BY KENYATTA OTIENO
Towards the end of January 2018, Rwanda strongman Paul Kagame, at his inauguration as the new African Union chairman, announced the creation of AU single aviation market. That was good news to my Pan Africanist ears. When people connect, new things happen first in the social sphere to build trust then economic ideas come up the moment people ask “what next?”
In 2015, Tanzania pulled the plug on its trade relations with Kenya by reducing the number of flights Kenya Airways can make to Dar-es-Salaam per week from 42 to 14. This came after Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism barred Tanzanian tour firms from accessing Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. In August 2017 Zimbabwe and South Africa grounded each other’s airplanes over permit disputes. This came when Zimbabwe was pushing diplomatic efforts to get first lady Grace Mugabe immunity from prosecution after she was charged with assault in Johannesburg. This is a clear case of African countries using their national carriers as pawns in diplomatic turf wars.
The single aviation market will iron out such petty wars. It is not a new invention though, it has helped reduce flight fares in Europe and it is not the first time it is coming out of the Africa either. African ministers in charge of civil aviation met in Ivory Coast’s political capital of Yamoussoukro in November 1999 and signed the Yamoussoukro Decision on integrating air travel in Africa. The fruits of that meeting are blossoming almost two decades later. That is where I did not celebrate the announcement.
First is the issue of effects of bureaucracy on states accession to a treaty, which affects the timelines. Secondly not every state will sign, as of now only 23 out of 55 African states have signed the treaty. The push can begin as others play a wait and see approach but if the 23 states are scattered across all the regions of Africa then the gains might be marginal. On the part of time, if this idea was mooted two decades ago, it means the cogs at AU turn very slowly. The conditions that might have worked in 1999 have changed hence bringing new challenges.
International relations involve various levels of engagement. It takes a long time before a committee comes up with a treaty agreeable to 23 states. Then the process of implementation again will have challenges, as various state interests will be at play. Dispute resolution between states is a big challenge and takes a long time due to horse-trading. The Yamoussoukro Decision was to render such bilateral agreements subordinate to the continental agreement but experience makes that easier said than done. Several African countries will want to comb through the treaty with toothpicks just to make sure they are not giving what they have worked hard to gain.
Another pitfall will be imperialism. AU has tried to do many things for Africa except pulling our states from over reliance on the powerful countries in the West. AU itself runs on funds from China, EU and the USA. This means that these countries with more powerful airlines, which have benefited from the African market may influence some African states against joining the agreement. Kenya Airways has an agreement with Dutch Airline- KLM. Pulling out of such arrangements may not be easy and might be used to undermine the AU’s initiative.
AU can kick it off
There is power in football and other sports that African countries have never gone an extra mile to tap into. Let us look at the lucrative Europe’s UEFA Champions League. The matches are played on weekdays in early evening kickoff with thought put on the time it takes to fly fans in and out from the visiting teams. The plan is to make it possible for someone to leave his office in London, fly to Milan, watch a match then fly back to London in time for work the next day. Those who can stay behind can still stay. Look at this in the backdrop of European Union’s efforts to unify. Which came first, EUFA or EU?
The EU and European Champions Club Cup began in 1957 and 1955 respectively. They both grew in different ways but took advantage of each other. On the other side, CAF African Champions’ League always seeks to copy paste what is happening in Europe without much thought to our realities. It will be prudent if AU will invite CAF and regional football federations to Addis Ababa for a joint session on how to try-run this single aviation market.
CAF can come up with a format where clubs play regional champions leagues like CECAFA in eastern Africa and COSAFA in southern Africa in preliminary stages. This will make it easy for fans to fly in and out to watch a match. AU can even subsidize these flights. Gor Mahia fans can have lunch in Embakasi before flying to Kigali, watch a match and fly back home for dinner. The knock out stages can then be handled in a case-by-case basis. This can happen over several football seasons as AU implements the Single Aviation Market treaty.
Football will help AU bypass the state bureaucracies by going straight to the people. This will come with the advantage of countries using the CAF Champions league as a test run on the treaty and cut on implementation time.
The moment people begin to interact in an informal environment without barriers of formalities many things will begin to happen. The secret is giving people a reason to travel then governments can use the opportunity for diplomatic engagements over the details of air travel between the two countries. It will build football as African countries connect.