It is time for a new Africa beyond borders and boundaries

Continental integration must be the primary agenda of this year’s African Union Summit in Addis Ababa.

While in Addis Ababa, African leaders must work to identify bilateral strategies for joint investments and resource sharing. writers Banti [Eduardo Soteras/AFP]

African leaders will be convening in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, for the 37th summit of the African Union on Saturday. During the two-day gathering, the Heads of State and Government of the African Union will discuss issues of peace, development and integration against the backdrop of resurgent coups, global food and commodity crises and heightened geopolitical competition across the continent.

The integration agenda holds particular significance as global powers vie for influence over African states, evident in the growing number of “Africa summits” hosted by individual countries outside the continent in recent years.

Africa faces several complex and multifaceted challenges, yet the urgent priority today must be continental integration which would remove barriers to labour and capital mobility. To this end, I urge the leaders gathered in Addis Ababa to rise above customary speechmaking and confront this challenge head-on. They can draw inspiration from the unwavering resolve of AU founders who united to alleviate the adverse effects of colonialism.

Therefore, the summit must take concrete and practical steps to accelerate the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a trade regime that aims to establish a tariff-free market for goods and services. In addition, the summit should lay the groundwork for the creation of a “Made in Africa” economic corridor that would augment the continental efforts towards a pan-African marketplace.

I have witnessed such promises made in the past. In May 2022, during the Extraordinary AU Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, I was part of the Ethiopian delegation led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. That trip took us to Kenya, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. As minister of minerals and energy, I attended ministerial meetings and AU sessions that seemed routine, rather than practical steps to address real challenges. As we flew across the continent and during the summit, a single question kept percolating in my head: Why can’t Africa and its leaders join hands and realise the prosperity that our people so richly deserve? Are there, perhaps, some invisible chains holding us back? If so, what are they?

Then, I remembered the fable of the elephant rope: the story of a young man who, while travelling through the forest, stumbles across a camp of elephants; he finds the mighty elephants tied to a small tree with thin pieces of rope and unable to roam freely. The elephants, the man later learns, had been held in place by the same chain since childhood, conditioned as they were, believing they could never break free. It is an apt metaphor for the structural impediments and systems of thought that still hinder the age-old dream of integrated Africa.

The truth is our continent is filled with big elephants now: a young and rapidly growing population; proliferating technological and economic innovations; vast reserves of human and material resources that are yet to be fully explored and utilised; and a growing consumer base for global goods and commodities. However, it seems Africa is still being held back by a tiny rope: post-colonial artificial borders and a governance model that keeps it in shackles. The convergence of colonial borders and leadership failures continues to push African countries into internal conflicts, civil wars, border disputes, and fragile political, economic, and institutional predicaments.

Kenyan-American scholar Makau W Mutua has argued for a return to the pre-colonial map – to a world before European colonisers divided our overlapping communities. But, this, of course, poses more questions than it answers: who would initiate or even be trusted to embark on such a controversial project? Are colonial borders truly the root causes of African conflicts and barriers to its integration?

Across Africa, the boundaries of ethnic and cultural groups are often fluid and porous. It would be challenging indeed to determine where one group’s territory ends and another’s begins. Additionally, redrawing the map of Africa would likely lead only to more conflicts. It might increase economic disparities and language barriers. Importantly, doing away with post-colonial borders would not promote the goal of a united and prosperous Africa. We must think differently.

Let us take a step back a few decades. At the inaugural summit of the Organization of African Unity, the forerunner of AU, in 1963, the founding fathers laid down a resounding vision for continental integration, unity and solidarity. They stressed the critical need for Africans to unite in order to overcome their shared difficulties and shape the continent’s future. There was a strong sense of optimism, resolve and dedication to cooperating for the advancement and welfare of African people. The leaders articulated a shared vision of a united Africa, free from conflict, division, and underdevelopment. They set up African states to assume their rightful place as influential, independent nations.

The aspiration for unity, integration and intercontinental solidarity has been a recurring theme in AU policy blueprints and the rhetoric of African leaders since the 1960s. The chorus of calls often stresses the need for a single African organisation through which Africa’s voice could be heard on the global stage and its problems resolved. One key question continues to reverberate: could African unity be achieved through top-down approaches, or bottom-up by winning the hearts and minds of African people in the march to dismantle postcolonial national boundaries?

Here are some modest proposals.

First, our leaders need to show the resolve and determination of their 1960s predecessors to alleviate the adverse effects of colonialism, which still persist. Now, as then, the goal of unifying and integrating Africa requires removing barriers, not redrawing borders. We need to think bigger.

To this end, we should eliminate restrictions on the flow of labour and capital within the continent of Africa. This must be accompanied by major public and private investment in quality products in sectors ranging from agriculture, minerals and natural resources, renewable energy, technology and innovation, and tourism. The sluggish productivity of our small-holder farmers, for instance, can only be enhanced through the removal of barriers and the promotion of large-scale commercial farming agriculture.

Second, we should establish an integrated financial and logistics system to boost a single “Made in Africa” economic bloc. Lessons can be drawn from “made in” initiatives in emerging economic powerhouses such as India and China. The development of integrated infrastructure networks to ease supply chains within Africa is a crucial element of this. Only when we become suppliers, producers and exporters to global markets can we meet the demands of our people.

At the same time, advanced technologies are transforming global economies and power dynamics. New financial technologies have the potential to empower Africa’s youthful population. But, we should make it much easier for ordinary Africans to get online and participate actively in a pan-African marketplace. A “Made in Africa”’ initiative and its attendant marketplace would spur lagging industries across the continent and enhance Africa’s status as a global economic player, rather than a dumping ground for cheap consumer goods. A robust and competitive marketplace necessarily requires prioritising and investing in robust regional infrastructure, energy and connectivity.

The list goes on. Protectionist telecoms, customs, port and immigration systems are yet more barriers limiting Africa’s integration and economic prosperity. The existing international aid model also remains short-sighted: African nations have the know-how, resources, and technical capabilities to build what is required. We can no longer look outside of Africa to feed our growing populations. Geopolitical tensions beyond our continent continue to highlight how risks to global trade impact our already overstretched resources. The development of regional and continental infrastructure networks to efficiently transport goods and services can no longer wait. These are the basics of a thriving global economy. Many of these concepts are already incorporated into AfCFTA, the second largest free-trade area after WTO, established in 2018. But its lofty promise of eliminating tariffs and creating a single market for goods and services needs to be implemented fast. The speed of its implementation has already been slowed by obstructive bureaucracy and a lack of urgency.

To conclude, now is not 1963. All African states are independent. At 1.3 billion, Africa has the fastest-growing population in the world. But, still, continental gross domestic product remains far smaller than the GDP of some US states. As capital in other parts of the world dries up and protectionist regulations expand everywhere, African countries cannot rely on donor funding to power their prosperity. Neither can solutions come from the ever-proliferating Africa summit diplomacy. Although the renewed diplomatic engagement with the continent is welcome, African leaders must create platforms to pursue mutually beneficial deals and ensure the collective interest of all African nations.

While in Addis Ababa, African leaders must work to identify bilateral strategies for joint investments and resource sharing. The question for African leaders remains the same: are we to be tied down by that tiny rope, or can we stand up and build the Africa of tomorrow that we all desperately need?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.