The African Union’s Agenda 2063: Building Block or False Dawn?

By Dr Garth le Pere

Agenda 2063 represents a transformative vision of the African Union (AU) to achieve “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.” In celebration of the Organisation of African Unity’s 50th anniversary, African Heads of State and Government gathered in Addis Ababa in January 2015 at the AU Assembly’s 24th Ordinary Session to adopt Agenda 2063 as a collective charter to move the continent inexorably in the direction of enhanced growth and development over the next five decades. 

It is a charter that not only provides a vision but also a normative and strategic framework to transform Africa based on a programmatic logic of five ten-year operational plans. Importantly, the programmatic logic which underpins Agenda 2063 is informed by the following seven aspirations:

  •  a prosperous Africa, based on inclusive growth and sustainable development;
  •  an integrated continent, politically united and based on the ideals of Pan-Africanism;
  • an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice, and the rule of law;
  • a peaceful and secured Africa;
  • an Africa with strong cultural identity values and ethics;
  •  an Africa whose development is people-driven, especially relying on the potential of its youth and women; and
  • an Africa which is a strong and influential global player and partner.

These aspirations are meant to find practical expression in goals such as a high standard of living and quality of life for all citizens, modern and liveable habitats, transformed and climate-resilient economies, and a modern agriculture sector. There is also an emphasis on the promotion of democratic values, capable institutions and responsible leadership, full gender equality and empowered youth, as well as an Africa that no longer relies on aid but which can finance its own growth and development.

This level of ambition raises first-order questions about whether Agenda 2063 will be a solid building block for addressing and alleviating decades of poverty, misrule, and underdevelopment or like the mythological Cassandra, endowed with the gift of prophecy, it represents yet another false dawn that will dash the hopes of African citizens? 

Indeed, Agenda 2063’s vision of transformation and its aspirations reflect and draw on a long history and extensive experience of development philosophy, planning matrices, and strategic frameworks—all of which have the economic and political integration of Africa at their core.

Primary among these have been the Lagos Plan of Action (1980), the Abuja Treaty (1991), and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (2001). More recently, these have been complemented by sectoral schemes such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa, and the Minimum Integration Programme. Africa, however, has laboured under a planning and policy paradox: the more growth and development frameworks have been adopted, the more their outcomes and efficacy have been dictated by the law of diminishing returns. This context and points of reference are important since they form a richly textured predicate upon which the success or otherwise of Agenda 2063 will be judged, evaluated, and assessed both in terms of the changing African and global landscapes and the challenges that these throw up. There are a few germane considerations in this regard.

A Challenging African and Global Context

Firstly, since the 1990s, Africa has faced a rapidly changing continental and global environment whose systemic dimensions and structural characteristics have major implications for the future of its countries and citizens. These changes are also part of an era of greater structural vulnerability which poses a complex matrix of challenges. These relate, on the one hand, to how the global commons are managed at a time of growing asymmetries between rich and poor countries, amplified by the effects of the global financial crisis and turbulence in global markets. Then, on the other, there is the spectre which always looms large of Africa’s global marginalisation, externally-defined dependency, and weak bargaining power. The discourse about investing greater normative relevance and promoting institutional renewal in the structures of global governance—mainly the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organisation—thus point to the erratic workings, inadequacies, and pathologies in the rules, procedures, norms, and standards of international organisations. 

These, in a sense, have conspired to bring the continent to its current juncture. This juncture is coterminous with the tectonic shifts which have accompanied the end of the Cold War and ushered in an era of globalised interdependence which paradoxically, has sharpened the cleavages and divisions among countries particularly those that are least developed and remain at the margins of the global political economy. It is against this background that global governance has become a sad metaphor for inequality, exclusion, and domination and provides the general context for the continued underdevelopment of countries of the global South. 

