Regional organisations in Africa - Mapping multiple memberships

ECDPM has developed an interactive map to help you navigate the complex landscape of Regional Organisations in Africa. The following blog introduces this new tool.

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      Last week, Tunisia’s Prime Minister announced his country’s request to join ECOWAS, Economic Community of West African States. In the same speech, he also affirmed that Tunisia will join the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) next October, after being an observer since 2005, while the country is awaiting a response to its 2016 request to join the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). This follows the ‘agreement in principle’ for Morocco to join ECOWAS in June this year, six months after rejoining the African Union, and Mauritania’s similar request to rejoin the West African group after leaving in 2000.

      At one level, these moves are just a reflection of the ‘dead or zombie’ status of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), of which all three states have been members since 1989. Similarly, the activities of CEN-SAD, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, have faded since the Arab Spring and the crisis in Libya giving all the more reason to look elsewhere.

      But it also reflects wider regional cooperation dynamics taking place in Africa – while the rest of the world is apparently retreating from international cooperation, African countries seem to be moving in the opposite direction. The Tripartite FTA (TFTA) was launched in 2015 to combine the markets of COMESA, the EAC and SADC, while negotiations are currently ongoing for an even more ambitious Continental FTA (CFTA), due to be launched by the end of 2017.

      Further, the moves highlight what previous ECDPM research has highlighted before: regional integration processes are not only about geographical logic and formal statements but also about how interests and incentives play out on the ground.

      How does our interactive map work? This video explains.


      Different regions, different opportunities


      One consequence of this is the overlapping memberships of multiple organisations that characterise most African countries, now shown in this new interactive map of 39 African regional organisations developed by ECDPM.

      As that illustrates that if the above requests are accepted, Tunisia will be a member of seven, and Morocco of five regional organisations. Joining COMESA, ECOWAS and ECCAS would in theory connect Tunisia to 42 other African states. This would help keep up with neighbouring Morocco, whose trade with sub-Saharan Africa has risen from 2.3% of total trade in 2003 to 6.3% in 2013, while for Tunisia it was only 2,4% in 2015. It is therefore partly about markets, with businesses interested in entering Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon, but also an ambition to receive up to 20,000 students from the continent. Tunisia’s ambition also mirrors Egypt’s recent change in focus from the Middle East to ‘look south’ towards the markets offered by COMESA members.

      But as the map also shows, there is a whole range of other regional organisations of which countries are members and where politics are key. Egypt is a member of at least five African regional organisations, all of which together offer fora for diplomatic discussions around trade, water, and energy, not to mention the issues that can be raised on the margins of such fora.

      Click and discover our interactive map.


      The map lights up when one looks at the Democratic Republic of Congo with its membership of 14 organisations, or Burundi with 13, and Rwanda with 11. These high numbers may just reflect geography – those in the centre will always be on ‘the edge’ of other arbitrarily defined regional boundaries. But is that the only factor?

      Kenya’s membership in nine regional organisations rather reflects the different benefits that different regional communities can offer. COMESA allows Kenyan protection from dumping which cannot be done under the East Africa Community (EAC). That has been used to protect its sugar and wheat sectors. Its interests in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD are more related to peace and security in the Horn of Africa, rather than the economic agenda. Similarly, when Rwanda rejoined the Central African Economic Community ECCAS in 2013 after leaving in 2007 to focus on integration with the EAC it was less about economic integration than politics, peace and security.

      Critical observers also point to the incentives created by external financing of regional organisations: most are far more reliant on external funding than on member contributions. Multiple memberships therefore also multiplies the opportunities for projects and finance to be accessed, as well as personal benefits and patronage opportunities.

      Such external dependency and high levels of default on membership dues has motivated the African Union to consider a 0.2 per cent levy on all imports to cover a larger share of its expenses, a model which has worked to a degree for ECOWAS but less effectively in Central Africa, for example, and creates accumulation of levies for countries in several regions using the same tool.

      Multiple memberships may also simply be necessary given the multitude and complexity of the issues being addressed in some regions. Looking at the Horn of Africa, some find that it demands “not only a multilateral approach, but also an approach of multiple and overlapping multilateralisms”. With no single agreed regional peace and security forum, none plays “the uncontested role of custodian of norms, a forum for conflict management, and arbiter of disputes”. Multiple approaches may therefore also help balance power and interests.

      From policy to practice?


      Being a member of a regional organisation is one thing but progressing on regional commitments can be quite another. As such, knowing where the overlaps are is only a minor first step towards understanding why countries join multiple organisations.

      But if politics within countries can be understood, it may give clues to policymakers as to what to expect from different countries in different groupings. Further, as a past series of studies on the political economy of the African Union and five different Regional Economic Communities highlights, progress also depends on how politics play out between countries. That is, signing regional commitments sends a positive signal of intent but implementation often faces resistance.

      If Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania succeed in their ECOWAS membership bids, it will affect the current balance between the small UEMOA sub-group of francophone ECOWAS countries and the hegemony of Nigeria – some of the Nigerian press is already urging resistance, though some new members might also help Nigeria in sharing the ECOWAS financial burden.

      Whatever happens, the African integration story is far from simple, with policy choices and implementation shaped by geo- and national political calculations. Rather than agonising over the complexity of overlapping regional agreements, it may be more fruitful to focus on why countries seek membership in these different organisations in the first place, and how that might be used to achieve development outcomes.

      That is the agenda guiding ECDPM’s PEDRO project on the Political Economy Dynamics of Regional Organisations looking at the political economy of 17 different organisations. More to follow!

      The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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