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Can 53 states ever be equal to 1? A discourse of the prospect of continental integration in Africa

21st February 2011

By: In On Africa IOA


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Europe’s cartographic experiments in Africa remain one of the most indelible physical scars of colonialism. This exercise, which started in 1884, makes Africa the most fragmented continent in the world, with about 165 demarcated boundaries patching together 53 countries.(2) The horrors of this partitioning is reflected in the various fratricidal border battles between and among African states, bloody xenophobic attacks and disintegration moves within African states. The confounding irony is that while the African political elite unequivocally acknowledge this historical anomaly, they still cling to the artificial colonial construct called states, either as a bargaining chip or as an outright obstacle to remedying the glaring defect.

The attachment to statehood has, however, not prevented efforts to achieve political and economic integration at the continental and sub-regional levels. From the 1960s, the continent has witnessed several attempts to forge regional integration. There are numerous regional economic communities (RECs) in Africa, but the African Union (AU) only regards the following eight regional groupings as the building blocks towards continental integration: the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU); the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD); the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS); the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD); and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).(3) At the continental level, the transmutation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to the AU also brought about an intensification of efforts to deepen unity, especially through the establishment of institutions such the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the Pan-African Parliament (PAP), and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).


At the heart of this paper is the concern about the stunted progression of continental integration. In spite of the elaborate frameworks for achieving unity, the state of regional integration leaves much room for desire. In this respect, this paper intends to illuminate the issues that will determine the viability of continental integration in Africa. It begins with a look at the different theoretical perspectives on the modus of continental integration. This is followed by the discussion on the importance of hinging continental integration to shared norms and values. It concludes by exploring the key fundamentals of continental integration.

Africa must unite: One goal, different methodologies


The importance of political and economic integration at the continental and/or sub-regional levels remain one of the most articulated topics of discourse in Africa. Politicians, heads of state, academics and civil society have all expressed, and still express, the importance of regional integration and the process of achieving such goal. The plethora of contribution in this regard can be neatly classified into what Tiyanjana Maluwa refers to as the ‘absolute integrationists’ and the ‘minimal integrationists.’(4)

At the core of the ‘absolute integrationist’ ideology is the immediate establishment of a single administration or federal Government for Africa (United States of Africa), akin to the United States of America model. According to one of its foremost proponents, Kwame Nkrumah, a ‘United States of Africa’ should pursue three core objectives - continental economic planning, unified military and defence strategy, and a unified foreign policy.(5) He further proposed that such a Union should be led by a President, elected from the ranks of the Assembly of Heads of State, a number of Vice-Presidents, a Council of Ministers and a two-chamber legislature.(6) At a practical level, Kwame Nkrumah, together with Sekou Toure (Guinea) and Modibo Keita (Mali), formed the Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union in 1961.(7) The idea was that this Union would be the nucleus of a larger federation of African states.(8) Kwame Nkrumah’s thesis continues to shape the debate on the process of establishing a ‘Union Government’ for Africa. The likes of Muammar Gaddafi (Libya) and Abdoulaye Wade (Senegal) are latter day advocates of this idea.

While the ‘minimal integrationists’ accept the ultimate goal of a ‘United States of Africa,’ they differ with the ‘absolute integrationists’ on the modus operandi. In this vein, ‘minimal integrationists’ argue for an incremental, bottom-up process, which places emphasis on national sovereignty and the development of sub-regional groupings as the building blocks of continental integration. The minimalist framework of continental integration in over four decades points to the triumph of the ‘minimalist integrationist’ ideology.(9) This is reflected in the mere intergovernmental, rather than supranational nature of continental institutions such as the OAU and the AU. This implies that only member states hold the decision-making powers, with continental institutions providing the platform for inter-state interaction and coordination of activities.

Unity without shared norms: A recipe for failure

Underlining the quest for African unity is a pan-Africanist narrative, which prioritises the racial and geographic oneness of Africans.(10) The racial consciousness of being an African was largely shaped by colonialism and the experience of racial prejudice both on the African continent and in the Diaspora. As Julius Nyerere puts it, ‘the Africans looked at themselves and knew vis-a-vis the Europeans, they were one.’(11) The geographic element is much wider than the racial consciousness in the sense that it incorporates the Arab/North Africans as part of the pan-Africanist discourse.(12) It is this realisation of ‘we are all Africans’ that continues to inform and influence the plethora of initiatives aimed at cementing the connectedness amongst African nations.

