Africa’s Questionable Expansion of Regional Political Organizations

Africa is noted for cooperation among its many countries. All African states belong to the African Union (AU), although four are currently suspended due to recent military coups (Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea). Owing in part to the AU, and its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, Africa has few conflicts among is internationally recognized sovereign states, although it has many conflicts within them. The AU defines Africa broadly, seeking to promote solidarity and cohesion across both the continent and the nearby island countries of the Atlantic and Indians oceans.

The African Union also seeks to promote economic growth and cooperation among its member states, mainly through on its ambitious New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). A cornerstone of NEPAD is the creation and strengthening of Regional Economic Communities (RECs), groups of neighboring countries designed to foster economic integration. In theory, such smaller organizations can cooperate more effectively than the union as a whole. The eight officially recognized RECs (mapped below) are described as the “building blocks” of the AU and its grand developmental vision. In addition, six other African political-economic blocks have not received official AU recognition. (Four of these unofficial groups are depicted in the final map in the series posted below; note that the Indian Ocean Commission also an includes France, which is not shown on the map, although two of its overseas departments, Mayotte and Réunion, are.)

Although economic cooperative among neighboring countries can help propel economic and social development, the utility of Africa’s RECs is questionable. Several of them continue to add new members, becoming unwieldly in the process. Overlap is now pronounced. Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that hardly manages to govern itself, now belongs to four of these “communities.” Barely functional Somalia belongs to three and has applied for membership in a fourth. Several of the RECs have expanded well beyond the regions that supposedly define them. Consider CEN-SAD: The Community of Sahel-Saharan States. As can be seen on the map posted below, its original members were all located in the Sahara-Sahel belt, a region faced with many similar environmental and economic challenges. But CEN-SAD now includes countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone that are far removed from the hyper-arid Sahara and the semi-arid Sahel located immediately south of the great desert.

The main problem with Africa’s regional-political approach to economic development is that it is relatively expensive and requires a lot of attention from governmental officials who might be better off focusing on domestic issues. Such complications are noted in several relevant Wikipedia articles. The one on the RECs mentions that “multiple and confusing membership creates duplication and sometimes competition in activities, while placing additional burdens on already over-stretched foreign affairs staff to attend all the various summits and other meetings.” The article on the New Partnership for Africa’s Development has more pointed wording:

More recently, NEPAD has also been criticised by some of its initial backers, including notably Senegalese President Abdoulaya Wade who accused NEPAD of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and achieving nothing. Like many other intergovernmental bodies, NEPAD suffers from slow decision-making, and a relatively poorly resourced and often cumbersome implementing framework. The great lack of information about the day-to-day activities of the NEPAD secretariat—the website is notably uninformative—does not help its case.

Creating such regional organizations is a tempting and understandable developmental strategy. Doing so makes it seem as if African leaders are deeply committed to peace, international cooperation, and economic betterment. But such a strategy can easily be overextended, with rapidly diminishing utility as the number of organizations and their geographical coverage increases. It would seem that such a situation has been reached in Africa.