Strength in unity, and vice versa: Central Africa’s integration problem

Strength in unity, and vice versa: Central Africa’s integration problem

Is it a coincidence that Africa’s most troubled region is also its least integrated? SIMON ALLISON explores why central Africa has failed to make any progress on regional unity, and what this means for its future (no, it’s not good news). After all, a region is only as effective as the sum of its parts.

October 25th is Central African Regional Integration Day. Few people know or observe this holiday because the citizens of Africa’s poorest and most conflict-prone region have little to celebrate.

The Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor of the African Union (AU), established the African Economic Community (AEC) when its member states signed the Abuja Treaty in 1991. The AEC is based on the premise that regional integration solves all manner of ills: trade imbalances and barriers, social disunity, cross-border tensions and poor living standards. Name it and regional integration will fix it.

In the places where it has happened, regional integration has helped kickstart moribund economies and enhance regional security. Not every region, however, can boast impressive results. Implementing neighbourly ties is more difficult than the authors of the Abuja Treaty anticipated. Central Africa has barely implemented it at all. Without question, this is the continent’s least cohesive region.

“Central Africa is definitely lagging behind the rest of the continent when it comes to regional integration, especially compared to the EAC [East African Community] and SADC [Southern African Development Community],” commented Chofor Che, a Cameroonian academic and analyst for, a Lagos-based think-tank.

David Smith, director of South Africa-based media firm Okapi Consulting and an expert on the region, offers a few examples of the area’s disunion. “If there was any sort of integration with neighbours, there would be daily flights between regional capitals,” he says. “There are not. There is no highway of any note between them either.”

Instability forced the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (or CEMAC from its French name), one of central Africa’s two main regional organisations, to move its headquarters from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), to Libreville, Gabon last March. This relocation is an apt metaphor for the failure of regional integration itself, Smith observes. “CAR is a shell of a state—a phantom administration [that] has virtually nothing to offer its citizens, even less to offer the neighbours,” he said.

It was not always this bad. One of the first regional organisations established on the continent was central African. Afrique E?quatoriale Franc?aise (French Equatorial Africa), formed in 1910, was a federation of France’s holdings in the area, comprising Cameroon, Chad, CAR, Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Post-independence, this close relationship continued under the Central African Economic and Customs Union (or UDEAC after its French initials), which in 1994 became the CEMAC, although only fully ratified in 1999.

The same five nations make up CEMAC today, with the addition of Equatorial Guinea. Thanks to its efforts to implement free trade and visa-free areas, it remains the most progressive regional grouping in central Africa, although it has another major competitor, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), which is much broader in geographical scope, if not necessarily in ambition. Although the two organisations are ostensibly supposed to work together, in practice communication between them is poor. The rival commissions are known to squabble over who should take the lead on regional issues.

All six CEMAC countries are also part of the larger ten-member ECCAS, with Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sa?o Tome? and Pri?ncipe. There is significant overlap between the functions and objectives of the two organisations. Both CEMAC and ECCAS are working, in theory, towards the creation of a common market; both attempt to rationalise customs and create a common trade policy towards third-party countries, which they desperately need. (Intra-regional trade accounts for just 1.2% of ECCAS member states’ exports, according to 2009 African Development Bank figures.) A third regional organisation, the Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries (or CEPGL after its French initials), is made up of Burundi, DRC and Rwanda and is primarily focused on post-conflict reconstruction.

This alphabet soup of regional organisations (and the various and separate environmental, business and water management organisations that are not mentioned) is, of course, part of the problem: little to no coordination exists between them, despite repeated promises by heads of state and the commissions themselves to rationalise the relationship between CEMAC and ECCAS. “The region has an uncoordinated plan of action with several institutions like ECCAS and CEMAC with no well defined agenda,” Che said. “Member states are still suspicious of one another. For instance, Equatorial Guinea has a booming oil industry and fears Cameroonians will migrate massively to the country and render their citizens jobless.”

For Che, the solution lies in consolidating the alphabet soup and going slowly, with member states taking responsibility for themselves before assuming regional duties. “The region needs to merge ECCAS and CEMAC and have well defined roles, especially who takes charge of curbing the conflict,” he said. “Member states must then curb custom duties and taxes within before thinking of having a common market. Trade barriers between member states need to be dismantled.”

Smith agrees, again emphasising that regional integration is difficult as long as individual countries remain so weak. He also raises concerns about central African nations meddling in each others’ affairs, again using CAR as an example: “[The Republic of Congo President] Denis Sassou-Nguesso for reasons of his own, has been paying most of the bills of the CAR administration over the past year, while [Chad President] Idriss Deby decides for the most part who is or isn’t in charge in Bangui—a very perverted sort of regional integration.”

