Celebrating African unity on Africa Day

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The 25th of May is Africa day, celebrating the founding in 1963 of the Organization of African Unity, today called the African Union. This is a permanent institution of Pan-Africanism.

This is the first Africa Day in more than a decade to occur when a South African President is the African Union chair. Coverage of the Covid pandemic has overshadowed Cyril Ramaphosa’s role as AU chair, but its business continues, often by virtual meetings.

This year, the most topical aspect of the African Union is its newest specialised technical agency – the African Centre for Disease Control. Launched in 2017, the African CDC takes the lead in disseminating the latest information on the Covid-19 pandemic, and coordinating the distribution of foreign medical aid to African states. President Ramaphosa took the lead in setting up five teams, one for each African region, to direct quarantine programmes and distribute protective personal equipment to health personnel across the continent.

Another aim of the African CDC is to assist countries in developing comprehensive national medical laboratories, which include diagnostic testing and secure and safe handling of highly dangerous pathogens. Before Covid-19 came Ebola, and the future will bring new epidemics.

In previous years, one African Union slogan was “the guns must fall silent in 2020”. Top of the agenda is the continuing civil war in Libya, where non-African powers have been backing rival sides. The UAE is the main arms provider to the Tobruk-based regime of Khalifa Haftar, and Turkey the most important ally of the Tripoli-based, UN-recognised Government of National Accord.

Shannon Ebrahim, the international affairs editor of the Independent Newspapers, has written about the dilemma that President Ramaphosa has asked Turkey to not militarily intervene in Libya, while simultaneously Denel is exporting munitions to Turkey. Since Denel is in great financial distress, it obviously seeks every export order it can get.

One non-violent conflict is the negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt, each with over one hundred million people, concerning the rate of filling with water the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This will provide for all Ethiopia’s electricity needs, plus some power for export.

Egypt’s concern is that it is utterly dependent on the annual Blue Nile flood waters for all its needs, including agriculture. Egypt has asked that the filling of the dam be stretched to fifteen years. From its side, Ethiopia has so far conceded that it will fill its dam in not three years, but over six years. The AU has been cautious about involvement in a dispute between Ethiopia, which hosts the AU headquarters, and Egypt, one of the big five regional powers in Africa.

Other conflicts in the headlines include the decade-old insurgency of Boko Haram and other rebels in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The newest insurgency is in northernmost Mozambique, where the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has pledged support to the Mozambican state.

In addition to diplomatic and military actions, the economic dimension ranks top of any to-do list.

One major task for the AU is what two economists, Paul Brenton and Gözde Isik,  call “defragmenting Africa”. Colonialism left Africa divided between 55 independent states. The only way to keep the peace was the Organisation for African Unity (today the AU) resolution that all borders be recognised as they were on the date of independence.

Hard borders can be made into soft borders, however. The Southern African  Customs Union has done quite a bit towards that for a century for Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, Namibia, and South Africa. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), ratified in 2019, is the first step to doing this for the rest of Africa.

The AfCFTA aims at abolishing import duties on 90% of goods and services traded between African countries. Realistically, this will take a decade to be substantially implemented. The first step are the current negotiations for Rules of Origin. (RoO). This is to define what is “African”.

For example, the AfCFTA cannot have an Asian country import shirts to Africa, sew on the buttons locally, and claim that is customs duty-free “made in Africa”. Such RoO also require a dispute settlement mechanism that avoids the need for costly and protracted litigation in the courts.

Equally important to treaties on paper, is the reality at African borders, and between African borders. When lorry drivers are kept waiting several days to clear their cargos at borders, this makes much intra-African trade prohibitively expensive. This applies even more so to corrupt road-blocks by traffic police and militia along major highways, demanding bribes to let traffic through, just like feudal robber barons on the Rhine and Danube Rivers.

One immediate, practical Pan-Africanism for the growing diasporas of African workers is lower fees to transfer remittances to their families back home. South Africa’s banks are notorious for charging some of the highest fees in the world for foreign exchange transactions.

Pioneers leading the way are mobile phone money transfers in east Africa, and also other money transfer companies, who charge lower fees. The Pan-African Payment and Settlement Scheme intends to accelerate this overdue slashing of forex fees.

In conclusion, Pan-Africanism is not a choice. It is a necessity for progress.