Africans meeting in Nairobi: If Nigeria’s awake, Africa will rise, By Owei Lakemfa

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I have attended a few African Union (AU) Heads of State Summits and always came away with the impression that the agenda is always overloaded. But three things struck me about the 16 July meeting in Nairobi. First, its modest three-point objectives; fast-tracking the integration process in Africa; examining the Division of Labour among the AU, Regional Economic Commissions and states, and considering the AU Institutional Reform. The second thing that occurred to me is that Africa may be weighed down by volumes of speeches, presentations and neo-liberal theorisations rather than practical plans that would quicken integration.

 My third conclusion is that Africa can achieve integration and development faster if Nigeria were awake. The Summit’s theme was the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the integration of the continent. To me, the most basic needs for these are the removal of visa requirements and the free movement of people and goods by the cheapest and most sustainable means possible. In my analysis, the most immediate need of Africa to ensure integration is the construction of a coastal railway from Nigeria through Mauritania, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa and Cameroun, back to Lagos. The entire African coastline is 30,500 kilometres linking 38 of our 55 countries. It means that single rail project leaves out only 17 African countries. A second  line from Cape to Cairo would link up additional countries like Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia,  Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Sudan.

We should learn that China is on the way to becoming the largest economy in the world not by conferences and declarations, but through clear-headed thinking, praxis and punishment of crimes. China has, for instance, a railway network with 73 routes, connecting it with countries like Russia, Belarus, France, Poland, Kazakhstan, Germany, Spain and the Czech Republic. Freight trains on these routes make an average 3,600 trips per quarter. The point about railways is not just about the mass movement of  persons and goods, but also the fact that its construction in itself, generates massive economic activities and mass employment.  Who says in building a trans-African rail system, we cannot insist that it should be built by Africans even if we require foreign support?

Building railways is not rocket science. When the TAZARA or Tanzam Railways linking Tanzania with Zambia was built between 1970 and 1975, the Chinese and Africans who built it did not have much experience. But after Europe and the United States declined to assist in building this railway, also known as the Uhuru(Freedom) Railway which was to make the continent less dependent on the ports of Apartheid South Africa, the Chinese and the Africans  applied themselves and  built it. The tragedy is that while after the TAZARA, the Chinese persevered and built more railways making them experts today, the Africans relaxed and eventually, we lost those with the skills to build and efficiently run railways. Despite this, we can begin again with building the African railways.

The issue of the fundamental need for  free movement of Africans and goods is where Nigeria with its frequent, unnecessary and ineffectual border closures, hurts African integration most. Kenya rose to the occasion at this month’s meetings by announcing its plan to progressively abolish visa restrictions for African citizens. Rwanda had shown the way years ago when all the entry requirement of an African, is the passport of a fellow African country. The East African Region has also progressed with the idea of allowing people within the region to cross borders, not with passports, but identity cards! The African Union, like the European Union, should allow its citizens to freely crisscross countries in the union, buying, selling and offering services.

The main message of Mr Antonio Pedro, the Acting Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, ECA, is value addition and the emergence of strong  regional value chains that would break the continent’s dependence on raw material exports. Perhaps the most culpable country in this regard is Nigeria which after 66 years, does the same thing; the exportation of its crude oil with no value addition. The near criminal nature of the country’s situation is compounded by the fact that it does not even know how much oil it produces daily.

Nigeria’s oil exploitation is so prodigal that it pollutes the entire environment including the land, waters and air, flares its gas and is the only oil exporting country incapable of refining its petroleum product needs. If Nigeria were to add value to its oil production by refining, it would earn  far more money and save the continent the huge foreign exchange some African countries spend importing petroleum products.  The country also has the potentials of leading the continent in value addition to commodities in general. One of the objectives of the meeting is the need for AU institutional reforms. Rwandan President Paul Kagame leads this process. The AU system has generally been weak, but was partly strengthened by the African liberation fighter and former South African Foreign Minister, Dr.Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. As the Chairperson of the AU Commission from 2012  to 2017 she insisted on professionalism, human and gender rights and food security.

One of her lasting legacies was to kick Egypt out of the AU after the General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi coup. The general was brutal and employed torture, hangings, forced disappearances and mass imprisonments to hang on to power. One of the tragedies of Africa was not just the admission of General Sisi into the AU, but also his election as the Chair of the continental body in 2019. Zuma’s biggest gift to Africa is the Agenda 2063 Plan. Unfortunately for the continent, she left to run for the presidency of her country and the Plan became wobbly.

Her successor and current Chair, HE Moussa Faki Mahamat of Chad, does not have the independent-mindedness of Zuma. If anything, he is beholden to France and the Chadian military dictatorship. He controversially admitted Israel into the observer team in the AU. It took the insistence of South Africa to kick out the Israeli envoy. The AU is against coups and the unconstitutional seizure of power. Sanctions are carried out against violators. But when General Mahamat Deby on April 20, 2021 overthrew the Chadian Government, Moussa Faki shielded him from sanctions while then Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari rolled out the red carpet to receive the coup plotter in the Aso Rock Presidential Palace. Nigeria is in a good position to use its size, power and influence to oppose not just military, but also civilian coup plotters like Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara who is in an unconstitutional third term in office. If Nigeria wakes, Africa will rise.

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