The Role of the African Union in 21st Century Africa
Preamble: Africa has made some progress. That said, the progress made is limited if compared to the vast resources both natural and human bestowed on the continent.
Anytime I read, listen or watch the news about young men and women risking death to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, I am left with many questions. Questions that are eventually left unanswered only to return with a numerical vengeance in the next news cycle. I ask myself how the leaders of the countries on the continent feel when they read, listen and watch the same news i.e. that the citizens of the countries they lead are economically desperate to an extent that they are prepared to die in order to reach a place where their lives will be improved.
The start of the 21st Century saw the onset of the Africa Rising narrative. It is not clear which individual or institution coined the term but records seem to suggest that the International Monetary Fund may have popularised the expression during an IMF Conference of the same name in Maputo, Mozambique in 2014. The 21st Century was meant to be Africa’s century thus the Africa Rising narrative referred to the speedy economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa since 2000. In fact, six of the 10 fastest growing economies between 2000 and 2010 were in sub-Saharan Africa. Economists believed at the time that improved governance will ensure that these growth rates were not a flash in the pan but the start of a long and sustained period of economic growth for Africa with its concomitant effect on the human capital of Africa. The latter became a painful mirage. Such was the level of hope that it was even believed that Africa too can emulate the likes of South Korea and Singapore in terms of economic development and the years taken thereof.
In 2015, one year after the Africa Rising conference in Maputo, Mozambique, an estimated 1 Million people made the deadly journey of crossing the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies to Europe. Amongst them were a significant number of young men and women from the African continent. The actual figures are sketchy but it is likely that in 2015 a third of the estimated 1 million migrants were of African origin as the majority would have been from Syria. Notwithstanding, the migrant population in subsequent years have mainly come from Africa with 90% of those crossing into Italy from Libya being of African origin. The number of deaths lies in the tens of thousands making the Mediterranean the largest unofficial cemetery in the world. This should be a sad story and one worthy of causing sleepless nights for a leader who seeks a solution to this problem.
Africa is supposed to be the richest continent in the world. This is a paradox. In fact, the continent is home to almost every type of natural resource under the sun and in commercial quantities too. With the majority of countries extracting natural resources such as Crude Oil, Gold, Diamond, Bauxite, Manganese, Uranium etc. In terms of population, it is the fastest growing in the world with Africa adding some 30 million people to her population in 2015 alone. Annual increments are projected to exceed 42 million by 2050 with some 200 million people currently aged between 15 and 24 making Africa the continent with the youngest population in the world. Based on economic growth theory such as that developed by Robert M Solow in 1956, Africa has all the ingredients it requires for sustained economic growth and human development. So why is the reality different?
As a keen observer of global economies, I have always wondered why the majority of countries on the African continent are still classed as poor. Specifically, the United Nations classifies countries with a gross national income averaged over three years of less than US $1,034 as poor. There are 48 countries currently on this list with Africa alone contributing 34 countries. This implies that only 20 countries in Africa is considered as not poor. Therefore, it is not surprising that with the exception of the Syrian crisis, African countries have mostly contributed to the migration crisis in Europe. Of course, there are countries like Eritrea and Libya where the cause of migration is likely to be security related rather than economic factors but that still lays the problem at the ‘feet’ of governance by African leaders and it is important to understand how.
In Africa, economic growth is purely a numbers game. It is hardly accompanied by jobs or improvement in economic well-being. And this is true of the period 2000-2010. Proceeds from sale of natural resources and the gains from economic expansion are not used for utility generating economic activities such as investments in education, infrastructure and welfare payments. Indeed, it is estimated that 70% of the youth in sub-Saharan Africa are underemployed. And this is despite the fact the African Union declared 2009-2018 as the African Youth Decade.
This African Youth Decade failed to yield any significant positive results due to a host of factors. Notable amongst them is crippling public sector corruption which takes resources away from civil society. The solution to this is likely to be at the country-level but the African Union can play a role. Specifically, mechanisms such as the African Peer Review Mechanism introduced in 2003 was aimed at providing a self-assessment for good governance but it is largely unheard of on the continent and as a result the media and citizenry do not know how their countries are performing in relation to the tenets of the peer review mechanism. The African Union can encourage member countries to enact national legislation in support of the peer review mechanism. As part of this process, the African Union can add to the aims of this mechanism, an assessment of the independence and transparency of economic and political institutions in each country. This will go a long way to improve governance and institutional frameworks in individual African countries and serve as a check on public sector corruption – a factor that is and continues to be a bane to a ‘job-full’ and inclusive economic growth on the continent.
It is estimated that US $150 billion, the equivalent of 25% of gross continental income is lost annually through public sector corruption in Africa. The figures for some individual countries are depressing. This implies that technically, if Africa is able to deal with corruption, the continent will have enough fiscal stimulus every year to implement her own ‘Marshall Plan’.
In addition, there is an over-reliance on commodities to an extent that economies stop growing when there is a negative price shock. Moreover, while the level of intra-continental trade is extremely low in Africa - i.e. accounting for a paltry 11% of exports between 2007 and 2011 compared to 50% in developing Asia, 21% in Latin America and the Caribbean and 70% in Europe within the same period – the figures for inter-continental trade are not encouraging either. Specifically, Africa’s share of global exports is 2.4% with sub-Saharan Africa accounting for 1.7%.
These trade figures are not surprising in that many businesses on the continent have no knowledge of the existence the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) for example which is a tariff free trade deal between Africa and United States of America. This is one area the African Union can step in and help improve the knowledge and awareness of qualifying countries to help increase their exports and create jobs. For example, Ghana is targeting an increase of $500m in exports under AGOA by 2020 and this will have a significant positive effect on employment opportunities in the country. Other countries on the continent can emulate this ambitious but achievable example. Increased trade will aid African countries to diversify and develop their product markets which will in turn serve as a buffer against negative price shocks and shortfalls in demand of her natural resources.
African Union is making positive strides on regional security on the continent but there is little doubt that the best way to prevent conflicts and other security related issues such as terrorism is a sound, stable and inclusive economic development. Economic security is the best form of regional and continental security. A sound, stable and inclusive economic development which yields decent paying jobs for the teeming youth on the continent is the only way to put an end to the unflattering contribution Africa is making to the European migration crisis. For me, this is the role of the African Union in a 21st Century Africa.