Dakar- Senegal (PANA) -- It might sound an overstatement, but the number of economic groupings across Africa borders on proliferation, so much so that donor partners are beginning to find co-operation with the configuration cumbersome.
In March in Brussels, a European Union official overseeing Southern Africa, complained that the Organisation was having trouble channelling support to economic blocs in the sub-region.
Roger Moore's concern was on the overlaps in programmes pursued by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).
The EU Southern Africa Bureau head was categorical about the need for all three groups to streamline their spheres of operation.
To an extent, technical considerations compel African countries within the same sub-region to set up separate forums for economic, monetary and customs cooperation.
It is partly for want of a common currency that rather than operate a composite economic and monetary union, West African countries got no farther than sharing a common economic bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
But when it came to monetary policy, the "Anglophone" and "Francophone" States parted ways, with the latter opting for the 12-member CFA franc zone West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA).
Similarly, Central Africa separately operates the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) grouping CFA franc countries of the sub-region, and the wider Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) that extends as far east as the Great Lakes and down south as Angola.
But technical constraints notwithstanding, currency incompatibility would be too weak an excuse for pursuing the goal of an African Economic Community in scattered sub-regional ranks.
There is a widely endorsed OAU Treaty in force since May 1994, by which the continent is expected to metamorphose over 34 years from its current sub-regional economic groupings into a single African Economic Community, along the line of today's European Union.
But seven years on, Africa's sub-regional groupings are yet to get their bearings right, let alone streamline operations towards a common continental entity.
For instance, more than 15 years after its formation, CEEAC is virtually yet to come off the drawing board.
While still grappling with teething problems, Rwanda put its membership of the planned union on hold, while DR Congo bailed out preferring to cast its lot with the SADC.
The multiplication of fronts is itself a bad enough start in the march to Africa's economic integration, and the scenario can only get more precarious when bloc members display a lack of commitment, or desert camp at the slightest political hiccup.
Because economic integration requires uniformity of business laws and regulations, methods and procedures, the union-within- union phenomenon observable in the configuration of economic groupings in Africa rather negates what will there be to close ranks.
Language and currency differences are by and large surmountable "barriers" in the quest for economic and monetary cohesion at scales wider than the colonial legacies operated by West and Central Africa in the name of monetary unions.
After all, with all its diversities and rivalries, Europe is at the threshold of a tightly knit one-market-one-currency union.
It is basically a matter of getting the priority right and, above all, the political will to forge ahead.
It was no easy ride for the "Old continent," what with the persisting resistance by some countries, but Europe is at length pulling through one of the world's finest regional economic blocs in meticulous progression.
First it abolished external tariffs, tempered the enforcement of national currencies, proceeded onto an economic union, then a single market, and is now zeroing in on a common currency.
In Africa too, sub-regional blocs could become the engine of continental economic union.
As a means, rather than an end itself, they should be seen to open up steadily for a wider outreach beyond language, currency or geographical expression.
Cross-bloc economic harmonisation in Africa can also be realised along lines of COMESA's Cape-to-Cairo stretch that blends countries of the Horn, the East African Commission and SADC into Africa's widest common market to date.
A common market means the sharing of rules, regulations and even accounting methods in trade.
Hence breaking trade barriers and establishing shared tariff policies across so wide an expanse cannot but place COMESA countries on the cutting edge of Africa's bid for a continent- wide economic integration.
What is more, the common market approach could jolt hesitant blocs into not only reviewing their ranks but also seeking wider outreach.
The dynamics in the equation are such that in a common market, structural incompatibilities among States sooner or later begin to clog the rails of trade.
And in sorting out such frictions, individual countries are forced to readjust or fine-tune internal policies for coherence with the external dictates of a common bloc.
That is what economic integration is all about.
Pushing the common market argument further as a likely momentum to power the drive for Africa's economic integration, it must be understood that questions of tariffs and procedures are but the technical side of the coin.
Even when these are sorted out, there would remain the practical challenge of communication infrastructure.
More specifically, transportation.
Africa might be endowed with enormous natural resources, but the exigencies of the new economic order are such that natural wealth obtains economic potency only when the requisite outlay is there to harness and link them to the production, distribution and consumption chain.
It would be out of turn for apologists of the status quo to insist on Africa's natural riches rather than contemplate the quality of local infrastructure and access to international transportation alongside a supportive policy climate.
Fortunately, some among its leadership are beginning to highlight the import of transportation in the search for the economic way forward.
A case in point is Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade's "Omega Plan," which advocates the development of transport infrastructure as a prerequisite.
Critics might not readily grasp his sense of priority, but the Senegalese leader is hardly alone in perceiving that urgency.
The significance of transportation in today's age of globalisation was more succinctly affirmed by former US Transport Secretary Rodney E.
Slater, when he cautioned that "the ability of nations to make public and private sector investments in transportation will determine which become minor players with declining economies and living standards.
" With 48 sub-Saharan countries accounting for little more than one percent of global trade, and with four out of 10 Africans living in absolute poverty, the argument about working the transportation line could hardly be more compelling.
So too the need to forge meaningful economic integration.