Natural Resources Boom a Blessing or a Curse to African Integration?

29th July 2009 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

Is an abundance of natural resources a blessing or a curse to African integration? Why would an African country accept full integration if it means losing control, ownership and access in relation to its natural resources. The weakest link so far in the discourse on African integration has been how to make integration attractive to politicians. Despite its normative imperative, pan-Africanism is of little value to the political calculations of most African leaders. As a result, the debate on African integration needs to address the question of political security. Considering that access to and control over natural resources such as diamonds, oil, copper, land, water, cocoa and coffee is at the epicentre of domestic African politics- state, regime human security, how do we fashion African integration in such a way that states do not lose their control over these resources but rather gain from the cooperation?

Establishing a common framework on the management and exploitation of natural resources could speed up and sustain African integration because it is good politics and could be a bulwalk to some negative aspects of globalization. A common position on exploitation and management of natural resources might produce political incentives and functional spillovers for eventual deep integration in Africa.

From a politico-economic perspective, integration occurs when organised economic interests pressure governments to manage economic interdependence by centralising policies and creating common institutions, while at the same time providing benefits to politicians. Thus, the AU is correct in arguing that there is a need to build the necessary constituency for advancing political integration. If economic policies are a reflection of a leader's survival strategy, there is no doubt a politician will accept integration only after carefully weighing up the long-term costs and benefits. The ‘benefits' are calculated in terms of political security (staying in power, political certainty and influence), while the ‘costs' are the risk of losing autonomy and control. A common position on the exploitation and management of natural resources might lead to economics of scale which might enhance the human security of Africans. Thus if political survival is determined by human security, a common position on natural resources would be good politics.

Also a common position on the management of natural resources might be good politics as it can be a conflict prevention and management tool. Simmering conflict between Cameroon and Nigeria over oil-rich Bakassi; Equatorial Guinea and Gabon and the tension in the Horn of Africa over water are vivid examples of how contestation over natural resources can ignite inter-state conflict and impede continental integration. Economic interdependence reduces conflict. A common position on natural resources will enhance the level of trust between nations. The São Tomé-Nigeria Joint Development Authority and Gulf of Guinea Commission are good examples of instruments that mitigate inter-state conflict over resources.

A common position on natural resources can also be a response to globalisation as a means of preserving domestic, social and distributive agendas that are threatened by globalisation. At the heart of this argument is the need to preserve sovereignty (African ownership over natural resources and political legitimacy), promote social justice and enhance competition. As a consequence, while globalisation tends to de-emphasise boundaries, sovereignty and national identity, a common position on natural resources should be seen as an attempt by state actors to reimpose these boundaries at a different level (not within Africa but on the borders of Africa), thus creating a new, larger space out of smaller territories.

The establishment of a minimum standard or common position on natural resources could leverage Africa's position in the global political economy by enabling the continent to negotiate as a bloc, exchange experiences with regard to negotiating energy deals, exchange technological experience and expertise and share information on the negotiation strategies and techniques of the multinational companies. Most importantly, a common position would redress the differential environmental practice adopted by these multinational companies - even if some African companies adopt differential practices across the continent. The environmental standards they observe in their countries are not the same as the ones they observe outside their borders.

A common position on natural resources could also create a technical or functional spillover that could trigger sequential cooperation (both intended and unintended) in other related areas. For example if the continent can develop a common position on oil it is natural that cooperation in other areas such as research and transportation would follow suit, thus generating a multiplier effect that might affect other sectors of the economy. This is not to suggest that the functional spillover will be automatic. Rather, the point is that sectoral integration will have a positive effect on other sectors, which might lead to pressure for further integration as a measure to consolidate attendant gains.

A common framework on the management of natural resources in Africa could speed up the integration process because it would make good politics and economics.

Written by: Chrysantus Ayangafac, Senior Researcher, Direct Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Addis Ababa