The African Union (AU) under Zimbabwean President Mugabe will avoid mentioning practical ideas for real political and economic freedom for African citizens.
Continental union was the founding principle of the original Organisation of African Unity but it never stood a chance. African leaders refuse to face up to their own or their neighbours’ failures, whilst preventing ordinary Africans from using their ingenuity to build their own future.
The AU summit under most past leaders are full of lofty ideals of unity, not least from Mugabe yet nothing of any use on the real disasters of Zimbabwe, Darfur, Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea and economic atrophy in much of Africa, with Ghana leading the race having fallen from a significant 14% GDP in 2011 to under 4% in 2015. Other continental failures such as corruption and election-rigging will not even feature on the agenda–although these remain the real unifying features of Africa.
Above all, there will not be a whisper about property rights, the rule of law and economic freedoms that would allow Africans to emulate the growth of Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea that were as poor as we were at independence in the 1960s. Even the growth records of South Africa, Mauritius and Botswana are ignored as being somehow exceptional instead of being acknowledged as the result of sound economic policies.
Positions at the AU have always been divided between the so-called “gradualists,” who believe that individual countries should first strive to build working economies and integrate them through regional blocs, and the “radicals,” who believe a supra-national authority would lead to unity. Gaddafi was an apostle of the latter option, but he is dead.
Neither side, however, is talking about the real issue of economics—and freedom for Africans to raise themselves out of poverty, unshackled from State serfdom.
The life-changing power of trade has been demonstrated historically and not just in the West. At the height of their glory, many pre-colonial African states and empires found trade to be a better way to prosperity than through conquests. Gold was shipped from Wangara in the Upper Niger across the Sahara desert to Taghaza, in Western Sahara, in exchange for salt, and to Egypt for ceramics, silks and other Asian and European goods. The old Ghana Empire controlled much of the trans-Sahara trade in copper and ivory. At Great Zimbabwe, gold was traded for Chinese pottery and glass. From Nigeria, leather and iron goods were traded throughout West Africa.
Today, Africa has lost the ability to trade. As a result, many conspiracy theories abound for its backwardness. Regardless, the blame game ignores the devil within: the internal and regional barriers that hobble trade, making tariffs within Africa far higher than any tariff barriers by outside blocs. Some politicians, bureaucrats and many aid activists argue that these tariffs make essential contributions to government revenue–meaning that government offices are more important than citizens or the economy.
Opponents of US Free Trade Agreements (FTA) or European Union Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) say these would allow cheap imports and send the already tottering African economies into collapse. They have no thought for the consumers who would benefit from cheap imports or the producers who could export regionally and internationally. They think only of maintaining government power and protecting industries (usually run by government cronies).
The real consequence of these anti-development policies would keep the African farmer at subsistence level and keep our economies agrarian. Tragically, these barriers and that backwardness excuse African leaders from building the necessary infrastructure needed to open up the continent to free trade.
A few years ago, tariffs in rich countries fell by 84% in the last two decades to about 3.9%–yet tariff barriers in Africa have only declined by 20% to a still massive average of 17.7%. Of course, other, non-tariff, protectionism in the poorest African countries is four times greater than in rich countries.
So the issue here is not remote ideals of regional or continental unity that might, by some undefined and unprecedented magic, lift Africans out of poverty. The real issue is the lack of practical and everyday economic freedom that would allow Africans to lift themselves out of poverty, with well-defined and historically-proven policies.
The beauty of sound economic policies is that they take effect within very few years, as in South Africa and Botswana, unlike fancy political notions, such as former Libyan leader Gaddafi’s oft-delayed union with Egypt. But leaders who can talk of unity while ignoring the carnage in Darfur and the tyranny in Zimbabwe can very easily ignore regional economic barriers.
Our future will not be built by ideology and fine concepts: these are what have kept Africans back when hundreds of millions in Asia were building a better life. Our growth and prosperity depends on proven common sense and freeing the economic shackles that still enslave us.
An adaptation of Franklin Cudjoe's past article. Franklin Cudjoe is Founding President of IMANI