of Kenya’s ‘hidden’ reasons to pursue for the revival of the EACM is its rivalry with South Africa to whom it is losing particularly its Ugandan and Tanzanian market shares.

Kenya expects a common external tariff on non-EACM members to improve its competitiveness vis-à-vis South Africa. The following staged approach would eliminate conflicts of interest: (1) establish independent economic blocs, i.e. EACM, SACU and SADC without overlapping membership; (2) ensure that they operate effectively; (3) develop inter-bloc trade links; and (4) finally merge them into a single bloc, i.e. COMESA. Given the above highlighted impediments, the short-run recommendation would be to discourage any attempts towards African regionalism.

However, Africa’s stakes and destiny don’t lie in the short-run. Therefore, Africa should be optimistic about its future and capitalise on its long-run. That is why it is worthwhile laying a regionalism foundation sooner than later. But, Africa must be aware of potential obstacles, and devise mechanisms to combat them.
The writer is a Ugandan lawyer living in the UK

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