United States of Africa or Regional Blocs? Technical Perspectives and Reflections

Published on 12th March 2019

A Prolific Heritage Hostage to Disunity of Purpose

United States of Africa or blocs of African regional clusters? This question is common in African political discourse. Since there is no straightforward answer, it is prudent to accommodate various compromises and different perspectives.

In the quest to find optimal groupings, national and supra-national realities and interests play out across a geopolitical space highly influenced by the unrelenting momentum of globalisation and industrial ecosystems. As demonstrated by the mixed performance of Kenya’s young devolution experience, the sub-national units of service delivery in African countries face challenges which hold an important key to achieving an optimal cluster strategy at various levels.

President Yoweri Museveni’s recent inspirational speech which went viral, honoured with a standing ovation at the 32nd Ordinary Summit of the African Union Heads of State in Ethiopia, cannot miss a mention under this topic. The reason? He inspired the audience on why Africa must integrate economically and politically. His history-laden speech traced the origin of civilisation to Africa, more than 4 million years ago. Verified! Egyptian civilisation maintains the undisputed pioneering position, dating as far back as 3000 BC.

President Museveni energised his moving chronology of African heritage with emancipating political and economic perspectives. He explained, convincingly, that political and economic integration is the critical stimulus for leapfrogging the barrier to industrialisation in Africa. He asserted the unsettling fact that the rest of the world is talking of the 4th Industrial Revolution when Africa has hardly crawled out of the 1st and 2nd revolution stages. His well-researched speech made a strong plea to fellow African leaders to consider the formation of regional clusters based on the compatibilities and elements of cultural heritage which catalyse and sustain “intimacy.” On the role of indigenous languages as integrators, he cited Kiswahili as a viable example for the East African bloc.

Endowed with cultural diversity, biodiversity, natural resource abundance, childbirths above the replacement fertility level, and a youthful population which promises a demographic dividend, Africa has comparative advantages which need to be cultivated through unity of purpose in leadership to enhance efficiencies and activate synergies. False starts and failures in reaching rational and sustainable regional agreements have been a big setback to this purpose.

The technical perspectives and reflections shared here, though inspired by a continental context, are also suitable for interrogating the sustainability of national devolution models. A brief section at the end discusses the experiences of Kenya’s young devolution experiment with respect to the articulated facts and principles.

Learning from Unsaid Sentiments and Said Statements

The idea of the United States of Africa is not new. In the days of Marcus Garvey in the early 1920s, it received mentions. The unsaid sentiments of the silent majority can say more than said statements. Surrendering sovereignty is not a light matter. There seems to be a general flow of opinions towards regional clusters as opposed to one big conglomerate, in agreement with Museveni’s declared preference. It is apparent that the tough challenge is how to find the balancing point between the fragility of monolithic conglomerates and the strengths of decentralised agglomerations of similar economic zones.

Leadership for Unity in Strategic Use of Homegrown Resources

Leadership problems have worked against any well-meaning spirit of collective responsibility for resource conservation, efficient resource use, value addition, and selfless service. There has been an obsession with privileges of office and the fleeting vainglory of entitlement to ownership of resources, as opposed to their proper strategic use for the common good.

As unhealthy politics takes centre stage, characterised by power struggles and exclusion, the science and facts required to objectively inform the criteria for thriving economic clusters get ignored. The knowledgeable and well-meaning African advocates of such noble criteria also get overlooked in the process. Ironically, their brilliant ideas and staying power have a fairer chance of being recognised abroad than at home.

Leveraging a Commonwealth of Complementarities

Reading President Museveni’s speech verbatim to the end will leave passionate scholars revelling in Africa’s laboratory of intellectual curiosity. After reading it to the end, I got charged. I then came round to extract two important derivatives from the poignant discourse: the arc of science and the art synergy. These two perspectives reinforce the fact that Africa has had a lot going for it.

The Arc of Science

I see another angle to Museveni’s chronological tapestry of African heritage, one which follows an equally inspiring arc of scientific developments. The African roots of these scientific developments include:

  • the history of Surveying in Egypt as an applied precision science;
  • the accurate measurement of the Earth’s circumference – two millennia before the advent of satellite technology, which confirmed the result; and
  • the invention of binary numbers, which laid the operational basis of all computers.

These stellar developments in Africa, however, got overtaken by the faster pace of scientific revolution in other regions. Mesopotamia, China, and India were among the transitional heroes in the exciting relay which saw the European civilisation eventually snatch the crown. Whether or not Africa’s rich heritage is playing a repeat of the first being the last and the last being the first, is subject to how we view, interpret, and utilise the opportunities which frequently visit our space and time horizon.

The Art of Synergy

From a systemic perspective, Africa has to confront the challenge of harnessing synergies from an institutionalised content of diversities. This challenge summons a rational re-organisation aimed at maximising gains through a united front. This is a typical optimisation problem. Hope for united socio-economic progress resides in leveraging existing structures and organic complementarities between regions. Finding viable unifying criteria is largely an exercise in evidence-based research and regional development fundamentals.

