Who is leading Africa?
By Stephanie Hanson
April 23, 2009


South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya are considered sub-Saharan Africa’s anchor states. Each country is the financial and infrastructure hub of its subregion, and each has played a robust role in regional peace and security. The United States has supported these states with the expectation that each would foster stability among its neighbors. Yet with all three embroiled in pressing domestic issues, questions about the utility of this strategy abound. Some experts say the anchor states will continue to play an active role in pan-African issues. Others see a worrying leadership vacuum. While states like Ghana and Tanzania show promise, such mid-sized countries have a hard time projecting influence beyond their immediate neighborhood. Experts agree the current situation bodes poorly for regional security issues and long-term economic growth but are sharply divided on what kind of policy the United States should pursue on the continent.

The Anchor States Turn Inward

South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya function as hubs in their subregions due to size of population, transportation and communications infrastructure, and financial markets. South African power plants provide much of southern Africa with electricity. Central African states draw their fuel from Kenya’s ports. Lagos, Nigeria’s sprawling commercial capital, is a burgeoning financial center. By virtue of their strong leaders, South Africa and Nigeria also have been instrumental in promoting continent-wide diplomatic initiatives. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki pushed for the establishment of NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, an initiative that aims to partner with developed countries on eradicating poverty and integrating Africa into the global economy. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo played an active role in peacekeeping on the continent, as well as the establishment of the African Union. Kenya has aided regional peace efforts, but primarily in neighboring states such as Sudan and Somalia.

All three countries are now preoccupied with internal concerns. South Africa’s Mbeki left office in 2008, and the succession battle within his African National Congress provoked the creation of a new political party, COPE, and intense domestic turmoil. Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua is seriously ill, and analysts say that as a result, the government has virtually come to a standstill. Meanwhile, armed groups in the Niger Delta continue to launch attacks against oil pipelines. “South Africa and Nigeria need time for internal reflection because previous presidents were very ambitious internationally,” says Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a British-based think tank. Kenya, which most experts say is the least powerful of the three hubs, is struggling to regain its footing following its disputed presidential elections in December 2007. Its power-sharing government is widely seen as weak and ineffective.

Some experts are concerned about the leadership void this leaves on the continent. “It’s a dilemma,” says CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Princeton N. Lyman, “We are going into a period where we don’t have a continent-wide heavyweight.” The political crisis in Kenya–which the head of the African Union, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and a group of elders led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan all attempted to mediate before a power-sharing government was formed–starkly illustrated this problem. African affairs scholar Raymond W. Copson, who teaches at George Washington University, points to the conflict in Darfur and the failure to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in South Sudan as other cases of failed leadership.

The African Union led peacekeeping operations in both Darfur and Somalia, but experts do not expect it to play a robust role in maintaining continental security going forward. It is a relatively young institution, as this Backgrounder explains, and its existing commitments have overstretched its administrative and financial capacities. Also, like any regional group, it is only as strong as its member states. “The African Union can’t substitute for good leadership within the African Union,” says Lyman. While there is some optimism about the body’s long-term potential, right now it still has trouble getting members to pay their dues, says Copson.

Subregional, Not Continental, Players

So where are the new leaders in Africa? Mid-sized countries like Ghana and Tanzania hold promise, but their clout pales in comparison to the anchor states. “Leadership follows in a pecking order,” says Robert I. Rotberg of Harvard University, “Nigeria and South Africa are the biggest and wealthiest countries around.” Experts agree that no matter how skilled the leader of a small country is, he or she will not be able to play the same role as one of the regional hubs. These small countries can’t deploy large peacekeeping contingents and have limited financial resources. As a result, they can play a positive role within their subregions, but it is unlikely they will emerge as continental leaders. They can also wield symbolic influence, by pushing for a stronger African Union or serving as role models in dealing with the West, says Lyman.

Experts count Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda among the ranks of a second tier of African leaders. Ghana is considered one of the best-governed countries in Africa and just finished a one-year term as head of the African Union. According to the World Bank, it is on track to exceed the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015. Tanzania ranks fourteenth out of nearly fifty countries on the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, and experts speak favorably of its president, Jakaya Kikwete. Ugandan President Museveni has adopted a forward-thinking HIV/AIDS policy, has supported peace activities in Sudan, and is the only country to send troops for the African Union peacekeeping operation in Somalia. However, he still faces the problem in his own country of brokering peace with the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north.

Experts say that Ethiopia could play a more significant role on the continent, but much of its military might is focused on maintaining its own security in relation to Somalia and Eritrea. It also must contend with a burgeoning insurgency in its eastern Ogaden region. There is a cadre of small but economically successful countries like Botswana and Malawi that could serve as role models, but experts say the larger countries do not view them as leaders, per se, and thus will not seek political advice from them.

If one thinks about leadership in a less direct way, however, these smaller countries may ultimately influence positive developments on the continent. Christopher Fomunyoh, senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit group that promotes good governance, suggests that Namibia’s independence in 1989 precipitated the end of apartheid in South Africa, and a 1991 national conference held in Benin to end one-party rule prompted similar actions across West and Central Africa.

The Need for Regional Economic Cooperation

The dearth of continental leadership has implications not just for regional peace and conflict resolution, but for long-term economic growth. Because so many African countries are small and landlocked, they rely on their coastal neighbors for market access. Without regional cooperation, these countries will never be able to create markets large enough to be competitive with the rest of the world. While most subregions have economic groups, these bodies have yet to prove themselves. The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, shows signs of cohesion, and the South African Development Community, SADC, has plans to develop a common market in southern Africa, but its reputation has been marred by its mediation failure in Zimbabwe. The East African Community was making encouraging progress, experts say, but Kenya’s political troubles will delay further regional integration efforts.

World Bank economist Harry Broadman says for business on the continent to become internationally competitive, regional solutions are needed for infrastructure and regulation. African businesses in different countries, he observes, are perfectly happy to seek advice from one another. “They will be one another’s best clients,” he says. But they need regional infrastructure to develop successfully. Such projects require political collaboration, however, and Africa’s political leaders are not as willing to work together. Broadman compares this situation, where economic and political interests are “bifurcated,” to the one that arose in the Balkans post-conflict. For instance, in southern Africa, Botswana and Zambia want to be as economically successful as South Africa. Although businesses among these countries collaborate, resentment of the political power of the South African government prevents public policy changes that would further economic integration.

African countries could also benefit from consulting one another on China’s activities in their countries, suggests Chatham House’s Vines, but this has yet to happen. In Angola, for example, China is building a railroad, but the Angolan government has no idea what kind of goods–if any–it will transport because it has not consulted with neighboring countries.

Bilateral or Regional: Options for the United States

The ambivalence African governments seem to feel toward regional cooperation is reflected in recommendations for U.S. policy toward the continent. Experts disagree sharply on the best course for the United States to pursue in Africa. Some, like Vines and Lyman, believe that focusing on the regional economic communities and the African Union is the best course of action. Strengthening the capacity of these institutions to implement their stated operating principles, which experts say are quite good, will strengthen regional cooperation and help spur economic development. Others, like Harvard’s Rotberg, view these groups as ineffective and instead advocate a bilateral approach. He suggests that the United States support the countries on the Ibrahim Index that are ranked just below the top ten to help them reduce corruption and strengthen good governance. For countries like Liberia, which ranks low on the index because it has recently emerged from conflict but has a strong, visionary leader, he thinks that one or two years of assistance would be useful, but the aid should have a clear time frame.

The United States already has a program, the Millennium Challenge Account, to award aid to countries that meet good governance measures. Many sub-Saharan countries have signed compacts or threshold agreements, which provide limited assistance to countries that do not yet qualify for compacts. Experts praise the program, but “unfortunately, Congress is not very happy with the Millennium Challenge Account,” says Lyman. Rotberg says the concept is good, but the execution has been “appalling.” The fate of this program under the Obama administration is unclear.

Another school of thought argues that the United States should invest its resources in supporting the anchor states, given their inevitable status as continental leaders. “There is no alternative but to keep on supporting the hubs and hoping for the best,” says Copson. Several experts suggest the United States should put more effort into assisting Nigeria with the security situation in the Niger Delta. One vehicle for such support might be the newly formed U.S. military command for Africa, Africom.

Whether the United States adopts bilateral or regional policies, experts caution against holding different countries to different standards. “There should be basic values on which the United States takes a consistent position,” says Fomunyoh. When the United States did not object to Uganda’s Museveni changing the constitution in 2005 and failed to criticize the flawed Nigerian elections in April 2007, this sent a signal to other African leaders that they too could abuse their leadership responsibilities. Kenya’s political crisis, he suggests, was a direct outgrowth of that belief.



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