Not everyone shares the African Union’s dream of a borderless Africa

Not everyone shares the African Union’s dream of a borderless Africa

Not everyone shares the African Union’s dream
Pushing Africa’s boundaries. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam))

( Quartiz) –If Africa’s 1.26 billion people share a dream, beyond peace and progress on the continent, it would be the ability to move freely across its borders. The one thing a refugee traveling by foot might share with rich businessman flying first class is that both are likely to come up against, in some form or another, the incredible difficulties and frustrations of trying to move from one country to another on the continent.

Indeed, the African Union’s current chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa, wrapped up her latest State of the Continent address on Dec. 19 with a summary of the AU’s efforts to transcend borders—an effort often coined as the creation of a “borderless Africa”—from free trade areas and transport corridors, to internet exchange points and regional energy pools. She talked of the importance of African unity, an ideal that stretches back 100 years at least.

“As globalization, travel and information communications technology have turned our world into a global village, as economic shocks and booms affect all of us, as diseases such as HIV, Ebola, Zika and SARS know no borders, the imperative for African integration has become even more urgent in today’s world,” Dlamini-Zuma said. “History will judge us if we do not seize the moment.”

For many African states, the limitations imposed by borders, artificially created by colonialists, have come to suit them over time.

Making Africa’s borders more permeable could be a huge boost for trade and tourism on the continent. In her speech, Zuma cited a study predicting that the extension of African passports (launched in July last year) on the continent “could increase travel in the continent by 24% and revenues from tourism by 20%.” Under this ideal, many more Africans could experience the beauty, wonder and history of their neighbors without having to endure the excessive restrictions, costs and even indignities this travel can sometimes entail.

“That Africa must unite, at the very least in economic terms, is not a question of pandering to romantic notions,” writes Y. G-M. Lulat in A History of African Higher Education (p. 252). “It is necessitated by the simple fact that if it is to ever escape the political and economic morass it is in today, then economic unity of some kind is absolutely essential.” For Lulat, that answer lay in “sectorally diverse, cross-border institution building,” particularly between universities.

United states of Africa

But at the heart of this issue—and the reason a united Africa has not moved from a utopian ideal to a concrete reality—is that for many African states, the current limitations imposed by their borders, many artificially created by colonialists, have come to suit them over time. Opening their borders and having to deal with the resulting challenges of xenophobia, terrorism, socio-eonomic and legal pressures—could be a nightmare for them if they’re not ready or willing to deal with those downsides.

“The present reality actually suits a good many of the African elites, particularly given the close association between control of government and control of the economy,” says John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “When you see statements about, or even mechanisms designed to promote African unity, my first question always is to what extent is this essentially aspirational, and to what extent is it real?”

Many Africans have also yet to be convinced of the benefits of this utopian ideal. An Afrobarometer survey (pdf) last year of people in 36 African countries found that while on average, a majority of respondents favored free cross-border movement, this was not the majority view in 15 countries. The public opinion data showed large regional differences in attitudes towards integration,

Many Africans have yet to be convinced of the benefits of the utopian ideal of integration.

with support for freedom of movement highest among West Africans (66%) and East Africans (64%), and lowest in North Africa. Three out of ten people surveyed didn’t know enough about the AU or some of the regional bodies to offer a view.

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