Africans are typically unforgiving of people who refer to Africa as a country. Anyone who cannot see that we are a continent of 55 distinct, independent and sovereign countries — each with its own president, army and national flag — is clearly ignorant, right?
In truth, there are no ‘Africans’? But there are Nigerians, Kenyans, Ethiopians, Zambians, Congolese, Moroccans and South Africans, among several others.
When outsiders refer to Africa as a country, there is a subconscious revolt and innate impulse to make it clear that we are not just the world’s largest collection of dark-skinned folk. In my case, there is always a strong patriotic urge to remind you that I’m Nigerian.
But wait a minute.
Could referring to Africa as a country just be an ignorant slip, or a telling prophecy?
Is Africa, as a “country”, a much stronger proposition than Africa as a “continent” – which is actually just a mere geographical expression?
After all, before the colonial powers of Europe cut the continent into slices and dominions during the Scramble for Africa, African society was organized along tribes and empires, which traded freely among themselves, unlike the destructive restrictions we face presently – more on that later.
In my opinion, Africa’s internal borders are the key bane to its progress. This pervasive sense of ‘separateness’ or ‘apartheid’ that makes each African country feel distinct and disengaged from the other is actually a divisive legacy of a colonial past that significantly undermines the potentials of our great ‘continent’.
I must admit; I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure if we should tear down our internal ‘international’ borders and proclaim ourselves the United States of Africa. Or maybe we should model ourselves against the European Union – a politico-economic union of member states.
But I’m absolutely certain we need to do something about our current situation. Africa is clearly doing more harm to itself when we continue to project and take pride in an image of a continent with several distinct and independent countries.
Here are the 3 biggest harms we’re actually causing ourselves:
1) Highest costs of air travel in the world!
In terms of air travel, Africa remains the most disconnected region of contiguous countries. There are no direct flights between several countries on the continent, and convoluted flight paths are all too common.
Take a trip from Egypt to Cameroon, for example. This journey, which should typically take about 5 hours by direct flight, could last up to 24 hours because the flight would have to be routed via Istanbul (Turkey) or some other hub in Europe or the Middle East – which costs a whole lot more.
Add to this the visa restrictions that exist from one African country to another and you’ll start to see how ridiculous our situation really is.
Apart from the high cost and inconvenience of travel across Africa, this disconnectedness costs the continent in terms of lost productivity, investment, tourism and several other economic and social benefits.
A study by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that if just 12 of Africa’s economies opened their skies to each other, air fares would drop by up to 35%, and an extra 5 million Africans could afford to fly. An additional 155,000 new jobs would be created and US$1.3bn added to the continent’s GDP.
These are impressive numbers for an industry that currently supports around seven million jobs and more than $80bn in GDP across the continent.
2) Most expensive money transfers in the world!
Africa remains one of the most expensive places for money transfer transactions. This applies to both transfers within the continent, and transfers coming from outside.
The latest Send Money Africa report by the African Institute for Remittances (AIR) reveals the average total cost of sending money to and within Africa was 8.52 percent (Q4, 2015), higher than the global average. In fact, the nine most expensive corridors are all intra-African, with six of them originating from South Africa and the rest from Tanzania.
The World Bank estimates that Africa could save up to $16 billion every year if the cost of money transfer falls within the normal global range.
Maybe if we had a stronger and more united front, Africa could be in a better situation to gain concessions and more favourable rates and terms for money transfers. It’s ridiculous that we’re losing this much money every year just because we want to be ‘patriotic’ and ‘nationalistic’.
3) Lowest levels of intra-country trade in the world!
The current level of internal trade in Africa is disturbingly low. Presently, just about 10 percent of Africa’s total trade is between African countries; the rest is with foreign nations. Most of the continent’s export and import trade are with the world’s most advanced economies in North America, Europe and Asia.
The borders we have drawn around ourselves is actually a chokehold on Africa’s progress. Because African markets are splintered into many disconnected countries, it’s difficult for Africans to do business with one another given all the border controls, trade restrictions and infrastructural challenges that limit intra-African trade.
Trade is particularly more difficult for most of Africa’s small and landlocked countries. While several countries on the continent have very small markets — often with less than 1 million people – the pan-African market is a pool of over 1.2 billion people, equivalent to India and China; two of the world’s fastest growing economies.
There’s no doubt that Africa “as a country” will be a formidable and potentially prosperous market when we pool ourselves together.
Africa is the world’s second largest continent from a geographic perspective. But from an economic perspective, we’re still actually small. No, not small. Actually, we’re tiny. Because with a GDP of less than $2 trillion, Africa is significantly punching way below its own weight.
If Africa increases its internal trade, we would accelerate the growth of our economies, leverage wider economies of scale, attract much more foreign direct investment, share more knowledge and transfer a lot of useful homegrown technologies.
We need a connected African identity!
Africans across the continent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, actually share more similarities than differences. We largely face the same political, social and economic challenges. Even though we are a very diverse people, there is so much more that unites than separates us.
We share common roots in rich traditions and culture. In our music, art, languages, clothing and food, it’s easy to see the long and winding thread that connects all the African people and the common heritage that we share.
It’s not enough that we share a common racial and geographical classification. We may speak different languages and be separated by physical borders but our connection transcends these boundaries. We need to have an African identity.
I have a dream that one day, we would have a United States of Africa!
Interestingly, this doesn’t have to be a dream. There are already signs that we could make this happen in our lifetime, and I’m very excited about the prospects!
The Africa Union, during its Summit in Rwanda this month (July 2016), released the first African continental passport. This symbolic and significant action is the continent’s first real step “toward the objective of creating a strong, prosperous and integrated Africa, driven by its own citizens and capable of taking its rightful place on the world stage.”
It is expected that issuance of the new African Union e-Passport will pave the way for African countries to adopt and ratify the necessary protocols and legislation required to begin issuing the much expected African passport to all the continent’s citizens.
The key to unlocking Africa’s unharnessed potential is full integration and strong unity among all of its people.
The dream of a United States of Africa is already coming true.
Let’s go Africa!