Angela Meyer, a researcher with the Organisation for International Dialogue and Conflict Management in Vienna, is an expert on the issue, having written several academic papers on security and integration in the region. In an e-mail interview with Africa in Fact, she identifies seven impediments to progress when it comes to regional integration in central Africa.

First, central African states are, on the whole, exceedingly poor. Commercial interests exert little internal pressure to facilitate regional trade.

Second, states regularly fail to pay their membership dues, which are inflated for countries that are members of multiple regional organisations. This leaves commissions underfunded and understaffed, without the resources to implement decisions.

Third, leaders lack political will to realise and implement joint decisions. This inertia has created a significant gap between rhetoric and reality. Take the recent attempt to make CEMAC a visa-free zone for citizens of member states: despite an agreement that this would be in force by the end of 2013, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon continue to require visas from other CEMAC nationals.

Fourth, the region is unstable and conflict-prone. Several states are either in conflict—CAR, DRC—or post-conflict—Burundi, Chad, Rwanda. This instability permeates neighbouring countries. Integration is especially undermined when neighbouring countries interfere with each other. Chadian President Idriss Deby’s manipulation of CAR’s leaders is a classic example: Chad supported the coup that brought former President Franc?ois Bozize? to power in 2003, and then facilitated the Seleka rebel offensive which unseated him ten years later.

Fifth, states harbour widely divergent interests thanks to their heterogeneity. The area incorporates both Chad, up north in the Sahel, and Angola, which is more often considered part of southern Africa. The multiplicity of regional organisation memberships illustrates this: the DRC, for example, is part of both ECCAS and CEPGL as well as SADC, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Nile Basin Initiative. The country is therefore pulled in several different, and not necessarily complementary, directions.

Sixth, the two major regional organisations, ECCAS and CEMAC, compete to lead integration, with little clarity on who is ultimately responsible for driving progress. In theory it should be ECCAS—it is, after all, the larger organisation, and the African Union recognises it as the regional economic community for central Africa. CEMAC, however, has been around for longer and is better organised, allowing it to make and implement decisions more quickly. CEMAC is not always willing to wait for ECCAS to catch up (not that CEMAC itself is a paragon of efficiency when it comes to regional integration—it is just marginally less cumbersome than ECCAS).

Seventh, a lead nation to drive the integration agenda, in the mould of South Africa for SADC and Nigeria for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is lacking. In theory, Cameroon should fill this role—it is the largest economy in the region, accounting for over half of CEMAC’s combined GDP. However, on a continental scale, it is still small fry: Cameroon’s GDP of $12.89 billion in 2012, according to the World Bank, is less than 10% of South Africa’s.

None of the problems identified by Meyer is insurmountable. Together, however, they form a daunting barrier to genuine integration. But all is not lost. Central Africa has a few things going in its favour, which could one day provide a springboard for genuine, mutually beneficial unity. Its location, for one thing: as the only region to border every other region, it is the crossroads of Africa. It should be the hub linking most intra-continental trade.

Another is the single currency shared by the CEMAC countries, the Central African CFA franc, which is supported by a single central bank (BEAC, the Banque des E?tats de l’Afrique Centrale). BEAC is also responsible for setting monetary policy for all member countries. This puts the region ahead of its continental competitors: SADC and the EAC are a long way from implementing single currencies of their own. Nonetheless, neither of the more advanced regional groups would accept the control that France continues to wield over the currency and the bank: the former colonial master demands storing 65% of BEAC’s foreign reserves in a French Treasury account. Indeed, weaning the region off its unhealthily dependent relationship with France may be one of the most important reasons why the area needs to integrate properly.

Ultimately, the biggest problem for all the regional organisations with a presence in central Africa—apart from their sheer number—is that a regional body can be only as effective as the sum of its parts, i.e. its member countries. In central Africa, those parts do not add up to much.

“Yes, in unity there is strength, but there is much to fix, or more correctly, create at home first,” Smith concludes. It is hard to disagree. DM

This article was originally published in Africa in Fact, a monthly magazine published by Good Governance Africa (GGA). GGA is a research and advocacy organisation that works to improve government performance on the continent.

Photo: Refugees receive food aid at a refugee camp for internally displaced persons at the Airport of Mpoko in Bangui, Central African Republic, 12 February 2014. EPA/LEGNAN KOULA


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.