The meaning of building blocks for African integration is defined by the applicable legal instruments and subsequent practice
The Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have a long history within the narrative of African political cooperation and economic integration. They are now also referred to as the building blocks of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). In this Blog we take a brief look at the different contexts in which the RECs are mentioned and used. We argue that although the same eight configurations are identified as the RECs, that their roles in separate configurations are not the same. Over time some of them have changed quite markedly. Their membership is constantly changing and overlapping membership across RECs is an important feature. Some of them are pursuing deep integration agendas. Others have not yet even formed Free Trade Areas (FTAs).
The RECs are not an homogenous group and cannot be expected to contribute to the continent’s integration in similar fashion. They must also adapt to new developments and challenges and are expected to play different roles as the debate about and the African economic integration agenda develop. We suggest that the legal instruments of particular arrangements which employ the RECs as building blocks should be consulted to understand their roles in specific contexts. Subsequent practice is particularly useful guide.
Where does the concept of the RECs come from? African Union (AU) sources give the following explanation:
The Regional Economic Communities (RECs) are regional groupings of African states. The RECs have developed individually and have different roles and structures. Generally, the purpose of the RECs is to facilitate regional economic integration between members of the individual sub-regions and through the wider African Economic Community (AEC), which was established under the Abuja Treaty (1991). The 1980 Lagos Plan of Action for the Development of Africa and the Abuja Treaty proposed the creation of RECs as the basis for wider African integration, with a view to regional and eventual continental integration. The RECS are increasingly involved in coordinating AU Member States’ interests in wider areas such as peace and security, development and governance.
There are different expectations about being building blocks of African regional arrangements. In respect of the AEC the Abuja Treaty mentions a step-by-step programme of how all the RECs will move up the ladder of deeper integration. In the early stages RECs are to establish FTAs and then Customs Unions, following which a continental customs union is to be established. A continental common market is then to be established, through the adoption of common policies in areas such as agriculture, transport, communications and energy, as well as harmonization of monetary, financial and fiscal policies, to bring the AEC into being. They will then presumably disappear. This has not happened, and four of the eight RECs have not yet formed FTAs.
The AfCFTA Agreement has added another and a new role for the RECs. It provides that only REC FTAs are building blocks for the AfCFTA. This Agreement also adds an important qualification by providing that existing CUs and other African trade arrangements which have attained among themselves higher levels of regional integration than under the AfCFTA, shall continue and maintain such higher levels of integration among themselves. The AfCFTA does not intend to abolish any of the RECs. This makes sense from another angle; over time some of the RECs have grown into anchor points of intra-African trade.
The expectations expressed in continental legal instruments such as the Abuja Treaty and the AfCFTA Agreement constitute one context for discussing the role of the RECs. The other very relevant one is the internal agenda of specific RECs and their internal legal obligations. To give a practical example: Those RECs that have grown into customs unions, will and must protect the integrity of their common external tariff. They therefore make tariff reduction offers under the AfCFTA negotiations collectively. Intra-REC needs and dynamics will have a direct effect on what tariff reductions will be offered. They will protect the gains already achieved because these bring important regional and global trade benefits.
The Southern African Customs Union (SACU) merits specific mention. It is not recognized as one of the RECs but is the world’s oldest operational customs union, going back to at least 1910 and British colonial rule. It predates the era of decolonization when the first RECs were established. SACU is home to Africa’s most industrialized economy, South Africa. SACU is a well-functioning and integrated commercial space; for trade in goods as well as services such as retail and wholesale, banking, transport, finance, communications, and energy. Regional water courses are shared extensively. It will continue to function as a separate CU under the AfCFTA umbrella.
How will the AfCFTA formula for the RECs as building blocks unfold? Overlapping membership configurations are a major problem. This results in duplication, additional costs, and the dilution of the regional focus. One of the general objectives of the AfCFTA is to “resolve the challenges of multiple and overlapping memberships and expedite the regional and continental integration processes”. It does not, however, provide for a blueprint on how to achieve this objective. The clarification of the role of the AfCFTA’s building blocks should be on its to do list.
 The African Union - recognized RECs are: Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Community of Sahel–Saharan States (CEN–SAD), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Southern African Development Community (SADC).
 Art 5(b) AfCFTA Agreement.
 See Art 19(2) AfCFTA Agreement and Art 8(2) AfCFTA Protocol on Trade in Goods.
 Intra-Africa trade is highly concentrated within RECs, even if the RECs have not established a trading arrangement (FTA or CU), proximity and other factors account for trade integration. See https://www.tralac.org/documents/publications/working-papers/2022/4445-s21tr012022-fundira-state-of-intra-rec-trade-and-trade-liberalisation-26012022/file.html
 There were some earlier customs cooperation arrangements in Southern Africa under British colonial rule. Southern African Customs Union - Wikipedia
 Art 3(h) AfCFTA Agreement.
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