Making sense of regional integration in Africa

done without or against Nigeria. ECOWAS has also made progress on the security front as well as nudging its members towards a democratic path. Hesitant positions within UEMOA are thus more a reflection of their balancing act between competing choices.

Relevance of functional organisations

Although countries are members of multiple regional organizations, there are often frustrations with how these actually function, due to slow implementation or ineffectiveness. Political traction at the regional level is, to a large extent, determined by national interests. Moreover, the role of regional hegemons or swing states such as Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia can also be important in solving (or perpetuating) regional problems. While RECs tend to have comprehensive mandates including areas such as agriculture, industrial policy, trade facilitation, peace and security and so on, this does not automatically imply leadership, or major influence over decisions by member states in these areas. In many regions, cooperation has made more progress in some areas, notably conflict prevention and resource management, partly out of a sense of urgency, than in others such as trade, where there are lots of agreements but implementation is trickier.

Member states work with, or through, organizations that best represent their interests (however those might be defined). This includes (sub)regional bodies that fall outside the purview of the eight RECs or the other regional economic groups. For instance, transboundary water governance is exercised through river basin organizations. These are intergovernmental bodies with the single purpose of managing freshwater resources between countries that are part of a watershed. West Africa is home to several of these functional organizations. Among these is the OMVS (Organisation pour la mise en valeur du Fleuve Sénégal) which has joint ownership of key hydrological infrastructure with equitable distribution of costs and benefits and is by many considered a model for the management of transboundary resources. The wider REC (ECOWAS) has less influence over national positions on water and energy even if it has a regional water policy.

There is also the Lake Chad Basin Commission. While ostensibly created for joint management of water resources, it hosts the Multinational Joint Task Force, a joint military effort to combat the threat of terrorism posed by Boko Haram under the leadership of Nigeria. With member states split between ECOWAS and ECCAS, the Commission presents a useful cross-REC platform to discuss the issues of porous borders and security threats. Though outside the official framework of the eight RECs that are the preferred implementing agents of the African Union Peace and Security Architecture, this platform aims to address a specific regional problem or need.

Way forward?

Given the complex dynamics at play, it is important to accept the political economy—actors, interests and incentives—of regional integration, and the processes that shape national priorities, bargaining power and implementation. Pragmatism and improvised institutional arrangements may at times provide better solutions to regional problems than a normative position of what regional integration “ought to be,” i.e. an understandable form of subsidiarity, by working through the RECs in coordination with the AU.

It would be important to integrate broader regional dynamics into the discussions. Thematically focused continental meetings and regional learning may prove a more effective way to dig into the spaghetti bowl.