Building Blocks The Challenging Realities of African Economic Integration

The African Continental Free Trade Area has always held great promise for African economic integration and the achievement of pan-Africanism. Historically, however, there have been many obstacles to African integration and pan-Africanism. While its full implementation has been delayed, the AfCFTA still holds great promise for African economic integration, and its potential should not be underestimated.

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Pan-African Dreams. Buy the issue here.

History is far from objective, as it echoes the voices of the victors. The perception of our past changes, depending on what focal points we choose. Take Nigeria’s history, for example: depending on whether we start in the late 1800s with the invasion of one of its great empires, the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates, or the independence from British colonialism in 1960, the narrative shifts, altering our evaluation of crucial moments.  

In a similar vein, the pan-African dream of economic integration through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) might seem constrained when viewed from 2019. After the deposition of the 22nd instrument of ratification by the Saharawi Republic on 29 May 2019, the AfCFTA agreement came into effect. Yet, four years on, the AfCFTA is still not fully operational. Some might see this as another broken promise. 

However, let’s embark on an exploration together and rewind the clocks by 60 years. What happens when we evaluate the AfCFTA from a different point in history? By exploring the essence of pan-Africanism and its changing practical manifestations within African economic integration over decades, we can fully appreciate what role the AfCFTA plays. 


Tim Murithi, a peace and security expert, who wrote the leading paper on institutionalizing pan-Africanism, aptly notes that pan-Africanism defies a singular definition, encapsulating a wide range of ideas and aspirations. At its core, pan-Africanism reflects the profound belief in the unity of Africans both on the continent and in the diaspora, based on a shared history of exploitation in differing forms from slavery to colonialism. This history creates a common objective and a collective vision for a brighter future that can only be achieved by working in unison. 

The roots of pan-Africanism took hold in the late 1800s, and its growth gained momentum through a series of influential pan-African congresses held between 1900 and 1945, spanning Europe and North America. These gatherings welcomed the rising stars of African leadership, including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, who would later champion independence movements in their respective nations. The congresses echoed the vital call for African self-reliance and collaboration as the solution to crises that plagued the continent. While these congresses lacked tangible financial or political power, their ideas seeped into the hearts and minds of people, shaping the course of history.  

1961 was a decisive year as the battle played out on how to translate the ideals of pan-Africanism into practical institutions. Independent African states stood united in their support for African unity, but core differences emerged regarding the path to achieve it. Nkrumah, an ardent advocate of pan-Africanism and socialism, spearheaded the Casablanca group, advocating for a bold vision of complete political and economic integration, culminating in the formation of a formidable federal state—the United States of Africa. The main drive for this political unification was based on the recognition that arbitrary divisions during the infamous Berlin Conference (1884-1885) had fragmented ethnic groups across multiple countries with small populations, leaving them without meaningful political clout.  

On the other side stood the larger Monrovia bloc led by Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria. While the Monrovia bloc also championed African unity, they embraced a more tempered approach, prioritizing progressive unification and economic integration. For this bloc the idea of pan-Africanism as a federal political union sat at odds with the cherished notion of national sovereignty, which many African nations had longed for and yearned to safeguard. 

In 1963, the two divergent blocs found common ground and forged the Organization of African Unity (OAU)—a historic amalgamation that required compromise and consensus. As with any merger, there are concessions; so this organization stood more akin to the Monrovia vision of pan-Africanism. The bedrock of the OAU as stated in Article II of its Charter, rested on the pursuit of progressive unification, driven by the overarching mission to liberate African nations from the clutches of colonial rule and support their relentless journey towards independence. 


Amidst the grand tapestry of African economic integration, the AfCFTA stands as a symbol of unity—as the flagship project of the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Yet, it is anchored in foundations laid by the OAU.  

The OAU and the AU are de jure two different institutions, existing at different points in time with similar membership. Beyond their official titles lies a lingering debate in scholarship, about the de facto differences between the two. Some view the AU as nothing more than a ‘cosmetic rebrand’ of the OAU—a superficial transformation with unchanged essence. Others, like political scientist, Paul Adoghame, herald the AU as a new paradigm, wielding the power to interfere in grave circumstances within member states, an unprecedented departure from the OAU’s principle of non-interference. Indeed, the OAU’s reluctance to act decisively in critical security matters led to the escalation of turmoil and tragedy on the continent from numerous civil wars, such as the 27-year-long Angolan Civil War, to the Rwandan genocide. The AU and the OAU are critically different in their priorities. While the OAU’s priority was independence, the AU has a different vision of pan-Africanism in the age of globalization, which is a struggle for unity and sustainable development. However, attempts and failures at economic integration during the OAU’s lifespan create a direct link to economic integration projects within the AU’s timeline. 

