On 21 March 2018, at an Extraordinary Summit of the African Union (AU) in Kigali, representatives and heads of state from 44 African countries signed an ostensibly landmark protocol launching the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA). Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the AU commission, heralded the move as “driven by the conviction that integration is not an option, but an imperative”. The launch of the ACFTA is only the beginning of a long process designed to enhance intra-African commercial links, but it is one that demonstrates a potential future for a rising continent that has long sought integration as both an economic and ideological necessity. At the same time, it indicates all the work yet to be done on African integration, and hints at the role that European policies continue to play in inadvertently hampering such initiatives.
A long road ahead
The ACFTA’s launch comes after more than 50 years of effort to promote African economic integration: attempts to improve economic and political coordination and integration were at the heart of the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, and of the AU in 2001. As it currently stands, African countries conduct 84% of their trade with states outside Africa, with the result that many of their industries are designed around exports to European and other markets, or around extractive industries. Economists estimate that a continent-wide free-trade zone would have enormous benefits for more than 1 billion Africans, creating a common market with a combined GDP of as much as $2.5 trillion.
But significant structural, economic, and political roadblocks to this integration remain. Take, for example, the multiple challenges to integration in one part of Africa, between the Maghreb, the Sahel, and West Africa. Road and air infrastructural connections between countries there are weak and inconsistent, while armed conflict in the Sahel inhibits ambitious initiatives such as the trans-Saharan roadway – as do other problems. Even air travel within sub-regions of the continent is difficult; the emergence of regional giants such as Ethiopian Airlines and the growth of continental and regional connections under Kenya Airways and Turkish Airlines cannot cover shortfalls in this area. Although the members of the G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) continue to develop plans for a joint airline company, implementation remains a ways off.
Moreover, the case for economic integration does not convince the continent as a whole. Nigeria, for instance, was notable in its absence from the Kigali signing ceremony, demonstrating concern that within its economy – one of Africa’s largest – a reduction in tariffs would undercut domestic industry. Even countries that signed still need their national assemblies to approve the ACFTA. And not all of them agreed to every proposed aspect of integration, with 14 of the 44 refusing to accept freedom of movement protocols. This refusal signals a hesitation to open labour markets even amid talk of removing trade restrictions, thereby undercutting not just free trade but also the political goal of improving ties and travel within the continent.
Among those that rejected the protocols were Algeria and Morocco, both of which demonstrate, in different ways, the limits of efforts to seek continent-wide or even regional integration. The countries have for years eyed sub-Saharan Africa as area in which to diversify their economies and pursue opportunities for growth. However, despite AU and sub-regional politics emerging as a key point of rivalry between the two, both have only tentatively embraced regional integration. In Algeria, several years of rhetoric and emphasis on Africa as the key to the country’s economic diversification have not led to significant changes. Algeria’s economic strategy remains highly centralised, its banking and investment restrictions make it difficult to invest and operate businesses abroad, and major economic changes are on hold as questions swirl about its political future. Furthermore, since last year, Algeria has accelerated its expulsion of sub-Saharan migrants, targeting not just increasingly visible street beggars but also construction workers, household staff, and reportedly some students who have legal residency status. The government has emphasised security concerns in its interdictions and expulsions of migrants, but the evident animosity towards sub-Saharan migrants in some quarters and the halted debate about providing legal residency status to other migrants bode ill for economic integration and collaboration between Algeria and the Sahel.
In Morocco, the outlook is only somewhat better. Unlike Algeria, Morocco has pursued an aggressive policy of economic and political expansion in West Africa generally and the Sahel in particular, focusing on economic diplomacy trips led by the king and with business leaders in tow, and on joining the AU and trying to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Yet while Morocco has advanced rapidly in the AU – winning a place on the Algerian-dominated Peace and Security Council – it is uncertain whether the country has a future with ECOWAS. Morocco is unlikely to participate in ECOWAS’ long-term plans for a unified West African currency (some other states, such as Nigeria, may also refuse to participate in the initiative) and even less likely to accept the organisation’s freedom of movement protocols. Although Morocco has publicly made steps to grant residency status to as many as 40,000 sub-Saharan Africans, freedom of movement for West Africa could cause more significant political trouble for a monarchy already struggling to address various political protests in the country’s north and deepening social tension and inequality. Ongoing demonstrations involving public sector workers in Algeria also make it significantly less likely that there will be major changes on issues such as the admission of migrants workers, if for no other reason than to avoid more disruption at an already tense time.
Difficult, but necessary
Despite the enormous difficulties it faces, Maghreb-Sahel integration remains an imperative for the region and a potential model for handling other complicated integration challenges. As I argued last year, encouraging regional integration could improve economic diversification and economic security in North Africa, while encouraging the regional labour migration that has long helped sustain the Sahel and West Africa. Such an approach to integration could also significantly affect the migration flows that have preoccupied European leaders since 2015.
However, it is particularly hard for Europe to encourage regional integration when the European Union is currently doing so much to inhibit freedom of movement within Africa. Since the 2015 Valletta Summit, the EU’s focus – particularly through its Common Security and Defence Policy in the region – has been on tamping down migration at all costs. This has led to reductions in the number of migrants travelling through major arteries such as the Nigerien city of Agadez. But it has also resulted in the abandonment and death of migrants in the desert, a loss of livelihood among established migrant smugglers in favour of more hardened criminal enterprises, and a series of patchwork alliances with state entities, as well as militias in Libya and elsewhere – all to keep migrants from crossing the Sahara and then risking their lives to get to Europe.
Moreover, this pressure has infringed on some of the core precepts of African regional organisations such as ECOWAS. Freedom of movement is again important here: there are many anecdotal reports of Nigerien security forces stopping migrants as they try to leave Agadez, despite the fact that many are ECOWAS citizens well within their rights to travel as far as Niger’s northern border without a visa.
Regional integration between the Maghreb and Sahel has several potential benefits that Europe should support. A more integrated labour market can improve industrial production and provide outlets for work and remittances without encouraging Africans to cross the Sahara or the Mediterranean. But if EU-enforced borders infringe on the free movement of people even within Niger, how can the EU encourage free movement in wider Africa? Developing a more holistic EU migration policy – one that moves away from the current security focus by allowing for some legal migration, as well as investment in Africa and improved legal protection for migrants – would not resolve African countries’ inhibitions about regional integration. But it would help alleviate Europe’s concerns about migration and spur economic growth in Africa, achievements that would brighten the future of both continents.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.