Once again Africa is at the crossroads.
The other time the continent found itself in a similar spot was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when it waged a crusade to end colonial rule.
This time around, it is confronted with the task of transforming the continent into one that will chart its own growth path and determine its destiny.
But such transformation is possible only when there is unity.
That is why the birth of the AU in July 2002 was hailed with hope and euphoria across the African continent, as well as among people of African descent and well-wishers throughout the world.
To a large extent, the event was regarded as a re-emergence of the Pan-Africanist dream and an indication of the determination by the new generation of African leaders to put an end to the nightmare of poverty, relegation and under-development on the continent.
The paradox of Africa is that it is one continent endowed with abundant natural and human resources, yet it is also the most impoverished region of the world.
About half of Africa's population currently live on less than US$1.
00 per day.
Far from coincidence, therefore, the emergence of the AU was nothing less than a historical imperative, considering contemporary global trends, notably the proliferation of regional politico-economic blocs across the world - Asian Union, North American Union, Pacific Union, Union of South American Nations and, of course, the European Union (EU) to mention but some.
In the face of these developments, continuing to stand or act in isolation on the global arena can only spell doom for the fragile economies of individual African nations.
At a time of heightened international competition and global economic crises, African integration must accelerate so that the continent can respond ever more effectively to the challenges of a globalizing world.
The opening up of opportunities by larger regional markets for African producers and consumers are some positive aspects of integration.
Integration could also reduce the cost of developing essential infrastructure such as road transport, railways, energy and telecommunications, which are often beyond the means of individual countries to accomplish in the developing world.
Challenges: Indeed, its benefits are immense but the road to continental integration is fraught with challenges.
Nearly a decade after its inauguration, the AU has very little results to show on the ground.
A myriad of impediments from both within and external, threaten to stagnate the Union- the absence of strong functional institutions, weak economies, the lack of industrial development, poor transport and communications infrastructure, the colonial factor, poverty, and intra-state conflicts among others.
In Particular, the dilemma posed by the dichotomy between state sovereignty and regional integration continues to present a formidable obstacle.
Rulers cherish all the power that comes with autonomy and self-determination, but are ever skeptical on matters pertaining to the pooling of sovereignty.
Added to these, are the divisions and difficulties presented by territorial boundaries.
Travelling from one neighbouring African country to another remains a nightmare, with numerous road checkpoints where ordinary travelers and traders routinely have to pay bribes to border officials in order to get through.
This is a direct contravention of the principle of free movement of people, goods and capital as enshrined in the charters of both the AU and ECOWAS.
Ineffective intra-African trade and the generally low level of socio-cultural cooperation among African nations has proved to be the 'Achilles heel' of the continent's integration effort, and that is one area the AU needs to focus more attention on.
The Regional Economic Communities (RECs) were created to promote socio-economic cooperation within their respective zones or region and, consequently, serve as a catalyst for the eventual unification/integration of the entire continent.
RECs on the Continent include the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), the Community of Sahelo-Saharan States (COSASS), the Economic Community of Central African States ((ECCAS), and the Southern Africa Development Commission (SADC).
These are essential building blocks whose effective function is a vital prerequisite to any successful integration process on the continent.
In fact, they are basic foundation stones without which the AU's objective of continental integration and unity would remain a mirage.
Colonial Era Economic Patterns: Unfortunately, Africa has not shaken off its colonial-era economic patterns, with countries on the continent still trapped in a long-standing legacy dominated by trade with their former colonial rulers rather than trade with each other.
For instance, whereas intra-African trade in 1998 stood at about 11.
4 per cent, trade between African nations and the industrialized world as a whole was 61.
2 per cent during the same period, out of which trade with the EU alone accounted for more than 40 per cent.
That picture remains pretty much the same even today, with intra-African trade standing at about 15 per cent, as against 45 per cent trade with Europe.
The particular issue of concern here is not just about trade between Africa and the industrialised world per se, but rather the prevailing terms of trade which have been far from favourable to Africa.
The hue and cry across the Continent about the Economic Partnership Agreements between Europe and African nations is not for nothing.
Although a welcome idea (because inter-dependence in today's globalised world is an inescapable reality), it must be said that the question of development partnership or external support from Europe and other parts of the industrialised world presents a double-edged sword.
The exclusive support of a 'godfather' in the African scenario, on the basis of past colonial ties, (France, Britain or Portugal, for instance) tends to produce zones of influence which could only exacerbate the prevailing trend of dependency and division on the Continent.
Unfortunately, the godfather syndrome is already a reality in Africa, as almost all the countries have continued to depend on their former colonial masters for economic viability and for their security/defense needs since independence.
In spite of its comforts, however, the godfather factor serves as a great disincentive to the continent's integration agenda.
To a large extent, it is responsible for the low level of trade and cooperation among African countries and, for that matter, the ineffectiveness of the RECs.
