Mapping African Regional Cooperation: How to Navigate Africa’s Institutional Landscape

Written by | Wednesday, November 11th, 2020

Long before African countries gained independence, they pursued closer integration and cooperation among themselves through the creation of multiple African regional organisations. In the aftermath of war trauma in Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the 1994 Rwanda genocide, many African regional organisations expanded their agenda to incorporate prevention and conflict management. At the same time, there has been intense international engagement in Africa in the fields of diplomacy, security, development, and humanitarian assistance since the 1990s. In 2002, the creation of the African Union and the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) accelerated the development of security policies.

For most African regional organisations, playing a role in peace and security provides their members with more international visibility, and makes it easier for them to receive financial support and to benefit from institutional capacity building programmes led by external partners such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. In recent times, these international players have been especially preoccupied with security matters and their potential knock-on effects for other parts of Africa and Europe. But, while some African regional organisations are crucial political and operational actors and receive significant support from international donors, those that have expanded their mandate in peace and security still lack sufficient human, logistical, and financial capacities to prevent the outbreak of armed conflict and deal with spillover effects.

There has long been a gap between donors’ expectations, African regional organisations’ objectives, and the latter’s capacity to deal with regional security challenges. This gap is still difficult to bridge, mainly because there has been only inconsistent international support for African responses to tackling volatile conflict situations. Such support lacks coordination, to the point that it may well be undermining both the effectiveness of African mechanisms and donors’ efforts to achieve their policy goals. To that end, we can identify problems in the African institutional landscape, including the costs of the overlap between African regional organisations (where a state is a member of more than one African regional arrangement at the same time; and where these arrangements share similar agendas on peace and security), and of ‘forum shopping’ by African states and their leaders. The situation does not ultimately address the long-term development problems that exist in many states.

The first main problem is that external support from European states and other international actors will not be as effective as it could be without national and regional coherence. In the context of the proliferation of African regional organisations, these actors should, therefore, develop a clear view of the costs and benefits of multiple and overlapping memberships. When they do have a view on the matter, bilateral and international partners tend to agree that African states should address the issue of overlap among African regional organisations – but they never really take into account their own responsibilities for producing such a situation.

The second main problem results from tension between the official promotion of shared objectives, their translation into long-standing regional policies, and the more informal practice of ‘à la carte’ cooperation – of leaders opting in and out of African regional organisations as they please. The lack of coordination between African regional organisations reflects the competitiveness of the political-institutional environment. In direct relation to the lack of coherent strategies, the opportunistic behaviour of African political leaders and the proliferation of African regional organisations are both the cause and the consequence of this forum shopping. Far from being a new practice, forum shopping is regarded by political elites as a way to invest in flexibility, including by adapting to the changing security context; defending national interests; cooperating with states they border (which are sometimes rivals); and developing relationships with external actors. In the long term, forum shopping has significant human, financial, and material costs for African and European stakeholders.

Ultimately, most European partners remain pragmatic about the proliferation of African regional organisations essentially because these bodies – as multilateral or collective groupings – provide additional channels for enhancing bilateral cooperation with African states. Donors increasingly support the 13 African regional organisations mapped as part of this project on a case-by-case basis only. External actors play a role in developing and shaping African regional organisations’ geographical scope of action, as well as in political-institutional competition in Africa. They currently have no clear and comprehensive strategy for developing long-term partnerships with, or among, the array of African regional organisations. An important example of this is the G5 Sahel, which the international community has mostly supported in an ad hoc way – without questioning the root causes of national and regional incapacities, or while considering coordination mechanisms only after creating new structures. In this, of course, donors are following African states’ own wishes and choices. But the problems this approach has created should give international donors pause.

This does not mean that there are no success stories among African regional organisations. ECOWAS, now in its forty-first year, has a formidable record in its efforts to enhance regional economic integration, its initial mandate, and its promotion of peace in a particularly turbulent region – as seen in the way it managed the Gambia crisis in 2017. Although it has its critics, the regional level of African governance, including as a layer in the continent’s security architecture, has obvious advantages, such as geographical proximity and good knowledge of local cross-border culture and traditions. But the current way of doing things has two main risks. Firstly, by failing to take account of different organisations’ comparative advantages or to draw on their complementary strengths, African regional organisations and international donors can inadvertently facilitate rent-seeking by African stakeholders. Unless they start to address this failure, they will never bridge the gap between expectations and capacity, regardless of how much external support these organisations receive. And the solutions they seek, in a complex array of institutional assemblages, will become increasingly disconnected from the actual problem: meeting populations’ expectations by reforming governance at the regional level.

‚Mapping African Regional Cooperation: How to Navigate Africa’s Institutional Landscape’ – Policy Brief by Amandine Gnanguênon – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.

The Policy Brief can be downloaded here

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