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Integration: Europe Succeeds, Africa Fails. But why?

, by Andrew D. Bishop

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It is often said that Africa is a lost continent from which little other than oil and diamonds should be expected. In particular, commentators are prompt to point to Africa’s enduring political and economic failures. But rarely do these commentators take the time to understand and explain the shortfalls they denounce.



Europe and Africa began their integration processes just around the same time –the former in 1951 and 1957, the latter in 1963. Both had similar goals for their people: prosperity, peace, and socio-political rights.

Yet, half a century later, one can only note that while a vast majority of Europeans seem to be quite well-off an all counts, that is far from being the case for most Africans –to the point that such a discrepancy has almost become normal to most observers.

It is not, however, and neither should it be.

So, why is it that Africa has failed to achieve the harmonious integration process that Europe managed to build throughout the second half of the twentieth century?

The Dogged Legacy of Imperialism

One explanation might be that while economic regionalism has enhanced the European Community’s economic weight on the world stage, Africa has been deprived from such leverage. Indeed, not only has Africa been plagued with post-colonial and neo-colonial burdens, but it has also failed to unify its economic bodies on a continental scale –to the point that the continent now hosts not one, but thirteen economic unions.

In addition, despite receiving vast sums of aid over the years, African countries have never benefited from a co-ordinated initiative such as the Marshall Plan and its managing bodies, the way certain Western European states did. Much to the contrary, Africa has been a prime guinea-pig for ever-changing aid policies.

Another stark illustration of Africa’s integration failure is found in the continent’s nearly-continuous outbreaks of violence, which stand in sharp contrast to the European Union’s (EU) “security community” where war has not only disappeared but has even become unthinkable.

The origin of this striking difference can be found –in part at least– in the continent’s colonial heritage of both ethnicity-fuelling policies and abstruse borders which African states nevertheless agreed to respect in 1964, for the sake of stability.

The problem is that this agreement –made by the Organization of African Unity (OAU)– has led to an over-zealous interpretation of the concept of sovereignty by many African leaders who now seem to favour post hoc peacekeeping interventions rather than preventive diplomatic efforts.

Though a widespread fear of the continent’s regional hegemons (South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia) might account for part of this sub-optimal approach to security, one can only imagine that the lack of any outside threat –of the kind once represented by the Red Army in Europe– has also prevented military cohesion from gaining sufficient momentum in Africa.

Lastly, it must be noted that Africa’s integration process has failed to provide any of the following: better respect for individual rights, a supranational understanding of democracy, or a regional extension of any sort of soft power –unlike the European Union in recent years.

Continental Solidarity

The first point which needs to be taken into consideration here is that promoting human rights is difficult everywhere, and it certainly has been in Europe as well. Despite its world-wide recognition, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) –to pick just one example– is known on the Old Continent for the lack of respect member states have historically had for its rulings.

This is where the EU’s regular Court of Justice –the scope of which was originally to be limited to economic disputes– has come into play. Through their own rulings, the Court’s justices have succeeded, over the years, in promoting individual rights for women, workers, and immigrants despite their lack of an official mandate for doing so. Because EU member states were used to respecting the Court’s decisions, so did they respect its successive breakthroughs in this matter, in stark contrast with the ECHR’s previously failed attempts.

In Africa, this has never been the case. Indeed, not only is Africa’s Court of Human Rights still young (it was created in 2004), but just like its European counterpart its rulings have not been heard far and loud by the continent’s political leaders. In this respect, the Court’s possible upcoming merger with the “mainstream” African Court of Justice might lead to a similar symbiosis to that observed in Europe over the years.

In the end, it was Africa’s voracious geographical appetite that would prove most crippling to its ambitions of integration.

As for the creation of a supranational understanding of democracy of the kind advocated by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, hopes are inevitably low in the absence of a continental-wide respect for democratic principles, even at a mere national level. In addition, such lack of spillover from the African Union’s Addis Ababa headquarters to Africa’s most remote villages is hardly surprising given the organisation’s unpromising intergovernmental approach.

Finally, one of the reasons for Africa’s failure to induce gradual changes on a regional scale most surely comes from its own decision not to take up conditionality as a means to produce sticks and carrots for prospective integration candidates. Instead, the Organization of African Unity opted for an all-inclusive membership policy from its outstart, thereby preventing it from becoming the norm-inducing “empire” the EU later turned into.

In the end, it was Africa’s voracious geographical appetite that would prove most crippling to its ambitions of integration.

A Necessary Change

Jean Monnet once declared that “people only accept change when they are faced with necessity, and only recognise necessity when a crisis is upon them.” The problem is that Africa has been faced with the necessity of change –and its crises– for decades, and that this necessity has led the continent to few decisive transformations.

Arguably, one could point to the fact that the OAU’s main goal was not continental integration so much as it was to provide newly independent African states with a feeling of cohesion against colonialism. In this sense, Africa’s integration process is only a few years old, given the late creation of the African Union in 2002.

Some might add that it would have been hard for Africa’s peoples to build both their own states and their own supranational regional body within 50 years, when it took Europe approximately eight centuries to –only partially– succeed in doing so.

Today however, this seems to be the ambition of most Africans and their leaders. Yet, to be successful, they will need to overcome most of –if not all– the aforementioned hurdles.

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image: colonial map of Dutch colonies on the African continent

Your comments

  • On 29 May 2013 at 19:15, by Jack Replying to: Integration: Europe Succeeds, Africa Fails. But why?

    It’s their culture - stop blaming imperialism. Great and powerful empires have entered, settled and left africa over the past two thousand years and none of the advancements, inventions or mind sets remained. Again, it’s the culture of Africa seasoned with a huge dollop of an age old vice - envy.