Africa must learn from unification pitfalls
WE have watched with awe the developments in Europe as occasioned by Brexit. But we have hardly asked what that democratic decision means for our own political and economic environment and outlook. If the same question put to the British people were asked of Africans in terms of our own unifying project, what would people say?
Brexit is a troubling development because, in part, it raises questions about the sustainability of that particular regional formation and even the legitimacy of the globalisation project. I wrote in this column recently that at the heart of Brexit is a resentment of globalisation and its effects on ordinary British citizens. This apparent assault on integration also represents a defence against competition.
It seems that we forgot that while globalisation represents freedom, it also represents competition. As global borders have continued to fade, competition has become more intense.
To many of us, it has been easy to see the benefits of globalisation. Our ability to roam the world freely and exchange goods and services with all of humanity has been a marvel.
It has meant that I could, from my USdesigned and Chinese-assembled computer, order a Nigerian novel from a local online retailer and reasonably expect to receive it by the weekend before I board my flight on a European-manufactured aircraft, to read it on my Asian holiday. This has been an incredible development in our world.
Yet this sort of thing has left many people behind. These amazing benefits of globalisation are unimaginable to many, except when it affects their employment. The American worker harbours bitterness that “his job” is now in China.
This is the same bitterness to which proBrexit politicians in the UK appealed when promoting their cause. US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, as unacceptably crass as he is, is playing to an important and prevalent social mood about that part of globalisation that speaks to immigration.
Therefore, if we in Africa are not isolated from the effects of globalisation, integration and global competition, what does our unify- ing project have in store? How can we learn and prepare our project differently?
In a piece published in 2013 under the title, The EU: Regionalisation Trumps Sovereignty, The New American magazine characterised the European project as what began as a simple “coal and steel community” between six European nations after the Second World War to “the globalist-orchestrated attack on national sovereignty that has essentially imposed a transnational, unelected, unaccountable regime on the formerly independent peoples of Europe — without even a semblance of public consent”.
The AU has been leading a bold initiative of uniting and integrating Africa through open borders, free trade and free movement of people.
But it is no secret that this imagined and planned order faces challenges arising from domestic politics. It will mean much more competition for national resources, and indeed strong demands on nation states.
In SA today, we have very intense competition for resources among citizens. Not only is it an issue of tensions among South Africans relating to inequality, but about access to services and opportunity as it relates to immigrants.
Globalisation has delivered enormous economic development and prosperity in an unprecedented matter. But we have to remember that at the base of globalisation is competition, and competition works only when it is free, fair and democratic.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal in an opinion piece entitled Henry Kissinger on the Assembly of a New World Order, Kissinger, the former US national security adviser, noted: “The international order thus faces a paradox. Its prosperity is dependent on the success of globalisation, but the process produces a political reaction that often works counter to its aspirations …”
We are seeing this quite clearly, as we see inequality between and within nations, as well as democratic processes.
Kissinger further noted in the essay: “A contemporary structure of international rules and norms, if it is to prove relevant, cannot merely be affirmed by joint declarations; it must be fostered as a matter of common conviction.”
As we watch Brexit and as the debate over its effect continues, we have to ask what work is being done to build common conviction, and methods to distribute the gains and protect the most vulnerable without compromising democracy and sovereignty.
The international order thus faces a paradox. Its prosperity is dependent on the success of globalisation, but the process produces a political reaction that often works counter to its aspirations …
l Payi is an economist and head of research at Nascence Advisory and Research