The African debate on whether size matters

This is not a new debate, rather the opposite – going back at least until the 1960s when most African countries gained independence. This is the eternal dilemma around African countries’ borders, their characteristics and their implications for economic and political development. This time it has been brought back to the from pages by Mo Ibrahim, who’s becoming – to some people’s dislike – some sort of guru od develpment and good governence in Africa. This issue however, never disappeared from the analysis made by academics, journalists or politicians – a good analysis of this, from a historical perspective going back to precolonial Africa is Jeffrey Herbst’s book “States and Power in Africa”.
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Mo Ibrahim (centre) and Tanzanian President Kikwete (to his left) during Sunday’s presentation in Dar-es-Salam (Photo Muchuzi).
Last Sunday in Tanzania – the cronicle of the event can be seen in issa michuzi’s blog – Ibrahim pointed out that most african states are too small to survive independently, and that each of the 53 states will neve be able, on their own, to compete with giants like China, the US or the EU. Ibrahim immediately pointed out that it was economic integration – and not political unity – that he was advocating. This recipe is in agreement with the economic models and ideas – dominated by a neo-liberal consensus – defended by institutions like the World Bank, o el African Development Bank during the last decades. In fact, regional integration has been one of the most important processes during the last few years, as seen in the creation and strenghtening of institutions like the East African Community (EAC), or the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). Although undoubtedly, there are benefits to be gained through these initiatives – as Ibrahim points out intra-African trade accounts only for 4-5% of the world’s total trade – this is not a wonderful solution, and there are important risks that have to be noted. Both aspects are pointed out on a recent entry on the blog “A Bombastic Element”, in which reference is made to how, again according to a WB report, the costs involved in building infraestructures is often too high for a single, small state to take on his own. At the same time it is also pointed out that regional trade can be monopolised by regional “giants” – Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya – which can generate mistrust among the smaller partners regarding integration – in fact, this is one of the reason why integration in the EAC is rather slow.
However, the economic recipe is, on its own insufficient, as Brazilian ex-president points out,Fernando Henrique Cardoso, “the economy is already globalised. Now we need to globalise politics”; something that has als been made clear by the current economic crisis. Maybe focusing on the economic aspect Ibrahim just wanted to set himself apart from current pan-african figurehead, and promoter of the “United States of Africa”, Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi, who is often on the headlines more for his extravagant actions ,
than for his continental leadreship. African political unity is however an important issue, that preoccupied already the first wave of independence leaders, like Nyerere, Nkrumah and Senghor to name a few. These leaders knew how artificial were the borders they inherited from the European powers and toyed with the idea of forming new political entities, like the the Senegal-Mali Federation (June-September 1960), the Ghana-Guinea Union (1958-62), and the (first) East African Community (1967-69). These leaders also embraced a Pan-African ideology that played a key role in the establishments of institutionsl like the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union) which, although far from perfect, worked for a greater cooperation within the continent. These ideas were also crucial in guiding the support which countries like Tanzania gave to organisations fighting for freedom in the South of the continent, like Zanu in Zimbabwe, FRELIMO in Mozambique, or the South African ANC.
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Image of the All-Africa’s People Congress, which took place in Ghana in 1958 (Photo: Pan-African News-wire)
In summary, that the debate around the size and borders of African countries is not only alive, but back on the news. It is important therefore to point out that the future of the continent needs not only economic integration – a recipe proposed by organisations like the WB – but also a renewal of the compromise with Pan-African ideas of continental solidarity, that played an important role in the past. Only doing this would the relationship between African countries, and between Africa and the rest of the world, would be based on something more than economic profit, and would allow the creation of democratic institutions that will remain above the market.

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One thought on “The African debate on whether size matters

  1. schauzeri noviembre 24, 2009 / 10:35 pm

    More on the costs of regional integration – Prof. Shivji warns that market integration of EAC could lead this area to become a “puppet block” if dendency on Western donors continues.
    Beyond this, a future SADC-EAC integration would cost $5.5 billion per year during a decade!

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