It’s the year 1980 in Lagos, Nigeria, a global oil price decline has created a dire economic situation leading to sanctions by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This crash in prices, termed the oil glut by The Times, is hitting Algeria and Libya, Nigeria’s African counterparts, just as hard. Amidst these economic challenges, African leaders convened under the OAU’s auspices to forge a pan-African economic development plan culminating in an African Common Market by 2000—a vision known as the Lagos Plan of Action. Rooted in self-reliance, the Lagos Plan sought full continental economic integration. A decade later, in 1991, the Abuja Treaty was adopted to establish the envisioned common market—the African Economic Community. 

However, as ambitious as the Lagos Plan and the Abuja Treaty were, they struggled to translate ideals into tangible economic integration. Amidst their pursuit, the World Bank’s 1981 Berg report championed Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs)—advocating externally oriented, market-driven policies as the means to African economic development. The allure and accessibility of SAPs, backed by global financial institutions, eclipsed the Lagos Plan’s noble intentions. Financial constraints and a lack of political will, hampered the Plan’s execution, halting continental economic integration, while regional economic integration continued to forge ahead. 

The last few decades of the OAU’s existence were dark. Security challenges, from armed coups to genocides, tore at the fabric of African unity, seemingly defying the essence of pan-Africanism. Yet, the OAU remained unable to effectively intervene, leading to its disbandment in 2002, paving the way for the inception of the African Union. 

Before the AfCFTA, grand plans for African economic integration under the AU had been scarce. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development, (NEPAD) though a notable project, was reliant on external forces, and lacked popular adoption. It was opposed to the principle of self-reliance that permeated through previous African economic integration projects—being dependent on the benevolence of capitalist-oriented global partners in the West such as the G8. Moreover, NEPAD did not aim for continental economic integration, rather it was mainly to be implemented at the regional economic community level. While NEPAD still exists, its impact is a bit lacklustre. As the AfCFTA sets sail, drawing inspiration from its historical roots and lessons of the past, it carries the promise of a united Africa, embracing the challenges and opportunities of economic integration on a continent teeming with potential. 


It’s the late 2010s, and global economic integration faces headwinds, as multilateralism is no longer attractive. Despite the shifting tide, a powerful resurgence of pan-Africanism emerges, taking the form of continental economic integration through the AfCFTA.  

The AfCFTA is the largest free trade area by membership since the WTO, encompassing 54 of the 55 African Union member states—except Eritrea. It is the flagship project of the AU’s Agenda 2063 ‘The Africa We Want’, a strategic framework for inclusive growth and sustainable development. The AfCFTA is the figurative house built upon the aspirations of the 1980 Lagos Plan of Actionadvocating for African self-reliance in economic development. As with the Lagos Plan, it recognizes the vital role of regional economic communities as building blocks for continental integration. Due to the range of overlapping membership ‘spaghetti bowl’ of Regional Economic Communities (RECs), with many states having two memberships, the AfCFTA officially recognizes only eight RECs, representative of the continent as its building blocks. 

However, this isn’t just about trade. The AfCFTA’s vision stretches far beyond. It aspires to comprehensive economic integration, encompassing e-commerce, investment, competition policy, digital trade, and empowering women and youth. The ultimate mandate? To fully implement a continental customs union and create a single continental market, uniting 1.3 billion people with a combined GDP of approximately $3.4 trillion. It promises to boost intra-African trade, fuel sustainable economic development and lift millions out of poverty. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that following full AfCFTA implementation in 2045, the number of people living in extreme poverty will be reduced by over 19 per cent in Côte d’Ivoire, 11.5 per cent in Tanzania and 3.2 per cent in Ethiopia as compared to the situation without the AfCFTA. 

With such a promising vision, one may wonder why full implementation seems to be a bit of a dance. It’s been five years since the AfCFTA Agreement was signed and four years since it came into force. Yet, the AfCFTA has not been fully implemented. Trading under the AfCFTA was supposed to commence on 1 July 2020 but the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a rescheduling to 1 Jan 2021. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had devastating effects on many African nations, drastically affecting their ability to implement and trade under the AfCFTA.  

To spur trading, in October 2022, the AfCFTA Secretariat released a Guided Trade Initiative involving eight countries (Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Rwanda, Tanzania and Tunisia) representing all five regions of the continent. The Secretariat created a process of matchmaking businesses and products for export and import in interested state parties. However, as of writing, full trading under the AfCFTA is yet to begin. Does this delayed implementation signify a waning promise? Not necessarily. The AfCFTA is a massive undertaking that requires significant investments and coordination across the continent. While the delays are unfortunate, they do not diminish the importance of the AfCFTA’s vision for a unified African economy. As the saying goes, good things come to those who wait, and the AfCFTA is no exception. 

