Mbembe makes a strong case for African integration through open borders

02/10/2017
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Joseph Achille Mbembe at the conference

Renowned African historian, Joseph Achille Mbembe, has made a solid case for Africa’s integration through open borders that allow free movement of people on the continent.

“History tells us that the first thing you do to incapacitate people is to restrict their ability to move.  Mobility allowed the stretching of societies; was determinant to trade and to building African civilizations,” Mbembe said.

The erudite scholar made these arguments at the 21st edition of the African Development Bank’s Eminent Speakers series at the Bank’s headquarters in Abidjan on the theme, “The Cost of Borders.”

The AfDB is investing heavily in transport infrastructure as part of its High 5 priority programme to fast-track Africa’s integration. Mbembe argues that a big bank like AfDB should do more by creating ideas to impact the world’s view on the positive aspects of mobility.

He cited a study that found that the cost of transportation in Africa is 136% higher than in most other countries, largely due to inadequate infrastructure and restriction of movements.

Mbembe also cited AfDB’s statistics which indicate that investing US$32 billion in transport infrastructure every year for 15 years in Africa would enhance trade by US $250 billion.

He said restricted mobility and limited open borders is a serious cost prohibitive issue in a continent saddled with hundreds of internal borders and is highly cost prohibitive.

The biggest challenge facing Africa in the 21st century is for the continent to become a vast area of freedom of movement. The future of Africa does not depend on restrictive immigration policies and the militarisation of borders, he says.

He further explained how barriers and political issues constrain continental efforts to integrate Africa through investments, trade, finance and free movement of people and skills.

According to Mbembe, borders have become a geopolitical question, with the proliferation of new forms of violence. Issues of safety and security have resulted in a global expansion of security infrastructure to monitor insecure places. Massive investments are made on new technologies such as drones, to the point that securing borders has become a big industry. 

At the same time, refugee issues and the migrant crisis in the Northern and Southern parts of Africa will spur a demographic revolution that in turn will reshape the face of the world. “For years now, many have died attempting to cross borders in search of better living conditions. “This, he said, is an issue Africa must address.

Building on experiences in other regions, and specific African countries, the Speaker addressed the need to think deep about managing African borders and the possibility of privatizing boarder management.

Concerning language barriers, Mbembe said English and French are now seen as African languages that are no longer a prerogative of French and English people.

“Our relationship with these languages obliges us to consider them to be part of our heritage. We have to move our borders and adapt them to the environment in which we find ourselves,” he explained.

“We must open the continent to itself and turn it into a power house. It must be turned into a vast space of circulation. This is the only way for it to become its own center in a multipolar world.”

For mobility to become the cornerstone of a new pan-African agenda, we need to leave behind migratory models based on anti-humanist concepts such as “national interest” and embrace our own long tradition of flexible, networked sovereignty and collective security, he says.

Introducing the speaker, the Bank’s Chief Economist and Vice-President, Celestin Monga, emphasized the relevance of the theme under discussion, saying that regional integration is one of the institution’s five operational pillars. He also highlighted Africa’s size and the diversity of its economic structure as issues to contend with in efforts to promote integration.

Mbembe is an eminent professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Research of Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, South Africa. He served as Executive Director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, Senegal. He was a visiting professor at the universities of Harvard, Duke and California in Berkeley in the United States.