Secondly and related to this, much of Africa but especially its 35 least developed countries confront the prospect of stagnating economic expansion because of the cyclical downturn of global commodity demand, especially from China although this has been buttressed by extensive Chinese commitments totalling $120 billion made at the 2015 and 2018 summits of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation held in South Africa and China, respectively. However, this global downturn already has profound effects on social welfare, political stability, and citizen’s daily livelihoods as well as the capacities of African states and governments to address these. The mutually reinforcing impulses of economic growth and structural change which is at the heart of Agenda 2063 are very weakly articulated in practice and policy and this renders the social landscape equally blighted.

There are, therefore, persistent symptoms that reproduce themselves in a manner that subject growing numbers of African citizens—especially its youth—to a bleak future where life tends to be nasty, brutish, and short. More than 40 per cent of Africa’s 1.1 billion citizens continue to struggle with impoverished circumstances like poor access to basic healthcare, nutrition, primary education, and employment. The UN estimates that the number of Africans living on US$1.25 a day has increased from 290 million in 1990 to 414 million in 2015 mainly due to demographic phenomena where the number of people rising out of poverty cannot keep abreast of population growth.  This pattern of poverty is compounded by disease pandemics, militarised and gender violence, politicised ethnicity and sectarianism, religious extremism, destructive conflicts, and environmental degradation.

Thirdly, we must consider the roles of African leaders and their governments as agents of growth and development. 

Due to their colonial and post-colonial progenies, African countries are very heterogeneous in their political cultures and identities but all of them are united in their survival and bolstering the African state in its current form amidst often disorderly and atavistic domestic, regional, and continental politics. 

This poses special problems and challenges for the aspirations and goals of Agenda 2063 since there is an imperative to ‘domesticate’ and incorporate its letter and spirit into national and regional planning structures and processes to ensure effective and judicious implementation of projects and programmes. However, the record of state performance in Africa is not an encouraging one. The prevalence of informal practices and neo-patrimonial forms of governance causes the post-colonial African state to be weak, fragmented, and unconsolidated such that the African state is said to resemble a fictional entity.

This institutionalised informality has impaired the ability of states to pursue people-centred growth and development in a manner that accounts for the authoritative use and accountable management of a country’s resources and extends the ruling regime’s legitimacy across the body politic. The prominence of personal rule and ‘Big Man’ politics—as recently witnessed in Sudan and which led to the demise of President Omar al Bashir—accounts for real and latent authoritarian tendencies often accompanied by corruption and the ubiquitous appropriation of public resources for personal gain and aggrandisement. For example, it has been reported that over the last five decades, Africa has lost an estimated US$1 trillion due to illicit financial flows out of the continent and the current figure is about US$50 billion annually.

Signs of Hope and Promise?

On the positive side, the third wave of democratisation starting around 1990 more or less coincided with the erosion—but not the elimination—of autocratic rule in Africa. This provided the strategic opening for democratic practices, popular participation, and the rule of law to develop a tap-root in African politics that could be nurtured. Nevertheless, sclerotic political cultures and despotic traits continue to co-exist with positive governance changes and institutional reforms. In what should be salutary for Agenda 2063 many African countries have opened their political systems or acceded to some form of multi-party rule or democratic pluralism. 

They have instituted substantive reforms, ranging from token liberalisation to the irrevocable adoption of democratic norms and institutions as well as constitutionally-based forms of government. Authoritarian regimes especially have come under greater pressure as they experienced increased civil society mobilisation from below and often vocal repudiation of personal rule, elite domination, and official corruption; Sudan again serves as a classic case. Another positive development is the extent to which the African Peer Review Mechanism—to which 35 countries now subscribe—has brought vertical pressure to bear on African countries to better conform to prescriptions of better governance, transparency, and accountability. 

