Africa’s regional blocs have benefited ruling elites – but not much more

Protesters in Niamey, Niger, display a sign that reads ‘French military bases must go’ during a rally against Ecowas/CREDIT: Issfou Djibo/EPA
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The recent wave of instability in Africa, marked by coups and escalating regional conflicts, casts a spotlight on the effectiveness of Regional Economic Communities (RECs) on the continent. Established with the goals of fostering economic integration, promoting security, and strengthening regional governance, RECs like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the East African Community (EAC), and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) face unprecedented challenges. This essay explores the current state of these regional blocs, questioning whether they truly serve the needs of all member states, notably smaller economies and whether they are tools for political elites to realize their short-term goals.

The challenge of coups

Coups in West Africa challenged ECOWAS’ commitment to democracy, leading to a threat of three military junta-led states of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali to threaten to withdraw from ECOWAS and form the Alliance of Sahelian States bloc (ASS). Nigeria, ECOWAS’ leading hegemon, responded by acquiescing to the military men’s demands.

Elsewhere, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has also opposed the EAC, further highlighting the limitations of RECs’ security interventions. President Felix Tshisekedi labeled the EAC regional force in DRC as “ineffective” in fighting the M23 rebels that have reignited the instability in Eastern DRC. Congolese civil society has expressed similar sentiments as well.

Meanwhile in the Horn of Africa, Sudan left IGAD after accusing the eight-member regional bloc of “violating its sovereignty” over a request it issues for mediation between Sudan’s de facto leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is embroiled in a bitter civil war with leader of Rapid Support Forces under the control of Mohamed Hamdam “Hemedti.”

Ethiopia has also been sending cold “vibes” to IGAD. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was a no-show at IGAD’s last conference in Kampala, which was supposedly a protest move over IGAD’s position on Ethiopia’s port deal with Somaliland.

Under these circumstances, it is fair to ask if the continent’s RECs are capable of delivering on the integration agenda articulated in the Lagos Plan.

The pan-African vision

The vision for pan-African unity and economic cooperation has existed since the decolonization era. The 1980 Lagos Plan of Action laid the groundwork for RECs, aiming to create a network of integrated regional markets across Africa. However, the reality on the ground paints a more complex picture as highlighted by the Rethinking the Functions of Regional Economic Communities research project.

On the surface, RECs seem to offer a compelling narrative. They create larger markets for smaller countries, reducing business transaction costs. Additionally, RECs can play a role in regional security. Regionalized conflicts, extremist activities, and rebel groups might necessitate a coordinated response from member states. RECs facilitate such cooperation, embodying the principle of “African Solutions to African Problems.”

Lastly, the RECs have a political significance by providing a platform for regional governments to address shared concerns, such as mediating electoral disputes, advocating for regional interests at the continental level, and coordinating regional development plans for infrastructure such as railways, entry visas, vaccinations, and educational initiatives.

The reality, however, is often much more complex.

The asymmetry of power and benefits

While these goals appear laudable, a closer examination reveals a discrepancy between aspirations and outcomes. While larger economies like Nigeria and South Africa may benefit from access to broader markets and expanded investment opportunities, the same cannot be said for smaller, less developed nations.

Studies have shown that economic integration within RECs hasn’t translated into significant economic growth for smaller states. Trade data reveals that larger economies often dominate regional commerce, leaving smaller players struggling to compete.

Furthermore, the security interventions by RECs, such as ECOWAS’s response to the coups in West Africa, highlight the limitations of these blocs in ensuring lasting stability within member states.

The political agenda of elites

It is therefore important to ask how smaller economies within regional organizations experience integration. Despite being members of their respective Regional Economic Communities (RECs), countries such as South Sudan, Liberia, and Namibia have less influence due to their smaller economies.

South Sudan, the youngest African nation, faces numerous challenges despite its oil wealth. Liberia, rich in minerals, has a history of instability that required regional intervention from ECOWAS. However, it has since achieved political stability and established a functioning democracy.

Namibia, like South Sudan, gained independence relatively recently (1990). While boasting a modest economy, it grapples with significant inequality, and it is unclear how much SADC membership has helped the country to achieve its economic goals.

South Sudan

South Sudan’s foreign policy to the East African Community reflects its historical ties. The EAC has at times offered a haven for South Sudanese elites. Kenya and Uganda, important East African Community members, supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement during its struggle for independence. The two countries’ leaders have been allies of the ruling elite in South Sudan ever since. Uganda sent military help 2013 to fend off internal rebels fighting to topple President Salva Kiir, for example.