If the idea of regional clusters must win, then its noble aim should be, first, to identify and nurture a commonwealth of complementing comparative advantages. Second, is the imperative to mature the clusters into competitive spatial agglomerations. The clusters should then be promoted to evolve from relationships mainly characterised by competition, to self-sustaining economic clusters engaged in a healthy win-win game of simultaneous cooperation and competition.

Scientific Perspectives on Sustainable Clusters

The role of institutions needs to be largely facilitative, not a forcing intervention. Naturally occurring complementarities provide the moral compass for identifying sustainable regional clusters as opposed to the whims of power and control. The key factors to consider include the natural comparative advantages of geographical proximity (e.g. spatial agglomerations with economies of scale), socio-cultural complementarities, and common markets. Industrial clusters should evolve into competitive economic agglomerations through continuous interactions between primary actors, training institutions, research and regulatory services, and associations which advocate for the welfare of workers.

Of key interest as well are the following facts and theories on the commons, capacity development, and regional analysis.

The Test of the Commons

The sustainability of regional clusters is tested by questions on how to conserve common resources and ensure a fair sharing of benefits. Transboundary resources complicate the governance challenge. From a sustainability perspective, transboundary resources form part of the common natural assets which should be collectively accounted for and managed sustainably using fair, transparent, and objective decision support systems. This calls for active engagement of cross-border and cross-disciplinary expertise, mainly in science and technology.

The Target of Capacity Development

Research, technology, and innovation combined with targeted capacity development are not options, but necessities for any sustainable cluster development strategy. Capacity development should target the key areas responsive to the industrial sub-clusters of the bigger regional cluster. For example, the needs of a transport and logistics cluster are distinct from the needs of an energy cluster, or a marine and inland fisheries cluster. The value of adequate local capacity in ensuring successful regional clusters cannot be overemphasised. The quality and variety of training infrastructure, disciplinary knowledge, and skills are of the essence.

The Theory and Criteria for Regionalisation

Three criteria are central to the rationale of regionalisation: Administrative criteria, which facilitate governance and interaction among communities; morphological criteria expressed in land-use patterns; and functional criteria expressed in socio-economic linkages.  There is consensus on the vital role of multi-stakeholder engagement in promoting the governance of clusters. Overlooking ownership by local communities is a recipe for failure. Learning from these compelling criteria, viable regionalisation cannot do without regular studies and updated resource mapping to generate adequate quality and quantity of data.

The Theory of Economic Opportunities in Urban Agglomerations

The spatial regionalisation of economic opportunities and infrastructure services between cities and peri-urban areas has a powerful influence which underpins the philosophy of urban planning studies.  In 1898, the British urban scholar, Ebenezer Howard, laid the foundation for clusters on the premise of “town clusters” integrated into their surrounding countryside. This functional relationship persists to date. In Africa, we witness widespread centres which act as dormitories for the urban workers who commute daily to the capital cities for employment and commerce.

Ordered and organic decentralisation can improve the distribution of economic opportunities and infrastructure services. The theory that urban regions also develop organically as systems has had the backing of several prominent scholars : Patrick Geddes (1915), E. Saarinen (1918), and Walter Christaller (1933) with his Central Place Theory – which underpins the philosophy of regional analysis and development. The concept of a metropolitan area refers to a large population nucleus with adjacent communities having a high degree of social and economic integration with the core. Today’s regionalisation efforts in Africa must also be conscious of the reality that urbanisation is inevitable. Modern planners understand that well-managed urban agglomerations act as semi-organic systems, which also provide opportunities for development across multiple spheres including technologies for communication and environmental management. The larger scale of regional clusters can draw beneficial lessons from these perspectives.

Scientific Principles for Systemic Solutions

The institutional inertia of traditional practices and fragmentary governance models tend to go against the dynamism and innovations of resilient systems. This observation is not limited to Africa. Some ambitious examples in the European Union provide lessons, too.

Mismatch between Traditional Practices and Systems Thinking

The European Union provides a good example of the European Water Framework Directive of 2000, whose ambitious goals have experienced several delays. Despite inspiring the hope for restoring Europe’s waters to “good ecological status” by 2015, the Directive has largely failed to reach this goal. The main reason cited by researchers  is the mismatch between the traditional practices within the member states and the systems-thinking approach which informed the script of the Directive. The narrow, sectorial, and discipline-specific approaches of these traditional practices have proven their incapability of addressing the system-wide water resource management challenges. From this lesson, African leaders can appreciate that the traditional norms rooted in individual countries and sectors remain weak in the face of globalisation. The incremental and piecemeal nature of these conventional approaches requires enhancement into a systems approach.

Measures against Unintended Consequences

Measures that are neither aligned nor responsive to the functioning of natural systems and organisational culture eventually succumb to failure. One of the eleven laws of systems thinking put forward by Peter Senge summarises this situation well. According to Peter Senge, today’s problems arise from yesterday’s solutions – Past isolated short-term attempts at finding solutions create new problems. New regionalisation efforts need to apply lessons and engage diverse groups of stakeholders to receive long-term perspectives from all possible angles, enabling the co-creation of holistic solutions.

