In 1983, Heads of State from the Central African region decided to create the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) with the objective of accelerating the development of the region. However, the geographical location of the member states makes them susceptible to belonging to several Regional Economic Communities (RECs). After the creation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in January 2018 and despite the fact that all states in the sub-region have ratified the treaties, countries continue to apply different Common External Tariffs based on their national interests. However, the ECCAS’s vision for 2025 to make the region an emerging, integrated and prosperous space consists of: developing the capacity to maintain peace, security and stability; developing physical, human, economic and monetary integration; and establishing an autonomous financing mechanism for Central Africa (1). Although this vision is ambitious, ECCAS remains moderately integrated despite many efforts made by member states. This study reviews the status of regional integration in the Central African region. The primary aim of this article is to highlight the progress made as well as the challenges to be overcome in order to strengthen the integration process in the ECCAS countries. The article is structured into two sections: the first provides a situational analysis of regional integration and the second presents the challenges of integration in ECCAS.
The status of regional integration in ECCAS
The recent crises experienced in the world, including the Russian-Ukrainian crisis since February 2022 on the one hand, and the occurrence of numerous internal and external shocks (volatility of oil prices, security crisis, health crisis) on the other hand, have strongly affected the economies of ECCAS. This region has certainly made progress in terms of integration, but it is still sub-optimal given its rich resource potential.
In 2015, the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063 called for the abolition of visa requirements for all Africans by 2018. This decision was endorsed in 2017 by some Central African countries. Thus, the main achievement of the Central Africa region concerns free movement, which has been effective in several countries with the signing and ratification of the AfCFTA agreement by all ECCAS countries. the regional integration index is 0.469, well below that of ECOWAS (0.733), which is the most integrated economic region.
However, with an average of 0.383, trade integration on the African continent tends to be at the lower end of the scoring scale. Compared to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), ECCAS is less integrated in terms of trade integration with a score of 0.442. Regional trade represents barely 2% of the region’s total trade (2).There is an unequal distribution of production and factors of production on the continent and in ECCAS, which can be explained by the infrastructure and logistics deficit
By the way, macroeconomic integration has been slowing down since 2014, due to the fall in oil prices and the various security shocks experienced by countries in the region. The GDP growth rate in Central Africa accelerated slightly to 2.2% in 2018, while remaining below the African average of 3.5% (3). The regional economy is dominated by the secondary sector with an average contribution to real GDP of 42.2% in 2017 and is still largely based on the production and export of extractive commodities and, as such, remains highly vulnerable to exogenous shocks. Similarly, at the ECCAS level, the external debt situation has worsened rising from 28.7% in 2011 to 57.1% in 2017. Moreover, poverty still affects 60% of the regional population, with strong disparities related to the employability of women and young people.
In terms of infrastructural integration, the regional integration index reported in 2019 indicates that ECCAS scored 0.373, which is much lower than that of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), the best-performing region in Africa, with an average score of 0.55. There is a significant infrastructural deficit, particularly in the transport (roads, railways, inland waterways, seaports, ports and air transport), energy, information and communication technology sectors, which constitutes a serious obstacle to the regional integration process.
In terms of governance, Central Africa is lagging behind, which weakens the effectiveness of institutions and reduces the impact of public policies on development. To this effect, the average score of the Ibrahim Index of Governance for ECCAS in 2016 was 44/100, against an average of 50.8/100 for Africa (4). There are still strong gender gaps in the decision-making process. According to the Africa Integration Index Report 2019, the Gender Equality Index for the region is 53.4, compared to 61.7 for Southern Africa and 54.0 for East Africa. Removing barriers to women’s participation in cross-border trade and regional business development would help promote their empowerment.
Despite some progress made, many challenges still need to be addressed for a successful implementation of the integration process in ECCAS
Challenges and opportunities for better integration in ECCAS
Central Africa’s geographical location makes it one of the most resource-endowed regions in Africa in terms of abundance and quality of arable land, a predominantly young population, diverse ecosystems and abundant transboundary water and forest resources. In that view, the creation of ECCAS as a REC was seen by the Heads of member states as the best way to exploit the regional economic potential and ensure structural transformation. This view is in line with the regional theory which demonstrates that integration is a key factor in improving trade and earnings between member countries. On the other hand, according to Viner, 1950, integration can have adverse effects on trade and economic activity (5).
Given the social context characterized by persistent poverty, inequality, and unemployment, regional integration still faces many challenges, one of which is the membership of ECCAS member countries to different RECs (6). Similarly, peace building is imperative as there can be no integration in countries plagued by conflict. In addition, the operationalization and harmonization of ECCAS free trade areas would be beneficial to regional trade. Furthermore, the reduction of non-tariff barriers, economic diversification, and the development of productive capacities, as well as the effective implementation of ECCAS harmonized community instruments are pillars that could improve the regional integration process (7).
In view of the above, there is no doubt that integration in ECCAS remains very limited despite the efforts made. However, as stipulated by Hugon in 2001, regional integration can generate gains for member countries. Thus, coordinated action in member countries could reinvigorate the process by building on existing opportunities. The AfCFTA is therefore an opportunity for these economies and the implementation of this agreement would eventually resolve the challenge of member states belonging to several RECs and eliminate tariffs. Good economic governance is a key priority in the medium and long-term structural transformation plans currently being pursued by member states. Also, the diversification of economies, institutional capacity building as well as the introduction of dividends and sanctions could improve the effective involvement of member states. Nevertheless, it is important to align national development plans with regional programmes in order to maximise their effectiveness and put the countries on the right path towards integration.