South Sudan’s membership in the East African Community since 2016 has failed to reverse the economic downturn, made worse by civil war, famine, drought and the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, trade data indicate that Kenya and Ugandan firms dominate South Sudan’s economy.

The East African Community provides regime survival and the entrenchment of patronage networks. South Sudan’s crony-capitalist network has historical ties with Uganda and Kenya. South Sudanese ruling elites need regional recognition of their rule and greater security for their economic interests. The East African bloc advances those goals, further entrenching ruling elites’ state capture. The oil industry is an excellent example of the opaque deals that thrive under crony capitalism.

Given this, it is striking that the EAC has at times been sidelined in some of the most important processes and issues concerning South Sudan. It had a minimal role to play, for example, in the recent peace negotiations. Instead, IGAD took the lead in resolving the conflict between South Sudan and Khartoum over the oil-rich Abyei region.

Liberia

Liberia’s country’s entry into ECOWAS in 1975 failed to spark an increase in trade. Instead, Liberia’s intra-regional exports declined. The larger economies within ECOWAS, such as Nigeria, continued to dominate trade, leaving Liberia behind.

At the same time, Liberian leaders have used ECOWAS for political gain. ECOWAS intervened twice in attempts to end the civil war in Liberia that threatened to depose President Samuel Doe, for example. Liberia has this used ECOWAS over the years to further the interests of specific ruling elites.

Namibia

Namibia’s post-apartheid foreign policy offers a novel perspective on regional economic communities. The country’s entry into the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) yielded more tangible economic advantages than it gained from the SADC. Namibia has more economic ties with customs union countries than other non-customs union members of the SADC.

Given that Namibia has had over three decades of stability with no obvious external threats, the security role played by the SADC seems irrelevant. However, Namibia remains in the grouping to align its “national interests” with regime interests. The bloc thus reinforces the bond formed during the struggle against White minority rule in southern Africa, and this may be more important that its impact on Namibia’s economic success or political stability.

The democracy question

As this discussion suggests, we can also question whether African RECs have either promoted, entrenched, or discarded democratization as a goal. The EAC’s inclusion of Somalia, coupled with the public perception that it normalizes authoritarianism and election rigging, undermines its credibility.

Similarly, ECOWAS’s capitulation to the demands of coup leaders in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali signals a concerning shift away from its commitment to democratization. In Southern Africa, SADC’s continued relationship with ZANU-PF despite questionable electoral practices further erodes its commitment to democratic principles.

Finally, IGAD and ECCAS have historically prioritized security and stability over democratic reforms, which has contributed to the lack of change in these areas.

Legitimacy and the politics of regional identity

These examples illustrate how smaller states often leverage RECs to construct narratives of regional solidarity and ideological legitimacy. Membership allows elites to consolidate their power by aligning themselves with a more significant “pan-African” identity.

Moreover, REC’s often provide a platform to appease international actors advocating for democracy and good governance while enhancing the repressive capabilities of authoritarian regimes. Leaders of weak states – i.e. those with insecure regimes that lack an effective social contract – need regional blocs to raise their status as legitimate rulers. Instead of giving a regional body more power, these states use the body to “boost their sovereignty.” 

Military juntas ruling in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger struggled to do this within ECOWAS, which is why they felt compelled to challenge it, accusing ECOWAS leaders of abandoning the foundational goals of “Pan Africanism.”

As this example highlights, the analysis presented her does not suggest that smaller states are powerless bystanders within RECs. Instead, it highlights their agency in utilizing these blocs to further their own agendas. Rather than seeking economic or security benefits, they prioritize enhancing rents, solidifying elite networks, and maintaining a positive international image.

Rethinking regional integration

The current state of RECs in Africa demands a critical reassessment. Are they fulfilling their original goals of fostering economic integration and regional stability? Or have they become tools for self-serving elites, further marginalizing smaller economies?

A more nuanced approach is vital. RECs need to prioritize policies that address the specific needs of smaller states, promoting genuine economic integration and fostering inclusive growth. Additionally, mechanisms for democratic accountability and transparency within these regional blocs must be strengthened, and accounts of RECs capitulating to elite power brokers when pushed to the edge must be witnessed.

Ultimately, the success of RECs in achieving a more stable and prosperous Africa hinges on their ability to serve the needs of all member states, not just the powerful few. We must acknowledge current limitations and work towards a more equitable future if RECs are to fulfil their potential as instruments for positive change on the continent.

Cliff (Ubba) Kodero holds a PhD in International Relations and currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Political Economy at the College of Idaho. In addition to his academic pursuits, Dr. Kodero runs a popular Pan-African YouTube Show, “The Ubba Kodero Show.” 

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