When the big countries refuse to play with their friends

Since its inception in 2002, the African Union (AU) has called for higher levels of political, economic, and social integration among member states. While this has been difficult to achieve for a number of reasons, including the lack of consensus among major actors like Nigeria and South Africa, limited funding mechanisms, and continued dependence on development partners, there has recently been a landmark move towards achieving this goal. Namely, on Wednesday, March 21st, 2018, 44 member states of the African Union signed the African Union Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA).

The AfCFTA seeks to achieve a number of objectives. Most importantly, it creates “a single continental market of goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments, and thus pave[s] the way for accelerating the establishment of the Continental Customs Union and the African customs union; expand[s] intra-African trade through better harmonization and coordination of trade liberalization and facilitation regimes and instruments across RECs and Africa; resolve[s] the challenges of multiple and overlapping memberships and expedite[s] the regional and continental integration processes; enhance[s] competitiveness at the industry and enterprise level through exploiting opportunities for scale production, continental market access and better reallocation of resources.” This ambitious plan has been lauded for taking a crucial step toward implementing the AU’s mandate of accelerating the “political and socio-economic integration of the continent” and promoting “sustainable development at the economic, social, and cultural levels as well as the integration of African economies.”

However, despite the continued calls for the organization to do just this and fulfill its agenda to facilitate trade between African countries, 11 countries have not signed on to the agreement. One notable absence is Nigeria. President Buhari has argued that the country needs more time to consider the implication of this framework and how it might negatively impact domestic industries. According to Buhari, ‘‘We [the Nigerian government] will not agree to anything that will undermine local manufacturers and entrepreneurs, or that may lead to Nigeria becoming a dumping ground for finished goods.” His position was echoed by the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) which argued that the agreement would lead to many manufacturing companies dying “a quicker death.” Notably, this sentiment was not shared by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a key proponent of the AU’s transition from the Organization of African Unity (OAU), who referred to the rejection of the agreement by these 11 countries as “criminal”.

In addition, South Africa, Africa’s most advanced economy, signed the Kigali Declaration that signals its commitment to boosting trade between African countries but is not the actual Continental Free-Trade Area agreement. Ironically, two of Africa’s largest economies that championed the establishment of the AU refused to sign onto an agreement that deepens regional integration.

So, given these dynamics, concerns as to how well this framework will be implemented given its shaky start, are quite valid. From the organization’s standpoint, this is especially problematic given the constant push for the AU to establish itself as a critical actor on the continent and in the international community. This situation exposes the tensions that exist within the AU itself because, while the AU Commission might advocate the agenda set forth by the AU Constitutive Act, the leaders of the AU Assembly, the Heads of States, are the ones who really dictate the AU’s foreign policy. Without their commitment to AU initiatives, the likelihood that they will be implemented is not high.

The AU’s ability to act is consistently undermined by member states that remain tied to their ideals of sovereignty and statehood. Though the AU has often set itself as a challenger to the West, when it has to work with its fellow member states, we observe varying levels of apprehension. Nigeria and South Africa, as big players on the continent with the most to lose, are the one refusing to commit. In a similar vein, Nigeria has refused to sign the Economic Partnership Agreement that would establish a free trade area between West Africa and the European Union. Buhari argued that “[Nigerian] industries cannot compete with the more efficient and highly technologically driven industries in Europe…” While one can agree that the economic disparity between these two regions is noticeable, I am more concerned with the fact that the regional giant is not using its position to negotiate a better deal for West African countries. What good does it do to simply abstain from signing? In a similar vein, how helpful is it to not participate in a continental agreement that embodies the expressed commitment to finding better ways to integrate and strengthen African economies?

Nigeria and South Africa’s refusal to sign the AfCFTA is representative of the challenges to the AU’s effectiveness as an organization. Having to constantly mediate between the interests of the regional powers risks deterring from issues that truly matter, for example, how this free trade agreement could help people on the continent or, if problematic, what are ways to make the agreement more effective? There is a need to reevaluate the organization’s priorities because, beyond this trade agreement, we continually observe the lack of commitment on the part of leaders in addressing important issue areas which completely discredits their apparent agenda of furthering continental development. Again, there exists a disjuncture between the African Union Assembly and its Commission. The former is focused on the policy objectives of the “Big Men” while the latter seeks to address the challenges facing the continent despite the structural and political hurdles.