It thus begs the question, is a pan-Africanist narrative or the consciousness of being an African sufficient as a foundation for advancing regional integration? In other words, to what extent can the maxim of ‘we are all Africans’ translate to meaningful and qualitative realisation of regional integration goals? It is important to note that there is nothing wrong in the idea of linking the quest for unity to the consciousness of pan-Africanism. However, it is worrying when this is seen as a sole determinant. Stated differently, it is counter-productive when such consciousness is not rooted in substance or hinged to the formulation and adherence to shared norms.

While the legal framework of the AU and other RECs provide for a number of principles that can be collectively referred to as ‘shared norms,’ practise shows more breach than adherence. The routine disregard of these principles - through unconstitutional change of Government, electoral irregularities, and the violation of human rights and transnational directives - point to the levity attached to the so-called shared norms.

It is of the essence that member states agree on and adhere to a set of shared norms. This guarantees the uniform understanding and application of transnational directives and regulations. The success of regional integration derives from the commitment of member states to ensure that salient matters agreed upon at the transnational level are given full and unqualified attention at the national level. It is thus imperative that nuanced attention is directed towards the understanding of shared norms. The first step in this process is the provision of a set of guidelines, underlined by traditional African values. In this regard, norms such as good governance, human rights and democracy, should be explained within the context of African values such as ‘Ubuntu,’ which emphasises the respect for the individual and society. The aim of this is to show that such norms are not necessarily alien to Africa; rather they are expressions of values that define African societies. The consensus on the meaning and application of shared norms is a key prerequisite of a successful regional integration process. It provides an effective framework for the attainment of integration goals and objectives.

To integrate or not: The fundamentals of quality-oriented continental integration

The imperative of continental integration is beyond question; however, it is of utmost importance to tackle the factors that will add gravitas to this. Referring to European integration, Jean Monnet once affirmed that ‘we are not bringing together states, we are uniting people,’(13) The importance of including the people in the integration process cannot be over-emphasised. If transnational programmes are designed to make meaningful impact on the lives of citizens, then it is equally essential that such citizens are allowed to (in)directly participate in the process of shaping transnational policies.

In this sense, it is critical that the architects of continental integration devise measures of increasing the awareness and involvement of the African populace in transnational matters. Consultation mechanisms such as grassroots sensitisation campaigns, national referendums on integration issues, encouragement of transnational associations and the direct elections of transnational legislators are necessary. The involvement of civil society organisations (CSOs) in the formulation and implementation of integration policies is also essential. The legitimacy, and broad-based acceptance, of continental integration in Africa will largely be measured by the extent to which African citizens take ownership of the process.

Another factor that will determine the viability of continental integration is the feasibility of compliance with transnational directives and regulations. The legitimacy, and to a large extent the effective functioning, of transnational institutions depend on the extent to which member states comply with its rules.(14) Thus, the task before the architects of continental integration should be on how to enhance the compliance with institutional rules. The current climate of continued disregard of transnational directives across the continent should serve as an instructive guide. Since no transnational organisation can boast of 100% compliance rate,(15) it becomes imperative to explore measures of minimising the factors that encourage the incidence of non-compliance.

As pointed out above, the lack of consensus on the importance of shared norms and values provides the justification for ‘cherry-picking’ which standards to comply with or in extreme cases, the total disregard of directives. Thus, the task is to ensure that participation in the integration process is conditioned to the unqualified acceptance of shared norms and principles. Member states that are not prepared to subscribe to or continue to flout minimum standards should be temporarily excluded from the decision-making process and the benefits to be derived from such integration initiatives.