To check against the unintended consequences that may accompany the formation of regional clusters, leaders cannot do without a constructive and inclusive dialogue focused on the bigger picture, treating the aspirational clusters as systems (which work as an integrated whole to achieve common objectives).

Kenya’s Devolution Experiment and Experiences

At the national level, false starts and failures also play out in the devolution of sub-national units. Kenya’s rapid urbanisation, and the young devolution experience which is entering its sixth year in 2019, can provide key learning points. Kenya provides suitable examples as home of ambitious experiments. This is not strange to the East African country which has established a reputation for excellent blueprints, though most of them remain on paper. Among the salient examples of recent years are the Nairobi Metro 2030 Strategy  and the Cluster Development Strategy . The former took the formation of a fully-fledged Government Ministry (Ministry of Nairobi Metropolitan Development), several studies, and substantial resources to develop - culminating in a blueprint with key concepts and principles that resonate with modern standards. The latter also involved comprehensive research overseen by the Ministry of Trade and identified major industrial clusters across the country.

Fading First Love or Doomed Devolution?

In 2019, the celebration of Kenya’s six-year experience with 47 counties under her new constitutional dispensation was scheduled over the week of 04 – 08 March. This experiment has recorded mixed results with a few highs and many lows. Citizens’ fading love for these initially highly adored devolved units has been evident due to failed promises and localised wastage of allocated resources, only in colossal amounts. Devolved service sectors like health have been performing dismally in the devolution framework because of acute challenges in managing them at the county level.

Failing Formula or Depressed Dialogue?

Kenya’s political landscape is presently experiencing a convergence of voices across the political divide on restructuring the devolved governance system, ostensibly to lessen the burden on taxpayers while increasing efficiencies through expanded blocs that can achieve economies of scale. Citizens and politicians alike have at various times expressed that the 47 counties, which took over from the old administrative districts, need a relook to enhance efficiencies. The resource allocation formula used to share funds from the national government has also been subjected to critique.

From the points shared earlier, it is evident that a transparent, collectively owned process and objective scientific and socioeconomic principles are essential to: (a) finding the best formula, if not the best compromise; and (b) reaching consensus on efficient restructuring for alternative optimal number and configuration of clusters in the devolved units. These decisive points should not escape proper handling by both political and thought leaders. Productive open dialogue is only possible by submitting to the science, indigenous facts, and socioeconomic data needed for objective guidance on the formation of sustainable clusters.

Firming up Sustainable Resource Management Decisions

Resource mapping is critical to meaningful decision support. As stated earlier, critical transboundary resources such as rivers and forests must be part of the key considerations. Technology must be accepted as the mediator of transparent and fruitful decision support, especially in resource mapping to capture, assess, and document accurate stocks of the capital which the devolved units ought to manage collectively and in a sustainable manner. Regional institutions like the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) and the impressive stock of homegrown expertise in spatial mapping technologies such as GIS and satellite remote sensing are ready strengths in this aspect. A major source of confusion, incompatibilities, duplications, gaps, and inflated recurrent expenditure is the lack of integrated resource (information) management systems. In such a setting, the county chief executives fail to make do with reasonably lean and effective staffing, hence increasing recurrent expenditure at the expense of development expenditure.

Reflections on African Heritage and Outlook

As forewarned, no binary distinctions exist for answers to this complex decision problem. This reality reaffirms the necessity of a dialogue devoid of greed, and focused on inclusivity, the big picture and long-term goals, and guided by the principles already grounded in science and society. This analysis gives way to the following reflections and outlook.

1.Africa has a wonderful heritage including key scientific developments. The trailing position of Africa in the global development arena, therefore, grinds this rich heritage against the sharp grit of the vicissitudes that befall pioneers. In debating this turn of events, lovers of Aristotelian philosophy might not resist pointing African leaders to the four triggers of change: desire, compulsion, nature, and chance. African leadership holds the key as to which one(s) of the four will disrupt the status quo and trigger a game changer. The lesson, so far, is that there is no time to rest celebrating past achievements, lest they remain servants of the interests of the restless competitors who are always craving to break the latest records, including their own.

2.In principle, political interests and all obsessions motivated by greed or vainglorious entitlement to resource ownership as opposed to strategic resource use for the common good, must submit to the socioeconomic and scientific credo underpinning the formation of sustainable regional clusters.

3. Staring at rising populations and shrinking natural resources threatened by mismanagement and climate change, African leaders need to engage meaningfully through a system-wide approach to utilising and managing strengths, opportunities, and inclusive development. The philosophy underpinning a rational re-organisation of African economic clusters needs to be responsive to all possible criteria for optimal combinations and technological innovations for prudent management. The optimisation problem calls for examinations from different angles by all stakeholders. Public participation is key to discovering location-specific peculiarities and how various parts of the unity puzzle can make up the bigger whole.

By Nashon Adero

Lecturer at Taita Taveta University (Kenya), a writer, and a former Policy Analyst on Infrastructure and Economic Services at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA)

Email: nashon.adero@gmail.com 


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