Building capacity to help Africa trade better

A new phase in the life of the African Union?


A new phase in the life of the African Union?

Gerhard Erasmus, tralac Associate, comments on the recent appointment of South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs, the Honourable Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as head of the African Union (AU) Commission, and considers what this could mean for the policies and practices of the AU Commission as well as more broadly for the African business environment and the regional integration and development agenda

South Africa’s Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will now, after some intense lobbying, head the African Union. What could this mean for the development of Africa, for the policies and practices of this Organization and for doing business in Africa? Is her election the beginning of a more realistic approach to intra African integration and trade, including more effective administration in the AU Commission?

It will take some time before the new broom will be able to sweep in change. From our point of view there should be a strong emphasis on governance issues, on leadership and the approach to regional integration and trade. Is there a plan and what are the priorities?

It would be a promising start if there is a critical look at the AU’s culture and how it functions. The AU is known for grand schemes for pan African integration and even unification. These plans have been over ambitious and seldom resulted in effective answers to the problems of conflict, human rights violations and underdevelopment.

The explanation for this state of affairs has to do with a tendency to adopt grand political schemes while neglecting the intra state level. If African governments would, for example, be committed to the effective protection of human rights, they would start at home. A bill of rights in the national constitution, judicial review by domestic courts and the preparedness of governments to respect and apply the remedies ordered by national courts of law would be far more realistic. Why would governments respect the rulings of continental human rights bodies if they have no domestic machinery to protect their own citizens against abuse of power?

International institutions, whether they are tribunals, regional secretariats or bodies responsible for technical standards, build on national practices and needs. They cannot perform the tasks at hand or exercise jurisdiction over national authorities unless the member states have granted them the necessary powers. It obviously means that the states involved must ratify the agreements underpinning such arrangements. Governments must implement their obligations. Compliance should be monitored; while infringements should be met by remedial action. The rights of private sector traders and business people should also be protected. They are, after all, the traders, retailers and providers of the related services. Governments make the rules but they do not trade.

Inter-state structures are effective when they are legitimate, correctly designed and can deliver real outputs which will advance governance. In the area of trade and regional integration the needs are mostly about rules-based arrangements to promote trade facilitation, transparency and predictability.

A basic reason for the lack of progress (and a formidable challenge to anyone committed to change) is the sensitivity of African governments about their sovereignty. They fear that regional structures will undermine national powers. However, it is an act of sovereignty to conclude an international agreement. The AU will not be able to deliver on the promises contained in its founding instruments unless the member states respect and implement the obligations which they have adopted. These obligations should of course be formulated in clear undertakings; not the verbose language often used. And the targets should be about realistic outcomes. A customs union or a monetary union does not come about through statements in political declarations. These are complicated technical arrangements which require convergence in national policies based on effective and patient prior harmonization of laws and practices.

Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will need a strong hand and a clear vision in order to turn the ship around. We wish her luck. She will need the commitment by the member states to adopt a new modus operandi in tackling the needs of the continent. They should prioritise the Regional Economic Communities. It is here, in the regional arrangements, where change and effective progress should start.

The South African government can set the example in how it supports these efforts in the leadership it provides in regional issues. This demonstration should start with the trade negotiations for the Tripartite Free Area, the consolidation of SACU and reforms in SADC. New and more rules-based regional trade arrangements are the building blocks for what may later follow on a bigger scale. We will not get right in Addis Ababa if we cannot bring about effective change in how we deal with our immediate neighbours.



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