African leaders have long had an interest in political and economic integration, going back to the establishment of the Organization of African Unity in 1963, now the African Union (AU). Today, the AU remains a major actor for regional integration: he AU Strategic Plan for 2009–2012 recommended the establishment of free trade areas and a customs union as a primary step toward a continent-wide African Economic Community. The AU Strategic Plan for 2014–2017 reaffirmed a commitment to these daunting goals and proposed building institutional and human capacity to achieve them. A more recent effort has been a plan to introduce an African passport later this year to enable the easy movement of African officials within the continent, as well as an end to visa requirements for all African citizens by 2018. The African Union identified and acknowledged eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs) as the main institutions to drive the formation of a continent-wide “United States of Africa” by 2063. These RECs—ECOWAS, AMU, COMESA, CEN – SAD, IGAD, EAC, ECCAS, and SADC—have helped to enhance regional integration to varying extents in Africa. The EAC and ECOWAS have taken proactive steps toward trade facilitation; they have each established customs unions and common markets and are gradually moving toward common monetary unions. Another important step in trade facilitation on the continent was the launch of a Tripartite Free Trade Agreement, comprising the 27 countries of COMESA, SADC, and the EAC, which will come into force by the end of 2016. The EAC, ECOWAS, and SADC lead the pack in terms of deepening inter-regional trade.
As promising as RECs may seem in the quest to deepen regional integration, they are not without their fair share of challenges. There are too many RECs, and overlapping regional blocs undermine integration. They often lack a clear policy direction and have weak institutional capacities to actually carry out meaningful integration. Military and political tensions between members of a REC can also derail efforts at integration: the incessant conflicts in the Horn of Africa affect stability in the EAC, and the political crises in the SADC region slow efforts toward integration, to mention a few. Moreover, political elites are not prepared to give up sovereignty and power; an issue that frustrates all the RECs one way or another.