Trade is a key indicator of integration within a region as well as of economic growth.

However, intra-African trade is the lowest of all regions barring MERCOSUR, the South American trade bloc.

Social cohesion is defined by Ritzen and Woolcock (2000) as “a state of affairs in which a group of people…demonstrate an aptitude for collaboration that produces a climate for change” is another indicator of integration.

It characterises societies where minorities are integrated, social mobility occurs and people feel like they belong. It drives political stability and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found a positive correlation between social cohesion and GDP per capita.

Yet, Africa is marked by stark income inequality, ethnic conflicts and education exclusion which are all indicators of weak social cohesion.

Why this lack of economic and social integration in Africa? And what can be done to improve it?

Partnerships between African countries do exist. In May 2019, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) came into operation for 24 countries including South Africa, Ghana and Kenya.

AfCFTA is set to boost trade by creating a single market of goods and services and encouraging market liberalisation. Nevertheless, many doubt the possibility of real implementation.

The largest share of African exports are raw materials, goods that the West, Russia and China lap up, but other African countries do not need. The only region with a greater dependence on exports to the rest of the world is Oceania.

Moreover, Africa’s railways and roads are largely remnants of the colonial era; the transport system facilitates extraction and exportation overseas rather than interregional trade.

But history is not solely to blame. Excessive regulations and checkpoints are market-entry barriers that make intra-African trade more expensive.

Furthermore, some worry that there is insufficient political will to commit to liberalisation: several minor trading blocs have been established prior to AfCFTA but governments limit their powers, fearing loss of sovereignty.

Trade gives an insight into levels of unity on a macro level but how united are individual African states? The world’s most culturally diverse countries, according to the Pew Research Center, are all in Africa: Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, the list goes on.

This diversity derives from the multiplicity of tribal groups in and across African nations, a consequence of divisive colonial borders. Post-colonial governments committed to these borders in the wake of independence in order to prevent conflicts and enable relations with the rest of the world.

In reality, these borders have fuelled ethnic conflicts, exclusion of non-dominant groups and at least 20 separatist movements today including the Sudan Liberation Movement and the Mombasa Republican Council in Kenya.

To improve social cohesion within countries some Africans have called for the decentralisation of national governance and autonomy for ethnic groups.

Since inequality between ethnic groups often stems from the preferences and allegiances of a country’s leaders, good political leadership has also been cited as crucial to greater inclusivity.

In terms of trade and cohesion across the continent, greater integration has long been promoted under the tenet of ‘Pan-Africanism’: the movement for the liberation of Africa and the African diaspora stemming from a belief in the unity and common purpose of Africans.

Many argue that it is the commitment to borders and nationalistic political ideology that prevents African governments from exchanging their sense of sovereignty for this common, pan-African purpose.

Photo by Nate Greno on Unsplash

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