Region-Building in Africa: Political and Economic Challenges (1)

Reviewed in: South African Journal of International Affairs, 14 August 2017

Region-building in Africa: Political and economic challenges, , edited by Daniel H. Levine and Dawn Nagar, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 348 pp., UD$105 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-137-58610-0

Since its political independence, Africa has been rife with projects to achieve regional and continental integration. Every decade has seen dozens of new regional acronyms being created, from specialised agencies to all-encompassing institutions. The question as to what this plethora of organisations has achieved is thus as relevant as ever, and Levine and Nagar have attempted to address it with the edited volume Region-building in Africa: Political and economic challenges.

The book is substantial and constitutes a relevant reference point for the pan-African intelligentsia dealing with regionalism. Nineteen renowned authors provide contributions although, from the outset, it is striking that most are not based in Africa and only four are women (two of them providing chapters on non-African regions).

The structure of the book follows a conventional thread, starting with a conceptual section before moving to two empirical sections (one thematic, one geographic), and finishing off with a section on lessons from other world regions. The 19 chapters cover many central aspects of regionalism in Africa — although a number present a pot pourri of thoughts, with limited coherence and engagement with the political economy in Africa — and readers will find no shortage of evidence that regional organisations are struggling to make a difference for the continent's citizens.

The book holds particular value for readers looking for themes fuelling debates on regionalism in Africa. Postgraduates and regional policymakers will find dispersed but relevant insights into several contentious aspects: the schools of thoughts, the economic challenges and the institutionalisation of regional organisations.

A few chapters stand out, providing the individual quality lacking on the overarching level. For instance, the chapters by Louise Fawcett, Daniel Bach, Laura Gómez-Mera and Samuel Asante provide succinct and insightful summaries for those who have not yet been exposed to their voluminous works. Particularly worth reading is the chapter by René Lemarchand, which offers a relentless account of the political economy of Central Africa as a region. He brings the focus back to why regional integration has not worked in the first place. Recommendations made elsewhere to improve the efficiency of economic policies seem far-fetched once one has read his excellent dissection of the actual purposes of regional organisations.

However, the book has in common with African regionalism the fact that it comprises unsolved antagonisms. The editors seem unable to decide whether trade liberalisation and similar policies should be lambasted or seen as an objective to be achieved. Their understanding of regionalism remains fuzzy and often seems reduced to infrastructure and import-substituted industrialisation, without seriously engaging with the diverse reasons that contributed to their magnificent failure in past decades. The 'ideal form of integration' and the production of 'effective regions' remain catchphrases that lack substance.

Similarly, the editors are unable to develop a coherent and convincing stance vis-à-vis supra-nationalism, which is either seen as a damaging EU model or as a requisite to successful regionalism by means of sanctions and institutional autonomy. Whenever the EU model is denounced as being inappropriate for Africa, one wonders whether the authors assume it has been seriously applied on the continent or whether they engage in a pan-African phantom debate — especially when the lack of European pillars such as solidarity and freedom of movement is lamented.

The editors tend to present the relationship with the EU as one-sided, blending out African agency — in particular, how extraversion, opportunism and national egoisms on the African side have contributed to regional fragmentation. In a similar vein, to argue that state corruption might not be such an issue for developmental regionalism because it also exists in Asia, as one editor suggests (p. 320), sounds strikingly apologetic, particularly for a book stemming from a South African institution (the Centre for Conflict Resolution).

Meanwhile, the reader is overwhelmed by the number of organisations, agencies and authorities that have been created by African states, often without being able to properly discern the reasons for their existence, given the perpetual lack of public resources and their often negligible effect. Astonishingly for a pan-Africanist book, the Southern African Customs Union — the hidden star of a chapter intended to cover the Southern African Development Community and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa — is presented as a model for other regions. This is surprising given its strong imperial (some might say neo-colonial) character and its exclusion from the Abuja Treaty establishing the African Economic Community.

As is alas often the case in edited volumes, the section on comparative lessons (Section 4) remains an unfulfilled promise. Comparison is restricted to occasional side references without serious engagement on transfers to Africa, despite a section title promising to do so. The European chapter provides tentative suggestions for Africa, but if the name 'Africa' had been replaced with, say, 'Latin America', it would read the same. The Asian chapter does not mention Africa at all, let alone explain how its account of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is relevant to Africa. The Latin America chapter has the most systematic approach to comparison, but it also struggles to produce new insights. It is thus not surprising that the editors fail to guide the reader on what 'lessons' to make 'for Africa', and on how to resolve antagonisms such as whether overlapping regionalisms are a bane or just pragmatic.

The aspirant pan-Africanism of the book unfortunately often follows a narrow and deterministic understanding of the term, which ignores the more innovative alternatives Fawcett presents in her chapter, or the lessons Piers Ludlow draws in his. Although the importance of informal transborder regionalism is stressed in several parts of the book, the framing chapters fail to seriously address this and show how it is at odds with formal government-led projects. The state-centric understanding of regionalism seems difficult to let go of, which may be consequential when considering that many countries have no proper private sector as envisaged by integration scholars.

On the bright side, the malignant side of regionalism is acknowledged unquestioningly, which helps the book strike a balance between Afro-optimism and pessimism. In this sense, the book's most important contribution lies in outlining the promising avenues pan-African intellectuals can take to explain the limits and the failures of regionalism on the continent.

Frank Mattheis
Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation, University of Pretoria, South Africa

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