Political will, democracy: imperatives for regional integration in Africa

Johannesburg, 29 October 2013 -  Panelists on Tuesday, October 29 at the ongoing Africa Economic Conference in Johannesburg have underscored strong political will and democracy as imperatives for successfully regional integration across the continent.

No referendum has been held about regional integration in most African countries, signalling the absence of a political debate, which is needed to advance the process of integration.   

Discussing under the theme “Implementation: The Political Economy of Regional Integration”, chaired by Pedro Conceição, the Chief Economist of the United Nations Development Programme, Regional Bureau for Africa, distinguished panelists underscored the need for stronger political commitment to facilitate effective implementation of the regional integration agenda.   

“Regional integration is a political project – we have to find ways of relating technocrats and politicians,” said Prof. Thandika Mkandawire from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Mkandawire observed that it will require strong political will at the national level to advance the regional integration agenda. Political events and institutional arrangements at the national level, he argued, have an impact on the regional integration.  

“Regional integration requires surrendering some sovereignty. We have to realize that the political environment at the national level affects integration,” he said, calling for stronger political commitment.

In addition, he emphasized the need to harmonize national and regional laws to facilitate the process of integration.

For his part, Ibbo Day Mandaza, Executive Director, SAPES Trust, Zimbabwe, noted that unequal and uneven development among African countries pose challenges for regional integration. He also underscored the importance of promoting democracy in advancing the regional integration agenda.

“The problem of the nation state is serious: Unless we reform the nation state, which is inherently anti-democratic, we should not hope to achieve regional integration,” Mandaza said, underscoring that good governance is an imperative for integration.    

“We need to go back to the drawing board and begin with the basic things,” he added, pointing out the need to facilitate free movement of people between countries.   

He also pointed to overlapping memberships among regional economic communities as a challenge for successful integration.  

“There is a problem of reconciling these organizations [regional economic blocs],” he said, referring to competition between the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).    

Panelists also recognized a need to address risks associated with financial integration as countries move into regional groupings.  

According to Lemma. W. Senbet, the Executive Director, African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), better regulation of financial institutions is needed to mitigate risks arising from conflicting interests between the different stakeholders of regional integration.

“There are conflicting interests between politicians, regulators and those who are regulated,” he said, calling for more vigilance in regulation to facilitate financial integration.  

The panelists also underscored that the impact of globalization has reaffirmed the need to press forward with regional economic integration. By integrating with neighbouring, larger economies, smaller and less-developed countries become better positioned to participate in regional and global supply chains, thereby expanding their market access, attracting foreign direct investment flows, enhancing private sector activities, and increasing economies of scale.

The AEC is an annual business intelligence forum organized by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to discuss the continent’s major economic development challenges.

The conference groups government leaders, policy-makers, researchers and development practitioners from Africa and other parts of the world. This year, discussions will focus on how the continent of 54 disparate states can overcome its fragmentation and pool resources for industrialization and productive growth.