Finally, economic conditions which are so important to the realisation of the Agenda 2063 vision are likely to remain difficult. While Africa’s recent average growth of 5 per cent has been extolled as one of the fastest growing regions, for the most part, it has been non-inclusive, rentier-driven, commodity-based, and hardly provides an impetus for economic transformation. African countries will continue to experience real challenges related to domestic sources of resource mobilisation, wealth generation, and welfare redistribution but there is also the economic impact and knock-on effects of capital flows, terms of trade, levels of employment, investment, and savings rates, the political climate, and the regulatory environment. 

These have been too unstable and variable to attain the needed poverty reduction targets that have been set out in the 16 Sustainable Development Goals. If African countries do not take advantage of repositioning their economies in local, regional, and global markets to spur their own growth and development through industrial upgrading and moving up value chains in services and intermediate goods, the continent will remain vulnerable to the vagaries of international forces over which it has little control. 

In this regard, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) adopted in Kigali, Rwanda in March 2018 is a major milestone in providing the impulse for continental integration. Thus far 49 of 54 countries have signed the framework to create a single market for goods and services which includes the unhindered movement of people, investment, and factors of production. After the Gambia’s inclusion this month, 22 countries have now ratified the various instruments of the CFTA for it to come into force, thus making Africa the largest free trade area in the world.

The CFTA is part of the strategic remit of Agenda 2063 and is expected to deliver major gains. With a current market of 1.2 billion people and a GDP of $2.1 trillion, total employment is expected to increase by 1.2 per cent, with great benefits for manufacturing and agriculture; most countries will register GDP growth of between 1 and 3 per cent; there will be $16 billion in general welfare gains; and from the current low level of 10 percent, intra-African exports are expected to grow to 33 per cent. Dynamic gains could also be registered from improvements in trade facilitation, customs operations, and use of technology.

The Changing Impact of External Relations

The effectiveness of the CFTA, together with the repositioning of African economies comes up against several factors that arise from the current ethos of capitalism. The first is that global trade has evolved in a more liberal direction, with extensive reductions in tariffs and quantitative restrictions on the movement of goods and services. However, the growth of global trade co-exists with protectionism, neo-mercantilist tendencies, and limited market-access in developed countries of the North but especially the US and European Union. China, meanwhile, is going through its own period of structural adjustment to recalibrate its economy away from being export-driven and more towards domestic consumption. While this might have serious consequences for Africa, the Chinese leadership have provided the necessary assurances of continued support in meeting Africa’s growth and development challenges. 

Secondly, the growth of international capital markets has resulted in the removal of restrictions on financial flows, but this mobility has also increased the volatility of financial markets to which recurrent crises and the 2008 global financial meltdown bear eloquent testimony. Thirdly, there have been shifts in the paradigm of development assistance and finance which have raised policy and normative questions about their effectiveness in engendering growth and alleviating poverty in developing countries. This helps to explain the decline in general levels of aid to Africa, exacerbated of course by monetary and fiscal retrenchments in developed countries in the wake of the financial crisis and counter-cyclical adjustments. And fourthly, the technological revolution has demonstrated its potential to raise productivity, innovation, and standards of living but access often depends on the quality of human capital and the absorptive capacity of the economy, areas where many African countries have serious deficits.

Shaping African Responses

There are thus risks, threats, and opportunities for Africa in how it shapes its responses to the challenges of growth and development that arise from the aspirations of Agenda 2063. This resonates with how its countries and citizens plan for a collective future and common destiny. The continent is locked into a complex dialectic of continuity and change that demands greater responsiveness and accountability by African governments and inter-governmental institutions in declaring the moral equivalent of war against poverty, corruption, and underdevelopment. However, there is also an international context where the costs of policy failure, resource and material deficits, weak political leadership, and institutional paralysis are all magnified and more pronounced. 

Against the backdrop and experience of more than five decades of planning orthodoxy in Africa, Agenda 2063 represents a promise for an alternate path to growth and development in a continental environment of great uncertainty and many imponderables. However, only if it is anchored in a more meaningful and purposive social contract between states and citizens will time tell whether Agenda 2063 has been a real building block or yet another false dawn.

Dr Garth le Pere is Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria


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