The East African Community (EAC) announced that the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been accepted into the established community with a full member status. As with other African undertakings, the decision appears to have been made without due process and engagement with the citizens of existing member nations, particularly the African Union (AU).
As many have stated, the primary impediment to African unification has been the project’s lack of people-centeredness since its inception. The decision-making process on sub-regional and regional matters is restricted to the political elite, specifically the heads of state. As a result, the current sub-regional and regional bloc formations lack the mandate and authority to carry out the required commitments to benefit African citizens.
The admittance of the DRC to the EAC is illustrative of the recurring cycle of political leadership crises in postcolonial Africa. Consequently, it will be in conflict with the Abuja Treaty and impede efforts to develop African regional economic communities (RECs) as a whole. The African Continental Free Trade Area’s (AfCFTA) preemie was understandable because of multiple failures in strengthening the existing RECs. This type of accession will exacerbate the situation by bringing the DRC into an established and progressing REC like the EAC.
It is a bittersweet moment for those who have worked hard to accelerate the unification process in Africa by promoting the African Renaissance through various programs. Unfortunately, the majority of African projects are one stride forward and two steps backwards, which is incredibly exhausting and shatters hope.
Having the DRC as a member of numerous RECs will impose a burden on the country and impede the formation of sub-regional organizations and the establishment of a single economic and political society at a continental level. The DRC is a member of the EAC, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).
Without being philosophical, is the DRC geographically in the East of Africa? Unless we answer such a trivial question, how can we dream of the bigger picture of African unification, which is an enormous and complex task?
Such an unwise decision and action will bring back all EAC, SADC, and ECASA members and make the customs union and other administrative tasks and development projects harder to undertake.
This is partly the decision process. Joining and living in the RECs is limited to heads of state and the role of citizens, as well as the AU and other organs; they either have a say or are insignificant. From the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to date, the role of citizens is non-existent. As a result, all the unification agendas are left to the elites.
Examining the historical context of RECs’ arrangement, notably the paradox of the DRC’s stance, is essential for a complete understanding. The dilemma of RECs is not unique to the DRC; with a few exceptions, the majority of African nations fall into the same category. Except for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), none of the regional economic communities conform to the original Abuja Treaty.
The concept of RECs originated with the treaty establishing the African Economic Community (AEC), commonly known as the Abuja treaty. The pact was signed on June 3, 1991, and became effective on May 12, 1994. At the time, the OAU suggested the establishment of five regional economic communities comprised of countries from the North, West, Central, East, and Southern Africa.
The primary objectives of these RECs were to establish a free trade zone, harmonize tariff and non-tariff systems, establish a common market and adopt standard policies, integrate all sectors, establish a central bank and a single African currency, and to establish and elect the first Pan-African Parliament.
None of the RECs have met any of the above targets, even the initial steps, over the last two decades, and the projection period will expire in the next 10 years. Originally, the DRC belonged to the Central African region’s Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). Its member states include Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, the DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Rwanda, and Sao Tome and Principe.
Like all other RECs, ECCAS suffers from poor governance, a weak institutional framework, insufficient public expenditure, inadequate physical infrastructure and utilities, a lack of resources, and overlapping membership. As the region’s most populous and geographically extensive country, the DRC should have taken the initiative to strengthen its own ECCAS bloc rather than join SADC and EAC.
A similar saying that I adapted to the DRC scenario goes as follows: “Some African nations want to join robust regional communities, while others want to establish or improve the ones that already exist.”
RECs are not entities that can be joined arbitrarily without regard to long-term national benefit and African unification. The DRC’s first membership in SADC was a grave error, but naturally, there was considerable pressure from powerful countries in the region.
The motivation for getting the DRC into SADC was not centered on people but rather an economic strategy. In spite of the fact that the DRC is a member of SADC, its residents are not permitted to roam freely within the area, whereas products are accepted.
By analyzing the facts on the ground and the long-term benefits for the DRC, the region, and the continent, the decision is anticipated to be reversed. It was a mistake and a miscalculation to bring the DRC into the EAC, just like it was to bring South Sudan, and such a haphazard step will impede the EAC’s modest success over other similar RECs.
By implication, it will wreak havoc on the internal processes of many RECs, most notably ECCAS, which will lose its already precarious status. As a result of the current duplication of membership, this generates a conflict of interest between SADC and EAC. Additionally, one nation joining multiple blocs results in a delay in the implementation of the AfCFTA and a delay in the formation of a continental economic community.
The socio-cultural, philosophical, and psychological make-up of the DRC is most similar to that of Angola, Congo Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe. The structures of these countries in the region are based on their geographical proximity, historical background, political climate, language commonalities, cultural linkages, and economic standing.
Given these realities, the DRC has only a tenuous connection to the EAC and SADC, and incorporating the existing ECCAS setup does not make sense. The “OAU-AU” has set a lofty target for African RECs. Still, they have fallen short for various reasons, including the top-down approach and lack of citizen participation, clientelism, unnecessary enlargement, and membership duplication.
Primarily, imperial ideology regards expansion regimes as African, which is entirely superfluous because if the AU succeeds in establishing a single economic society for all Africans, every nation benefits regardless of whether it is a member of the same RECs. The most perplexing aspect of this matrix is that when countries join or leave RECs, they do so without consulting citizens, appropriate national bodies, or the AU.
What matters in the contemporary framework of African politics is the sole duty and willingness of the head of state because popular opinion is irrelevant in the absence of accountability that requires an adequate response.
Thus, the AU should establish a committee to examine and recommend appropriate reconfigurations of RECs. This step will assist in reducing duplication of effort, resource allocation, and confusion in the pursuit of a single economic community.
(Seife Tadelle Kidane (PhD) is a senior research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC).