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GREAT insights Magazine

Whose Regionalism in Africa?

November 2012

Söderbaum, F. 2012. Whose regionalism in Africa? GREAT Insights, Volume 1, Issue 9. November 2012. Maastricht: ECDPM

The majority of academics and policy analysts are overly idealistic about the potential of state-led regional cooperation. This line of thought is particularly strong in the debate about African regional organizations. Indeed, African regionalism is often seen as beneficial and an instrument for achieving socio-economic development and more recently also for security provision and good governance. Integral part of such idealism is the belief that the rather modest results achieved during the last five decades of regionalism in Africa can first and foremost be explained by unfavourable external conditions or a lack of institutional capacity to implement agreed policies (either within African organizations or at the national level). 

The fundamental problem with the idealistic view is that it crowds out less sanguine and less politically correct assessments. As a brief contribution to a more balanced debate this commentary offers alternative answers to some basic but crucial questions: who is regionalism for and why is there such weak implementation in Africa’s regional integration schemes? 

Symbolic regionalism

It is commonly understood that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in important regards was a mere ‘talk-shop’. Rhetorical and symbolic diplomacy can of course be relevant, and the positive effects of the OAU, for instance, in the fight against colonialism and apartheid should not be ignored. Yet, the OAU’s primary characteristic was not implementation of agreed policies, and a similar discursive logic has been institutionalized in many regional organisations on the continent. Indeed, most political leaders in Africa frequently engage in symbolic and discursive activities, whereby they praise the goals of regionalism and regional organization, sign cooperation treaties and agreements, but with only sporadic implementation. 

‘Summitry’ has become part of such discursive and symbolic regionalism. The summits of heads of states of the main intergovernmental regional organizations, such as the African Union (AU), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), are gigantic events where the political leaders can show to the world and their citizenry that they are promoting the cause of African regional cooperation and at the same time show that their ‘state’ is important (or at least ‘visible’) on the international diplomatic scene. These summits and conferences are crucial elements in a discursive and even imaginary construction of regional organizations, and this social practice is then repeated and institutionalized at a large number of ministerial and other meetings, which in reality involves little debate and no wider consultation within or between member states. 

Many civil society organisations in Africa are critical of these discursive and rhetorical practices. For instance, the Southern African Peoples Solidarity Network states that “the governments of our countries have for long mainly engaged in rhetorical declarations … with few effective achievements; [they] are at the same time, committed to supporting and defending each … and are using SADC as a self-serving ‘old boys’ club’ for such mutual support.” (1)

As already mentioned, discursive practices are not necessarily malign. Speech acts may be intimately connected with diffusion of ideas, norms and identities, which appear to be integral part of more or less all multi-purpose regional integration projects around the world. The argument raised here is that symbolic regionalism has become chronic African and that it is used as image-boosting instrument whereby leaders can show support and loyalty for each other, which enables them to raise the profile, status, formal sovereignty and image of their (often authoritarian) regimes, but without ensuring implementation of agreed policies. As Jeffrey Herbst correctly points out, “African leaders are extremely enthusiastic about particular types of regional cooperation, especially those that highlight sovereignty, help secure national leaders, and ask little in return.” (2) ) Importantly, this logic should not necessarily be understood as a ‘failure’ of regional cooperation. From the point of view of the political leaders, such discursive practices can be a rational and well-calculated strategy of non-implementation. Those who idealistically (even naively) believe that regional institutions are designed in order to implement agreed goals and solve collective action dilemmas will fail to understand the underlying logic of such practices. 

The overlapping membership of regional organizations on the African continent has been debated for several decades. The seemingly ineffective overlap is often taken as an indicator of a poor political commitment to regional cooperation. However, considering that the overlap is such a distinctive feature of African regional organizations, surprisingly few scholars try to answer for what purpose and in whose interest the overlap actually prevails. Part of the answer may be that the maintenance of a large number of competing and overlapping intergovernmental regional organization is deliberate in order to increase the possibilities for rhetorical and discursive regionalism. One related hypothesis in need of further research is that weak political regimes are particularly prone to such behaviour and may search for as many arenas as possible to satisfy their quest for formal status and recognition. 

