Since the 1960s, the need to overcome the limitations of individual countries has driven the effort to create African regional institutions capable of managing concerted political processes. The desire to promote regional integration met the difficulties of a set of countries with small and uncompetitive domestic economies, often dependent on external markets, in many cases landlocked, and therefore subject to higher transportation costs for goods. In the face of these challenges, Regional Economic Communities (RECs), sub-regional groupings of countries, were identified as the means to improve coordination in economic and political development among African countries in the context of the initiatives pursued by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and, later, the African Union (AU).
A journey in stages…
The original regional integration project responded both to the need for political collaboration among the various newly independent states, with a pan-African outlook, and the objectives of economic development and reduction of disparities amid African countries. Since the 1980s, efforts for regional integration have focused in particular on steps functional to the economic integration of the continent, with RECs acquiring a central role in managing relations among member states.
The importance of regionalism and the RECs’ role was outlined in the Organisation of African Unity's Lagos Plan of Action of 1980, which set out a plan for governments to address the continent’s disappointing economic performances based on the notion of regional self-reliance, later reinforced in the Abuja Treaty (1991). The latter, in particular, set out a roadmap for continental integration aimed at fostering meaningful economic progress. It envisaged the creation of an African Economic Community (EAC) and set out a series of steps and objectives, with regional groupings tasked with the latter’s actual implementation.
Other economic development initiatives followed: the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and the African Union's Agenda 2063: The Africa we want initiative in 2015. The latter outlines a strategy for the continent's development and regional integration to be achieved over a 50-year period, adapting the vision expressed in the Abuja Treaty to the new global context and dynamics. The 2063 Agenda is articulated in seven “aspirations” and twelve “flagship projects”, including the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The RECs, identified as the cornerstones of the regional integration process pursued by the AU, thus play an important role in the development of the continent-wide free area which, by aiming at strengthening ties among African economies, should benefit from the integration experiences already in the pipeline at the regional level.
The various RECs – namely, the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA); Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD); East African Community (EAC); Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS); Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD); and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – have evolved with different timing, structures, and roles. Over the years, there has been a proliferation of regional organisations of various types and levels, and many African countries have multiple affiliations, creating what has been called a 'spaghetti bowl' of processes and regulations. According to an ECDPM study, on average, each African country belongs to eight regional organisations.
However, the African Union (AU) recognises eight RECs as the 'building blocks’ for its regional integration. Consistently, the AfCFTA preamble recognises the Free Trade Areas (FTAs) of the various RECs as 'building blocks' for the creation of a continental free trade area.
...and variable speeds
Though on paper these eight pillars’ organisation and objectives suggest uniformity for the evolution of the different RECs, in practice the levels of economic and political integration achieved vary greatly, depending on each country’s economic predispositions and coordination, as well as political traction of the states within them.
African institutions have developed indicators to assess the regional integration progress across the continent. The African Regional Integration Index (ARII) — jointly developed by the African Union, the African Development Bank, and UNECA — measures the regional integration progress among the RECs, allowing an assessment of their overall performance but also pointing to different deficit areas where intervention is needed. The index is calculated based on five indicators: the free movement of people, trade integration, productive integration, macroeconomic integration, and infrastructural integration. According to the 2019 ARII indicators– that is, the latest available version – (net of possible, and sometimes significant, variations among countries within the same REC), the most advanced REC in terms of overall regional integration is the East African Community, while the SADC ranks at the bottom, despite South Africa’s particularly positive performance. The indicators show quite diversified performances across specific areas: ECCAS stands out in the criterion of macroeconomic convergence, closely followed by the EAC; the EAC, on the other hand, has made significant progress in terms of infrastructure integration; while ECOWAS has achieved remarkable results in the free movement of people, as also found by the Africa Visa Openness Index.
The Abuja Treaty set out a roadmap with various stages, starting with the creation and/or strengthening of the RECs and culminating in the establishment of an African Economic Community in 2028, with a monetary union and a Pan-African Parliament; moving through the intermediate steps for the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers within the RECs and their harmonisation (by 2007); the establishment of free trade areas (FTAs) and Customs Unions in each REC by 2017, the coordination of tariff and non-tariff systems between the RECs (by 2019), and the creation of a common African market by 2023.
While the initial stage was completed, not all RECs proceeded uniformly in the subsequent ones. Forms of FTAs have been implemented, although progress for AMU, CEN-SAD and IGAD is still limited. COMESA, the EAC and ECOWAS have launched customs unions, which are still being implemented. Both COMESA and ECOWAS have implemented a customs union, while ECOWAS has stated that the goal of a common currency, the ECO, is now planned for 2027. The EAC has made the most progress, having achieved both a customs union and a common market (i.e., adding the free movement of capital and labour to that of goods and services), while the common currency is still pending.
In the implementation of the AfCFTA, different levels of progress in sub-regional integration and different trade criteria and rules could undermine the creation of a unitary system. This is a crucial point that is also recognised in its establishment treaty, which emphasises "the urgent need to consolidate and build on achievements in services liberalisation and regulatory harmonisation at the Regional Economic Community (REC) and continental levels".
Building blocks to a continental architecture
Though the mandate and goals set by the RECs officially recognised by the AU are clear and ambitious, the path they are tracing does not follow a rapid and uniform process. In the 2019 African Regional Integration Index, the overall continental integration performance was rated with a low average score (0.327 out of 1), suggesting there is still room for improvement.
This is evident when one looks at figures for intra-continental trade, which remains comparatively low: inter-state African trade accounts for only 18% of the continent’s total external trade (a net, however, of the high levels of informal cross-border trade, which is hard to quantify). Africa trades far more with external partners, in particularly Asia and the EU. For all the RECs, with the exception of SADC’s imports, intra-RAC trade levels are below 20%.
However, the RECs’ experience holds not only the potential for increased economic performances, but also experience in coordination and integration processes that can be applied at the continental level.