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The diversity of African regionalisms


Bach, D. 2016. The diversity of African regionalisms. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 4. July/August 2016

The diversity of African regionalisms remains largely overlooked. Far from being of marginal significance, what is at stake within regional groupings and across the borders of the continent helps to make sense of dynamics that are truly global.

Britain’s recent vote for ‘Brexit’ brutally signalled that European construction is not immune to disintegrative effects. Since the early 1990s, the surge of increasingly diversified forms of regionalism has also been calling for the broadening of conceptual tools and monitoring processes. Yet, in Africa as elsewhere, policy-makers and scholars remain all too often prone to focus on the degree of emulation, implementation and legitimation of the European Union’s (EU) so-called magic institutional mix between inter-governmentalism and supranationalism. Other scholars already complained in the late 1970s that while regionalism kept expanding across the world, research in the field was dominated by theoretical language drawn from the European experience. A few decades later, the throes of European construction and the diversity of African regionalisms constitute a firm invitation to treat the EU as one among several paths to region-building. Five threads (or strands) help to make sense of the interplay between regionalism (as a project), regionalisation (as a process) and region-building (as an outcome) in Africa.

The resilience of colonial legacies

Colonial rule in Africa (as in Latin America and the Middle East) was as much about partition as about region-building. Africa’s first economy, Nigeria, was ‘amalgamated’ into a single entity by the British colonial administration in 1914. The process was decided in London and implemented without any consultation of the population, a casual expression of the obsession of all European powers with cutting down the cost of managing their respective empires. Accordingly, federal or quasi-federal entities were established in West (Nigeria, French West Africa), Central (French Equatorial Africa, Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) and East Africa (East Africa High Commission). These Federations, highly contested by nationalists, were generally dismantled at the time of independence, but the legacy of ‘amalgamation’ policies and politics lingered on through ambivalent representations of regional integration and (especially in former British settler colonies) federalism.

Africa’s two integrated regional organisations, the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and the CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine) currency zone (West and Central Africa) are tangible expressions of these legacies. They account for the only cases of regional groupings that effectively involve transfers of sovereignty. The genealogy of these integration schemes is, at the same time, asymptomatic since integration does not result from transfers of sovereign competencies to supranational institutions, but from the member states’ endorsement of pre-existing arrangements at the time of independence. This means that most member states of the CFA zone and SACU never had the opportunity to operate as fully sovereign states in the areas that are today subjected to pooling. Integration also operates on an hegemonic mode: the stability of the CFA currency zone is still guaranteed by the French Treasury, while, within SACU, it is South Africa that, as in the past, dominates and stabilises what is in effect the oldest working customs union in the world.

Club diplomacy and regime consolidation

A recent survey of Africa’s regional organisations observed that their efficiency heavily depends on the state of inter-personal relations between Heads of States who are often prone to act as individuals rather than as representatives of a political system. The emphasis of African regional organisations on summitry, the pursuit of club diplomacy and regime consolidation are neither new nor unique to the continent. In South-East Asia, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was originally established in 1967 in order to mitigate tensions between member states. In Latin America, the impulse towards the establishment of the Mercado Común del Sur (MERCOSUR) came from the concerns of Brazil and Argentina about (democratic) regime consolidation. The issue was equally central to the dynamics that, in Southern and Central Europe, led to applications for membership of the EU in the wake of transitions away from authoritarian regimes. In Africa, non intervention into the domestic affairs of member states, sovereignty enhancement and (democratic or authoritarian) regime consolidation similarly provided the foundations of most of the regional groupings that emerged in the aftermath of independence. Accordingly, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the sub-regional groupings established in accordance with the Lagos Plan of Action (1981) became key arenas for the expression of African agency in international relations. Overlapping membership, often stigmatised as the bane of African regionalism, turned out to be perfectly suited to meet such goals. It is only since the mid-2000s that multiple memberships have become the source of intractable problems whenever regional economic communities (RECs) undertake to deepen their integration through the transformation of free trade agreements (FTAs) into mutually exclusive Common External Tariffs (CETs) of their Customs Unions (CUs).

Regionalisation without region-building

The limited achievements of regional groupings in the field of integration are often contrasted with the integrative power of (so-called informal) cross-border network-led interactions. A related assumption is that these ought to be tapped in order to stimulate regionalisation at grass-roots level. This overlooks that cross-border flows thrive from the association of porous boundary-lines with monetary, fiscal, tariff and normative opportunities embedded in distinctive sovereignty regimes and macro-economic policies. For the players involved this means fearing the adverse effects of the closure of borders (for instance as a result of military tensions between neighbouring states), but also of a drive towards integration that would result in the establishment of a common customs union.

The 1970s and 1980s were a golden age for the group of West African states (Benin, Niger, The Gambia and Togo) that managed to turn boundaries with their immediate neighbours into valuable resources for public and private operators. Public support to ‘re-export’ trade (stigmatised as smuggling by neighbouring Nigeria or Senegal) boosted the ability of cross-border players to negotiate the goodwill of officers, bureaucrats and politicians on each side of the border. Today, the economies of West Africa’s so-called warehouse states would still have much to lose from intra-regional trade liberalisation agendas. Re-exportation, noted a candid observer in the 1990s, “forbids that these small countries play the game of a large market within which it would no longer be possible to preserve pre-existing fiscal incentives”. It is paradoxically where cross-border integration appears deeply established that institutionalisation is most resisted.

In Central Africa, network-led cross-border interactions have grown along with the instrumentalisation of violence and insecurity. In eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and, more recently in North Eastern Nigeria and the Sahel, the exploitation of the edge effects of the frontier builds upon situations of governance without government. The rise of trans-state networks breeds specific patterns of regionalisation that cut across domestic and international frontiers and penetrate (or even take control) state bureaucraties.

Mental maps and holistic agendas

Dominant perceptions of African regionalism are informed by the broad movement that led to the revision of most of the founding charters and treaties of Africa’s regional groupings during the 1990s. The process went along with the endorsement of bold regional institutional briefs and architectures. The Abuja Plan of Action (1991) set the overarching framework towards the establishment of a quasi-federal African Economic Community (AEC) by 2028. Following the adoption of a new African Union Constitutive Act in 2001, a new regional peace and security architecture was entrusted with the enforcement of a collective and proactive commitment to rule of law and good governance.

The advocacy of a supranational and federal path towards a stronger and more competitive Africa was strongly influenced by aspirations to a refoundation of the goals and ideals of pan-Africanism, the oldest and most preeminent form of expression of African regionalism. Fresh attention was now being paid to what Pan-Africanism should mean for ordinary Africans, as opposed to their leaders, a movement designed to seal the renaissance of continental ambitions and agendas. The experience of the EU featured in this context as the model best suited to fulfil plans towards the establishment of an AEC. At a time when import substitution industrialisation (ISI) policies and developmentalist agendas were being shelved by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC/CEPAL) in Latin America, the EU showed a unique capacity to reconcile successful integration within the world economy with socially motivated policy concerns.

Pan-African ambitions to establish an integrated region through the combination of sovereignty pooling with holistic agendas were given a new boost in the early 2000s, with the establishment of the consolidated list of eight RECs the regional groupings formally defined by the (O)AU as building blocs for the AEC. Two decades and a half later, however, transfers of sovereignty are yet to materialise. The emulation of the EU model has also come under growing criticism, as the quest for developmental regionalism tends to focus on the individual capacity of states to adopt and implement (smart) public policies.

Defragmentation and connectivity

Defragmentation has become a shortcut for the revival of functionally driven projects, especially in the field of (hard and soft) infrastructure development. Along with the establishment of an enabling business environment within states, innovation tied to the spread of cell phones and financial networks (the M-pesa syndrome) simultaneously boost technological leapfrogging and transborder integration.

These trends echo the dissemination of the concept deep integration, or 21st century regionalism (as characterised by Richard Baldwin), associated with the negotiation of free trade agreements that range from mega-regional agreements (such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – TTIP) to bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs). The distinctive rationale for this new thread of regionalism rests in the removal of non-tariff and regulatory barriers, a response to the formation of global value chains (GVCs) associated with the rise of intra-firm trade and services between multinationals and their affiliates.

In Africa, negotiations towards Tripartite and Continental Free Trade Agreements (TFTA and CFTA) picked up in the late 2000s, at a time when interaction with the European Commission over the conclusion of economic partnership agreements (EPAs) was particularly tense. The RECs were also subjected to increasing criticism due to their (stalled) endorsement of the EU’s (so-called) ‘linear’ approach to integration. Negotiations towards free trade agreements, like the notion of defragmentation, infer a dilution of the frontiers between national, regional and global integration.

The five distinctive threads that we have identified allow us to make sense of the dynamics at play within institutions and across borders. These distinctive strands also point to broader and cross-regional dynamics. They are a reminder that the world of regions is also a world of regionalisms.

About the author


Prof. Daniel C. Bach is Director of Research Emeritus of the CNRS (Emile Durkheim Centre) and Professor at Sciences Po Bordeaux.


1. Axline, A.W. 1977. Underdevelopment, Dependence and Integration: The Politics of Regionalism in the Third world, International Organization, 36, 1, p. 83.

2. Bach, D.C. 2016. Regionalism in Africa. Genealogies, Institutions and Trans-state Networks, Abingdon: Routledge.

3. Bossuyt, J. 2015. The Political Economy of Regional Integration in Africa: The Economic Community of West African States. Maastricht: ECDPM.

4. Igué, J.O. 1995. Le territoire et l’Etat en Afrique: les dimensions spatiales du développement, Paris: Karthala, p. 184.


Photo: Cross-border trade, DRC/Rwanda border. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 4  (July/August 2016).

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Economic Transformation and TradeRegional IntegrationRegional Economic Communities (RECs)Africa

External authors

Daniel C. Bach