The conventional wisdom is that Africa is at the periphery of international affairs, and the perpetual subject – or victim – of decisions by powerful political or economic actors from outside the continent. The argument then goes on that the diversity of African countries, their atomization and fragmentation, further weakens the ability of the continent to act as a unified whole. As with much cliché about Africa, it does not tell the whole story.
Soft vs hard power
There is no denying that the structure of international affairs, built on foundations which preceded the independence of the vast majority of African states, places limits on the continent’s ability to independently shape the course of its development and its international engagements. African countries lack the hard power that would typically allow them to be bolder in the global scene.
But Africa has long found softer approaches to exercise its agency, through international institutions and diplomatic arrangements. The collective mobilization at the level of the UN, leading up to the successful 1969 declaration by the General Assembly of apartheid as a crime against humanity, is a good example of early post-independence collective influence.
The last two decades have further empowered African countries, as economic development has been translated into increased diplomatic capacity, and socioeconomic potential has given weight to a more assertive leadership.
There are many examples, including: the successful integration of African priorities in the Sustainable Development Goals, notably financing for development; the push to include a substantial climate financing component for developing countries in the Paris Agreement; enhanced coordination between African non-permanent members of the UN Security Council; the condemnation of the International Criminal Court; or the solid resistance to reversals of the Doha Round at the World Trade Organization.
A fragmented unity?
It is also correct to note that individual African countries are quite diverse. Today, there are 55 member states of the African Union (AU); 30 are middle income economies with the rest towards the bottom of various indexes measuring progress and wellbeing. Socioeconomic and political divergences undeniably exist within the continent. But these factors have not prevented the continent from demonstrating some impressive feats of collective agency.
The internal processes put in place by the AU have created a level of continental diplomacy which is more coordinated than any other continental block bar the EU. African countries have also proved adept at using other diplomatic alliances to exercise collective agency, for instance as the most powerful voice within the G77, a coalition of developing nations.
This has allowed Africa to build tactical alliances with countries and blocs from across the globe, resisting being drawn into any one sphere of influence. It has thus retained ultimate control of decision-making, even on issues of traditional ‘hard’ politics, notably the establishment of the African Peace and Security Architecture and the subsequent building of African capacity to collectively manage its peace and security efforts.
Among other things, this collective political will has powered African opposition to a formal permanent presence of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) and helped resolve conflicts from West Africa to Zimbabwe and Lesotho.
Another extraordinary example of collective political resistance can be observed in the trade discussions taking place between Africa and Europe. The EU is Africa's number-one trading partner. It designed and aggressively promoted new bilateral economic partnership agreements (EPAs) at a time when Africans were busy putting together a continental free-trade area. The apparent imbalance between the collective weight of the EU and the weakness of African states seemed likely to end African aspirations to continental integration.
But, to the surprise of many, the majority of African countries were able to resist pressure to sign the EPAs. Almost 20 years into the negotiations, only 15 countries have signed them, with 5 of these being interim agreements. Comparatively, 54 African countries signed the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement in 2018, and 28 have so far ratified.
The ongoing debate between Europe and Africa on migration is an equally useful illustration of how the continent has become more protective of its interests. Despite pressure, the continent has collectively resisted attempts to externalize the EU’s internal migration management challenges to Africa. Rather, it has emphasized finding solutions that would also benefit its nationals through a mobility framework that privileges the management of intra-Africa migration.
Diversity and unity
There are of course different levels of agency at work. The power of African countries is uneven both vis-à-vis the international community and within the continent itself, where development pathways are increasingly divergent. Achieving collective positions and joint action demands the careful balancing of regional and bilateral objectives and assuaging multiple – and sometimes contradictory – concerns. It is not easy in Africa, like for any other region.
However, there is no denying that Africans have realized the need for bolder action in the international arena, and the importance of unity in achieving their goals. The call by Africa’s leaders for the reform of their continental organization, the AU, demonstrates their recognition of its current limitations. This must now go beyond good intentions.
Professor Carlos Lopes, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme, Chatham House.
This article is the first of a series on African agency in international affairs.