By Ben Oduor
It was in 1999 when African heads of state and governments felt the need to have a more robust continental Union. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) had at the time spent 36 years fighting for independence and an end to apartheid rule. It was time to focus on ‘an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.’
Thus the African Union was birthed. But 19 years later, mixed reactions are shared about its scorecard. While a section of Africans believe it has strived to achieve its objectives, others blame it for failing to address the most pressing challenges affecting the continent.
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is among the optimists. While delivering a speech at his inauguration for a third seven-year term in Kigali late last year, President Kagame portrayed Africa as a continent on a rosy path.
He sought to instill confidence in Africans, stating thatAfrica is on the right path and,‘we’re going to be just fine. We’re the best students of our shortcomings.’
Intriguingly, under the echo of his voice lies a continent that has for long struggled with socio-economic challenges spanning food insecurity, unemployment, high levels of poverty, ethnic and cross border conflicts, corruption and over reliance on foreign aid.
UN Economic Commission for Africa, for instance, says the continent losses US$148billion annually to graft, an issue that deprives citizens of critical services and pushes them to poverty and suffering.
The Union is also at the mercy of foreigners, as 73 per cent of its annual budget is provided by foreign donors. This limits it from making independent decisions, a narrative President Kagame now seeks to change.
Upon assuming office as AU chairman for the year 2018, the Rwandan President rolled out a raft of reforms; key among them a proposal to member states to submit 0.2 per cent tax on imports from outside Africa to the Union, a move that would limit it from over-relying on external funding.
Dan Odaba, a consultant and lecturer of International Relations at United States International University- Africa (USIU-Africa), says despite the proposal’s positive projections, the levies should’ve been charged with regard to countries’ GDP to make the submissions more viable.
He opines that 0.2 per cent tax on imports from outside the continent is not sufficient enough since different countries have different GDP. It would’ve been prudent to consider such a tax in relation to a country’s GDP.
Almost every year, topics relating to alternative funding dominate AU summits. Chatham House Report says many AU members consider it unacceptable that most of the Union’s budget continues to depend on the support of its partners. As such, African solutions to African problems continue to be a priority for the organization.
However, only about half of the Union’s members have since signed into the self-financing deal, a pact whose reality, Odaba believes, can be fully achieved if countries contribute to the union as per their GDP.
Other than funding, AU is now fast-tracking reforms that will open up the continent’s borders for free movement of people and goods.
In January this year, the Union launched the ‘Single African Air transport Market’, a de-regulated and harmonized air space that allows planes to fly freely between AU member states, a move expected to enhance connectivity, reduce costs and make it easier to integrate the region’s economies, trade and tourism.
Freedom of movement of people in Africa is equally important and achievable in 2018 according to Kagame. 23-member states including Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa have so far adopted the single market, with more countries expected to sign up.
In what would be one of the world’s largest trading blocs,44 African Heads of State signed theprotocol to establish the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) during the 10th Extraordinary Session in Kigali last month.
The AfCTA agreement, which takes effect in six months after ratification by the countries’ parliaments, is expected to remove trade barriers such as tariffs and import quotas, allowing the free flow of goods and services whilst increasing commerce within the continent- which currently staggers at 10 per cent compared with 25 per cent traded with South-East Asia.
Of the 44 states, 27 signed a protocol allowing free movement of people (including rights to own property and work in any part of the continent) while at least 21 countries eased visa rules, with Seychelles, Rwanda, Mauritius, Nigeria and Benin scrapping the requirement altogether. 10 other member countries including Nigeria, Burundi, Guinea Bissau and Eritrea did not sign the protocol.
“This is an opportunity for Africa to open up trade and boost the continent’s economy to the level of the world’s biggest economies. The region can learn from EU and come up with strategies to address challenges that might be experienced, in a bid to create a common continental market, integrate her infrastructure and infuse technology to achieve industrialization,” says Odaba.
The latest developments are now edging Africa closer to a borderless continent, an idea AU has for long toyed around with.With many African economies relying heavily on tourism, the move is widely seen as a catalyst for intra-continental tourism and a boost to foreign exchange.