As the AfCFTA builds upon the aspirations of the Lagos Plan of Action, it equally learns from past mistakes by charting a path for progressive implementation. This approach is evident even in its savvy negotiation strategies. The adoption of the agreement in 2018 encapsulated only Phase I instruments comprising trade in goods, trade in services and dispute settlement, but it was just the beginning. Fast-forward to today and the AU has adopted Phase II instruments focusing on intellectual property, investment, and competition policy. Nevertheless, there is more to come as Phase III instruments on digital trade and women and youth in trade are still being negotiated. Due to the AfCFTA agreement’s comprehensiveness and the complexities of large-scale economic integration, it is important to address the nitty-gritty to ensure that countries can effectively implement it. Unlike the Lagos Plan of Action, the AfCFTA enjoys political will, a formidable force that transcends political administration. Moreover, it is firmly grounded within an institutional structure of its own Secretariat to drive its effective implementation. 

If political will exists, then there is something more behind the delayed implementation. Olabisi Akinkugbe, a leading scholar in African international economic law, has suggested that delayed implementation is a product of the intricacies of pan-Africanism in practice. The reality of African unity and cooperation unfolds in diverse ways, shaped by regional nuances, unique skills, and even gender dynamics. Implementation of the AfCFTA is no easy feat and involves many commitments and concessions from states in differing aspects. As the practical reality of pan-Africanism morphs and grows, states aim to reap the most benefits possible making them cautious at every step.  

Nigeria’s measured approach to ratification, despite active involvement in the agreement’s negotiations, reflects a drive to ensure that all stakeholders, including the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), fully embrace this transformative endeavour. Its weariness about the impact of the agreement on domestic industries created hesitance but now MAN is fully involved in implementing the AfCFTA domestically. As Africa grapples and questions the practical manifestations of pan-Africanism, this may slow down implementation but these trials to gain bottom-up support are critical for effective implementation. For the AfCFTA to thrive, it must be a people-led movement, firmly grounded in the hearts and minds of Africans, embodying the true essence of an African ideal. In this unfolding saga of continental economic integration, the AfCFTA emerges as a testament to the enduring spirit of pan-Africanism—an evolving force that seeks not uniformity but unity in diversity, empowering Africa to take charge of its destiny and chart a prosperous future for all. 


Within the AfCFTA lies immense potential, but we must acknowledge that reaching its ultimate goal will require time and concerted efforts. The key lies in embracing progressive integration—a real-world application of pan-Africanism that combines forward-thinking approaches with a firm commitment to economic unity. Africa’s history showcases the complexities of the continent’s unity, often revealing a more conservative bloc that gradually forges its path through progressive economic integration. Challenges abound, but the continent must unite, determined to ground the promises of the AfCFTA firmly in reality, rather than letting them linger as mere clouds of potential.  

‘Acceleration of AfCFTA Implementation’ is the AU’s theme for 2023. It emphasizes the vital role economic integration plays in the journey towards prosperity. However, successful implementation requires a robust foundation, encompassing infrastructure development, funding, and widespread adoption. Thus, the importance of building those foundations to support implementation cannot be overemphasized. For instance, the creation of the Pan-African Payment and  Settlement Scheme by the African Export-Import Bank launched in collaboration with the AU , in 2022 to facilitate cross-border money flows through a low-risk controlled payment clearing and settlement system is laudable and a step towards full implementation. Additionally, the AfCFTA Adjustment Fund has been established to support nation-states and the private sector in AfCFTA implementation.  

Nonetheless, the AfCFTA is not perfect and needs to address some underlying issues to ensure the promise is a reality. While RECs form the building blocks for the AfCFTA, it is unclear how exactly they fit within the continental structure. The answer that in a conflict whichever agreement gives greater economic integration applies is only a band-aid. It must also ensure that it fully integrates micro, small and medium enterprises which are the lifeblood of African businesses into its plans and integrate the informal sector without necessarily forcing it to become formal. 

Despite these dreams, we cannot turn a blind eye to the daunting security challenges that loom large, undermining economic integration and hampering progress. Tackling these issues requires a multi-faceted approach, as we recognize that the AfCFTA alone cannot be a panacea for all of Africa’s challenges. The AfCFTA must remain the powerful tool for economic integration it was designed to be, rather than a makeshift solution for broader challenges. Instead, we must bolster the AU’s capabilities, embracing greater political and cultural integration, empowering the AU to address security concerns and implementing other complementary agreements critical to Agenda 2063 especially the free movement of people

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].