Regional hegemons have a significant role to play in ensuring the attainment of quality-oriented continental integration. The political and economic prowess of regional hegemons such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt can be channelled into building a virile foundation for achieving continental integration. The onus is on these regional powers to lead by example through the strengthening of national democratic institutions and best economic practises. These measures are important to the extent that they provide regional hegemons the legitimacy, and wherewithal, to champion the realisation of integration goals and objectives. In this respect, regional powerhouses can contribute significantly to helping develop the capacity of fellow member states to adhere to integration goals and also monitor the implementation of such objectives.(16)

Another important point of consideration is the need to design the process of continental integration within the context of the peculiarities of Africa. While the European integration process provides an instructive referential framework, it cannot be adopted verbatim, since it is rooted in different historical and social contexts. Africa and Europe are faced with different socio-political and economic challenges, a factor that should inform the policy frameworks of continental integration.

The peculiar challenges facing Africa, such as poverty, lack of infrastructure, democratic deficit, endemic corruption and weak economic structures should shape the deliberations on and the design of transnational policies. This is not to say that Africa should ignore instructive lessons, both positive and negative from other climes, rather Africa should in the words of Ali Mazrui ‘stand ready to selectively borrow, adapt and creatively formulate its strategies for planned development.’(17)

Lastly, it is crucial to ensure that real powers are transferred to continental institutions. In this regard, the AU, which is the primary continental body and its institutions, should be empowered to take authoritative decisions on issues affecting continental integration. A major reason why continental integration remains stunted is due to the fact that over the years, member states have refused to allow transnational institutions to exercise real power. The 2009 decision by African Heads of State to transform the AU is a step in the right direction, though its efficacy depends on the seriousness attached to its implementation.

Concluding remarks

‘Africa must unite’ and ‘we are all Africans’ are some of the aphorisms that have over the years defined the quest for continental integration. The road to achieving continental integration is by no means a smooth one. The perceived benefits, both political and economic, continue to influence the widespread desire for a unified Africa. If continental integration is seen as a useful tool for unlocking Africa’s potential and enhancing its relevance on the global stage, then it is imperative to start considering nuanced methods of achieving this objective. The foregoing discussion illuminates the essential points that are necessary for a viable continental integration process. The issues considered above are not exhaustive; rather they are aimed at stimulating further thinking on the appropriate strategies for a qualitative continental integration process.


(1) Contact Babatunde Fagbayibo through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
(2) Akonnor, K. 2007, ‘Stuffing Old Wine in New Bottles: The Case of the African Union’. In A. Mazama, ed. Africa in the 21st Century: Toward a New Future, London: Routledge, p 200.
(3) African Union Website -
(4) Maluwa, T. 2004. ‘Fast-tracking African unity or making haste slowly? A note on the amendments to the Constitutive Act of the African Union’, Netherlands International Law Review. 51(2), p 201.
(5) Nkrumah K, 1963, Africa must unite. New York: Praeger, pp163-164.
(6) Nkrumah K, 1973, Revolutionary path. London: PANAF, pp 295-296, 309.
(7) Nkrumah K, 1963, Africa must unite. New York: Praeger
(8) Nweke, G. 1987. ‘The Organisation of African Unity and intra-African functionalism’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 489, p135.
(9) Lecoutre, D. 2008, ‘Reflections on the 2007 Accra grand debate on a Union Government for Africa’ in T. Murithi, ed. Towards a Union Government for Africa: Challenges and opportunities. Institute of Security Studies Monograph Series 140, pp 45-59.
(10) Mazrui, A. 1963. ‘On the concept of “We are all Africans”. The American Political Science Review, 57(1), pp 88-97.
(11) Bolaji Akinyemi, ‘Kwame Nkrumah and pan-Africanism’, This Day, 15 October 2008,
(12) Mazrui, A. 1963. ‘On the concept of “We are all Africans”. The American Political Science Review, 57(1), pp 88-97.
(13) Fontaine P, 2006, Europe in 12 lessons, Brussels: European Commission, p 43.
(14) Chayes, A & Chayes, H. 1993.‘On compliance, International Organisation.47/2, pp 175-205.
(15) Neyer, J & Zurn, M. 2005. ‘Conclusions – the conditions of compliance’ in C Joerges & M Zurn eds. Law and governance in postnational Europe: Compliance beyond the nation-state. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p 185.
(16) Babatunde Fagbayibo, ‘Democratic development in Africa: A tale of one step forward, two steps backward’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 16 December 2010,
(17) Ali Mazrui, ‘Africa must not just remain a learner’, The Monitor, 30 September 2008,

Written by Babatunde Fagbayibo (1)


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