Since the late 1990s, there has been a renewed push for continental cooperation throughout Africa, with free-trade agreements and even political unions seemingly being discussed everywhere. While a similar pattern was observed immediately following decolonisation in the 1960s, the wave of collaboration soon collapsed due to internal and external reasons. Is the recent increased cooperation marking a new trend in Africa? What are the obstacles to increased integration?

The Rise, and Fall, then Rise Again of African Cooperation

Most of Africa was violently colonised by various European powers up until the post-World War II period when increased nationalism and mobilization by local populations led to these nations being gradually decolonised. During the initial decolonisation stage, there was some effort for international collaboration and unity. Examples include the merger of the former British colonies of Tanganyika and Zanzibar into Tanzania in 1964 and the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 by 32 independent African states. 

However, this wave of cooperation soon came to an end due to several reasons. First, dictatorships (through coups) began taking over previously democratic African nations. This is mainly due to the legacy of colonial structures of government, which had entrenched systems of power that often prioritised profit or resource exploitation over the people or democracy. Dictators often used nationalism as a tool to strengthen their hold over the nation, which reduced collaboration between states. Nationalism’s impact on international collaboration is still seen today and is best evidenced in the unequal global distribution of COVID vaccines, where larger countries with more vaccines were reluctant to share doses due to self-preservation and nationalism.

Second, proxy wars caused by the Cold War soon gripped the continent, with two main blocs, the communists and the capitalists, emerging in Africa and around the world. In order to strengthen their own respective blocs, the US and USSR funded wars and dictatorships on the continent, which further derailed plans for collaboration. Even previously started projects were affected by this shift. The East African Federation, once poised to unite in the 1960s, never fully did so, with Tanganyika and Zanzibar being the only two nations that successfully merged. The OAU, meanwhile, was criticised for not being assertive in its decisions, and did not enforce its calls for action; this resulted in the OAU being seen as quite ineffectual

However, a turning point came in the late 1990s. The East African Community (EAC) was refounded in 1999 after being disbanded 20 years earlier and immediately began taking steps towards unification. The OAU was reformed in 2002 into the African Union (AU) and has since been taking a more active role in African politics. The AU and the EAC have both since expanded, both in membership and in services.

East African Federation – Old Dream, Renewed

After failed attempts in the 1960s immediately following independence, the eastern African nations of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan are once again seeking unification. The East African Community (EAC), which re-formed in 2000, soon laid out four main “pillars” in the region’s path towards full political union, some of which have already been achieved. The first pillar, a free trade area, was established in 2005, allowing for tariff-free trade throughout the EAC. In 2010, the second pillar, a common market (which the EU also has), which grants citizens of the EAC rights to live and trade freely within the Community, was initiated. Currently, the EAC plans to form a full political confederation (the final pillar) after the implementation of the third pillar, a common currency and monetary union (including the formation of a common central bank), which is scheduled for 2024. 

The EAC’s successful efforts to date also demonstrate how additional integration in Africa can be beneficial for everyone: aside from financial crises, trade between EAC members has risen since the implementation of the customs union (a mutual agreement between two nations to remove barriers to trade) and common market. However, national interests have been an issue with executing further plans with the EAC: for example, the largest member in the Community, Tanzania, has had concerns that its land would be taken over should the East African Federation become a reality. As national interests were one of the biggest reasons why previous EAC unification talks failed, the EAC should be mindful of alleviating concerns before moving forward on further integration. The Community has aimed to do this by making the eventually unified nation a confederation instead of a federation, which means there would still be individual nations within the East African Federation.

African Continental Free Trade Area – Economic Collaboration

On January 1st, 2021, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) went into effect, marking a new era in inter-African trade. Although it was supposed to include all 55 AU member states (which would’ve made the AfCFTA the biggest trading bloc in the world by nation count), as of October 2021 only around 38 countries had ratified the agreement. Some nations have been hesitant to ratify the deal because of the fear of foreign competition in trade, which is a major argument used in protectionist opposition to trade deals. This fear may hinder the implementation of future financial steps planned by the AU, which include a single common currency called the afro. 

New Currency in West Africa – Financial Decolonisation

Financial changes at the regional level are also taking place. Most West African nations have been independent for over 60 years, yet French influence remains strong, especially in the financial sector. Paris has used various tactics to maintain its power over its former colonial possessions, such as using the French military to directly intervene in Africa no less than 30-50 times over the past decades and retaining control over the currencies in its former colonies. 14 African countries currently use either the West African CFA franc or the Central African CFA franc, both of which are guaranteed by the French treasury. While the CFA francs have been praised for the stability they bring to the economies that use them, some critics have labelled the CFA francs as another French tool to control its former colonies in Africa, as French financial officials have control over the CFA franc financial boards. Furthermore, analyses have pointed out that the CFA franc could be a barrier to trade and industrialisation due to its high value compared to the currencies of other African countries, as the cost to import products from a country increases if the currency of said nation appreciates in value. 

West African states, including all users of the West African CFA franc, are currently planning to launch a new currency named the eco, which will be modelled after the euro in its strict adoption requirements (such as a low inflation rate and deficit-to-GDP rate). This would make these nations financially independent from France, putting control of its currency directly back into the hands of the 8 current users of the West African CFA franc. However, challenges remain in the path towards the adoption of the eco; the new currency’s adoption has been delayed many times, with negotiations having been ongoing for 30 years, and the vast majority of the planned eco adopters not presently meeting the financial requirements needed for its use. In addition, there has been conflict between the Francophone eco adopters, who want to see an expedited process for the eco in order to abolish the CFA franc more quickly, and the Anglophone countries who wish to see a more drawn-out process. 

Looking to the Future

Through organizations like the EAC and the AU, the African continent has been gradually moving towards heightened cooperation and integration, both economically and politically. Some nations have also used this as an opportunity to push for greater decolonisation, with many aiming to achieve full financial independence from former colonial powers through the adoption of African currencies. While there have undeniably been benefits to integration, there remain reservations and challenges in the path towards further cooperation in the future, such as leaders trying to pursue national interests or nationalism caused by colonial and post-colonial history. If a more unified Africa is to be realised, these concerns will need to be adequately addressed. 

Edited by Kristen Belsher

Jonathan Chan

Born in Hong Kong and living in Vancouver, Canada since 2016, Jonathan (he/him) is currently a first-year student in the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia. He is passionate about...