Making sense of regional integration in Africa

The problem of African countries' memberships to multiple regional bodies? There's no problem.

Following the tracks from the Zimbabwe border to Zambia at sunset. Image credit Youngrobv via Flickr (CC).

A highly anticipated coordination meeting between the African Union (AU) and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) will take place in Niamey on July 08, 2019. The Summit is one concrete measure of the latest round of institutional reforms of the AU, initiated by its previous chairperson President Kagame. Discussions will be centered on the subsidiarity principle: what level and organization is best placed to deal with regional policy making, problem-solving or norm-setting? But is this enough to ensure coordination given the multitude of other (and overlapping) regional organizations in Africa? Strengthening African regionalism may be less a matter of engaging the RECs, and more about solving specific regional problems, where the RECs are but one of a set of regional actors.

Constructing a continent

The Niamey Summit will see discussions between the AU and eight officially recognized RECs. These are the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and Southern African Development Community (SADC). There are six other RECs, and several other regional bodies. These serve as the building blocks towards the African Economic Community. Although some are more effective than others—the AMU and CEN-SAD have been somewhat dormant in recent years—in July 2006, the AU decided to stick to these eight with a moratorium on recognizing any more RECs.

But a plethora of regional bodies and agencies exists beyond these RECs, carrying out functions that overlap and often cut across them. SADC, ECOWAS and ECCAS all contain a smaller but more historically rooted sub-region in the form of SACU, UEMOA and CEMAC, respectively. These are the Southern African Customs Union, l’Union Économique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine, and Commission Économique et Monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale respectively.

Plus there are a range of river basin organizations, sub-regional organizations and partnerships as well as regional peace and security arrangements. As a result, the average African country belongs to no less than eight different regional bodies. The DRC is member of at least 14 different regional entities—15 if their request to join the EAC is accepted. This has resulted in the (in)famous metaphor of an African “spaghetti bowl” of regional institutions, often with limited organizational capabilities and weak supranational authority.

To some, such as the EU, this suggests a need  for rationalization of regional memberships. Rather it may reflect a real need for multiple regional platforms to address the cross-border and regional challenges African countries face. For those countries, joining different regional fora is a rational decision—with a relatively limited cost given the reliance of most regional organizations on external finance—even if the rationale is not always clear to outsiders. That raises a challenge to the relatively limited scope of the AU summit.

Member states are the ultimate drivers of regional integration and cooperation. A shift in focus towards regional politics and their relation to national interests can shed light on why there are so many regional bodies, and why some work better than others.

History and politics matter

Regional cooperation and integration is an outcome of historical path dependencies, negotiation, bargaining and power games between and within states and between states and different regional organizations. Discussions about rationalization to avoid the overlap in membership and duplication of efforts often ignore why countries set up regional organizations in the first place. For instance, while members of UEMOA are also in ECOWAS, the two groupings have very different origins and levels of integration. ECOWAS is a customs union with both anglophone and francophone countries, while UEMOA is a monetary union of the West African francophone states. Consequently, the internal power balance and member state allegiances vary a lot. Nigeria dominates ECOWAS, accounting for 70% of its economy, giving it great ability to influence regional dynamics by promoting or blocking the bloc’s efforts. On the other hand, UEMOA states tend to speak with one voice in ECOWAS negotiations. While it aims for a full economic community with a common currency, ECOWAS has no mechanisms to ensure the primacy of its policies over those of UEMOA, often leading to tensions.

While they have inter-institutional meetings to improve convergence, UEMOA countries would have little to gain were the group subsumed into ECOWAS. Côte d’Ivoire for example would simply become a small fish in a bigger pond. Moreover, a common currency based on Nigeria’s oil-driven economy would mean importing petro-volatility, a 180 degree turn from the Euro-bound stability of the CFA franc. At the same time, it is also recognized that UEMOA needs ECOWAS for further economic integration, and this cannot be done without or against Nigeria. ECOWAS has also made progress on the security front as well as nudging its members towards a democratic path. Hesitant positions within UEMOA are thus more a reflection of their balancing act between competing choices.

Relevance of functional organisations

Although countries are members of multiple regional organizations, there are often frustrations with how these actually function, due to slow implementation or ineffectiveness. Political traction at the regional level is, to a large extent, determined by national interests. Moreover, the role of regional hegemons or swing states such as Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia can also be important in solving (or perpetuating) regional problems. While RECs tend to have comprehensive mandates including areas such as agriculture, industrial policy, trade facilitation, peace and security and so on, this does not automatically imply leadership, or major influence over decisions by member states in these areas. In many regions, cooperation has made more progress in some areas, notably conflict prevention and resource management, partly out of a sense of urgency, than in others such as trade, where there are lots of agreements but implementation is trickier.

Member states work with, or through, organizations that best represent their interests (however those might be defined). This includes (sub)regional bodies that fall outside the purview of the eight RECs or the other regional economic groups. For instance, transboundary water governance is exercised through river basin organizations. These are intergovernmental bodies with the single purpose of managing freshwater resources between countries that are part of a watershed. West Africa is home to several of these functional organizations. Among these is the OMVS (Organisation pour la mise en valeur du Fleuve Sénégal) which has joint ownership of key hydrological infrastructure with equitable distribution of costs and benefits and is by many considered a model for the management of transboundary resources. The wider REC (ECOWAS) has less influence over national positions on water and energy even if it has a regional water policy.

There is also the Lake Chad Basin Commission. While ostensibly created for joint management of water resources, it hosts the Multinational Joint Task Force, a joint military effort to combat the threat of terrorism posed by Boko Haram under the leadership of Nigeria. With member states split between ECOWAS and ECCAS, the Commission presents a useful cross-REC platform to discuss the issues of porous borders and security threats. Though outside the official framework of the eight RECs that are the preferred implementing agents of the African Union Peace and Security Architecture, this platform aims to address a specific regional problem or need.

Way forward?

Given the complex dynamics at play, it is important to accept the political economy—actors, interests and incentives—of regional integration, and the processes that shape national priorities, bargaining power and implementation. Pragmatism and improvised institutional arrangements may at times provide better solutions to regional problems than a normative position of what regional integration “ought to be,” i.e. an understandable form of subsidiarity, by working through the RECs in coordination with the AU.

It would be important to integrate broader regional dynamics into the discussions. Thematically focused continental meetings and regional learning may prove a more effective way to dig into the spaghetti bowl.

About the Author

Poorva is Karkare is Policy Officer at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), a think-tank based in Maastricht.

Bruce Byiers is a Head of Regional Integration at the Economic and Agricultural Transformation Program at the European Centre for Development Policy Management.

Further Reading