The Way Forward: Obviously, a successful integration process in Africa calls for a fundamental structural transformation of the continent's economic base from primary commodity export to the manufacture of goods, thereby evolving a new trade regime among African countries based on regional specialization.
Agriculture is one area that could provide a springboard for the much needed activation of the RECs, and the heightened level of economic cooperation that has so far eluded the continent.
African countries could begin integrating their economies in the agricultural sector by placing emphasis on joint action in agricultural production and agro-processing, since they are all essentially agrarian.
Committing more resources to agriculture would not only enable them to attain food security, but would also generate jobs for the unemployed if pursued with the requisite commitment and consistency.
The advantage here is two-fold: it would enable each region on the continent to maximize the production of specific agricultural commodities based on the principle of comparative advantage, thereby streamlining/synchronizing the terrain for effective collaboration amongst the various sub-regions.
In addition, the system of interdependence thus created would help accelerate the continent's integration process.
Why, for instance, should Mali import palm oil from South-East Asia for industrial use when it could get the commodity from Nigeria or Ghana at a comparatively cheaper cost? A robust agricultural plan can also be used as a launch-pad for a successful industrialization programme on the Continent.
The momentum for the continent's integration has to be built from the bottom this time around by bringing the ordinary people on board to avoid creating what experts refer to as 'legitimacy deficit', which could lead to a further stagnation of the process.
Fortunately in the case of Africa, people across the continent have a strong sense of affinity, the distortions/distractions posed by colonial boundaries notwithstanding.
People in one African country have always demonstrated their eagerness to forge closer ties with their counterparts next-door as demonstrated in border areas across the continent.
Border Market Concept: All kinds of cross-border interactions can be found at Aflao, Half Asini, Kofi Badukrom, Bawku, Kwame-seikrom, Paga and along the frontiers of almost all neighbouring countries on the continent that share common boundaries.
Both during the day and at night, cargo trucks and motorcycles cris-cross the main roads and several networks of unapproved routes, conveying a wide range of commodities to relatives and major market towns across the border - foodstuff, colanuts, salt, cloth/waxprints, imported jeans and drinks, as well as jerry-cans of petrol, kerosene and diesel, to mention but some.
The administrative authorities may refer to it as smuggling but to the indigenous population along the frontiers it is just one of the realities of everyday life - they must interact with relatives/friends on the other side of the border and, more crucially, they must also earn a living.
Even without knowing it, the residents of these areas are engaged in an informal aspect of integration and since very little can be done to stop such social interactions, all that governments can do, presumably, is to formalise those transactions by improving upon the transport services and road networks to facilitate the process.
Neighbouring ECOWAS states could, for instance, set up "Border Markets" on both sides of their common frontiers and encourage the citizenry to patronize those markets regularly.
With no reason to use unapproved bush paths anymore, citizens moving across the borders would now confidently pass through authorized routes in a win-win situation for all.
Of course, the AU and ECOWAS would have in place some rules to address concerns pertaining to their collective security.
Going by Karl Deutsche's socio-causal paradigm, the level of integration achieved by the AU or ECOWAS for instance, could be determined by the amount of transaction flows between member states.
This paradigm argues that political amalgamation occurs only when a homogenous transnational population has been created.
Such transnational population is attained through a process of social amalgamation which is, in turn, derived from heightened transactions/interactions between states.
The attainment of heightened transaction or interaction between member states could be realised only through the establishment of people-oriented structures that would articulate interests and help translate those interests into pragmatic policies.
These initiatives, supported by vigorous public sensitization campaigns and the right orientation for border officials, could move the integration process forward quite significantly.
Of course, the political leadership can continue to handle the conferences, treaty bargaining, policy and legal aspects of the process at their level, but should always involve the citizenry in decision-making on major issues/initiatives.
When the 53 nations that make up the AU have abandoned the desire and ability to conduct foreign and key domestic policies independently of each other, seeking instead to make joint decisions or to delegate the decision-making process to new central institutions, then the ultimate goal of economic and political cohesion would have been significantly accomplished.
Once again, Africa is at the cross-roads.
The AU's involvement in the year-long celebration of Kwame Nkrumah's Centenary, climaxed with the launch of Africa's Cultural Renaissance in Accra last month, has generated considerable momentum that should not be allowed to dissipate.
In essence, the realisation of Africa's renaissance includes the mobilization of Africans to reclaim as well as redirect the Continent's destiny, the establishment of democratic governance throughout the African continent and the acceleration of people-centred economic development across the continent.
It is time to move from ideas to action; to move from institutional architecture to tackling trans-boundary challenges - the common market, free movement of people, goods and capital, the single currency, and the ECOWAS/AU passports, among others.
The entire continent as well as Africans in the Diaspora should seize the moment and make the vision of a prosperous Africa a reality.
By Mohammed Nurudeen Issahaq.