Symbolic regionalism appears to be tied to the supposedly specific characteristics of the African state and their insertion in the global order. Yet, the role of procedures, symbols, ‘summitry’, and other rhetorical and discursive practices appear strongly also in other regions both in the present era and throughout history, and they are by no means unique to Africa. For example, the Arab League is undoubtedly a project shaped and surrounded by rhetoric, perhaps even more than many African regional organizations. The Bolivarian project of regionalism pushed by Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, is first and foremost an anti-liberal and anti-American project. Even if there is ‘implementation’ and achievements in some specific sectors, such as oil, gas and health, the ideological and counter-hegemonic component is clearly its fundament. Likewise, it is difficult to dispute the fact that rhetoric and symbols played an important role in the Soviet-led Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Discursive practices and symbolism have also played a role in EU. Historically, some EU member states have used Europe to legitimate their political regimes (mirroring the African pattern) while others have used Euro-scepticism for similar aims. Lastly, EU summitry regionalism may possibly even outcompete the AU. 

Shadow regionalism

It is undisputed that many parts of Africa are characterized by myriad of informal and non-institutional interactions and activities between a mosaic of informal workers and self-employed agents, families, business networks, petty traders, migrant labour, refugees, and so forth. However, these practices should not only be seen as a way for poor people to survive, but are also linked to the informalization of politics and patronage.

The concept of the ‘shadow state’ was developed by William Reno in order to refer to a particular type of state where corrupt politicians were sheltered by the formal façade of political power based upon informal markets (3) . There is a strong transnational dimension of these informal activities, which can also enhance our understanding of informal regional activities. Building on Reno’s concept, ‘shadow regionalism’ suggests that regime actors use their power positions within the state apparatus in order to erect a complex mode of regionalism, characterised by informality and a search for personal gain. 

As Daniel Bach points out, shadow [“trans-state”] regionalism grows from below and is built upon rent-seeking or the stimulation of patron-client relationships. These types of shadow networks are inherently inequitable and extremely uneven. They accumulate power and resources at the top, to the rich and powerful, and those who have jobs, rather than to the unemployed, the urban poor, and rural producers. Small-scale cross-border traders have a disadvantage since the economies of scale are “only for those who can pay the necessary bribes.”(4)

Shadow activities undermine the regulatory capacity of the state and its promoters may actively seek to preserve existing boundary disparities (e.g. customs, monetary, fiscal and normative). Consequently, when political leaders resist formal regionalism, this may very well be a deliberate strategy to maintain the status quo in order to not disrupt shadow activities. 

The profits involved in shadow networks are considerable. The attempts to restrict shadow and similar ‘trans-state’ informal flows in Africa have often been unsuccessful, because agents are often able to adjust to new circumstances. In the current African context where the state apparatus itself offers less opportunity for private accumulation and where formal barriers between countries have been reduced, shadow regionalism stems no longer only from the exploitation of existing border disparities. Instead it has expanded to more criminal activities, such as new trades in illicit drugs, including heroin, mandrax and cocaine, arms, light weapons and other merchandise of war. Shadow networks may even be actively involved in the creation and promotion of war and conflict, as seen in the more turbulent parts of Africa, especially West Africa, Central Africa and the Great Lakes region. 

Shadow regionalism does not occur just everywhere, but tends to exist where patron-client relationships are the strongest. What is particularly disturbing is that it appears that even a small number of ‘shadow agents’ may block or even destroy egalitarian forms of development and regional organizations. 

Finally, given that both patronage and informal markets exist all over the world, it needs to be emphasized that there is no reason at all to believe that shadow regionalism is restricted to Africa. The failure by regional integration scholars to discuss these and other clandestine effects (in Africa as well as other regions) result from exaggerated idealism, which in turn leads to a failure to design more appropriate and relevant regionalization strategies. 

Fredrik Söderbaum is Associate Professor in the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg and an Associate Senior Research Fellow of the United Nations University-Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS) in Bruges, Belgium. He can be reached at

1. SAPSN, ‘Making Southern African Development Cooperation and Integration a People-centered and People-driven Regional Challenge to Globalisation’, Declaration to the Governmental Summit of SADC, Windhoek 1-7 August 2000, p. 1.
2. Jeffrey Herbst (2007), ‘Crafting regional cooperation in Africa’, in Amitav Acharya and Alastair Johnston (eds), Crafting Cooperation. Regional International Institutions in Comparative Perspective (London: Oxford University Press), p. 144.
3. William Reno, Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). 
4. Daniel Bach (1998), ‘Regionalism versus regional integration: the emergence of a new paradigm in Africa’ in Jean Grugel and Wil Hout (eds.), Regionalism Across the North-South Divide. State Strategies and Globalization. (London: Routledge), p. 162.

This article was published in Great Insights Volume 1, Issue 9 (November 2012)


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Fredrik Söderbaum