Regional integration has been a development strategy for Africa for decades. The African Economic Community’s founding treaty in 1991 provided a framework targeting full political and economic integration by 2019. Many African countries have signed on to foster political and economic cooperation. The promotion of social and cultural development, economic integration and trade, and free movement of persons and goods are fundamental principles for continental and regional organisations, including the African Union (AU), the African Development Bank (AfDB), and regional economic communities (RECs), with the ultimate goal of creating a unified continental market.
Despite this emphasis, Africa’s record on regional integration has not been impressive. Fragmented regulations, high trade tariffs, complicated customs procedures, and disjointed transport and energy infrastructure continue to prevent the continent from turning “rhetoric into reality” in a powerful pan-African market (Ibrahim, 2016).
As calls to action, the AU’s Agenda 2063 (African Union Commission, 2015)) and the AfDB’s Regional Integration Policy and Strategy 2014-2023 (African Development Bank Group, 2015) lay out blueprints for moving forward on integration, with an initial focus on trade and market integration, free movement of people, and infrastructure development. A new Africa Regional Integration Index, launched in 2016 by the AU Commission, the AfDB, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, is designed to jumpstart progress and track it through independent, high-quality data (African Union Commission, 2016).
If progress depends in part on public support for integration, survey data on public attitudes might make a useful contribution on this issue. In its latest round of surveys, Afrobarometer asked citizens in 36 countries four relevant questions: whether they prefer free or restricted cross-border movement of people and goods, how easy or difficult cross-border movement currently is, whether governments should assume a regional role in protecting democracy and human rights or instead respect their neighbours’ sovereignty, and how helpful they think the AU and RECs are to their countries.
Findings suggest limited support for integration, with wide variations by country and region. On average across 36 countries, a majority of Africans favour free cross-border movement of people and goods, but this is not the majority view in 15 of those countries. Meanwhile, only one in four citizens say it’s easy to cross international borders.
When asked to choose between respecting national sovereignty vs. a regional role for states in protecting free elections and human rights in neighbouring countries, most Africans emphasize national sovereignty. And while a majority of Africans consider the AU and RECs at least “a little bit” helpful to their countries, this is not the case in all countries, and about three in 10 citizens don’t know enough about these organisations to have an opinion.
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