Building capacity to help Africa trade better

From new regionalism to new regions: The pitfalls of thick regionalism in Africa


From new regionalism to new regions: The pitfalls of thick regionalism in Africa

by Daniel Bach, tralac Associate

Unlike what has happened in Asia, where the rise of ASEAN since the 1990s correlates with bottom up processes and an emphasis on ‘lean’ institutionalisation, the revival of regionalism has, in Africa, been essentially associated with ‘thick’ institutionalism and a dysfunctional dissociation between regionalism as a project and regionalisation as a de facto process.

Region-building in Africa has been constrained by the region’s attempts to emulate the European Union’s combination of institution-building and transfers of sovereignty. In Africa more than in any other region, regionalism focuses on the achievement of constitutionalised integration, sovereignty-pooling and a broadening of mandates so as to include issues of domestic or regional governance and peace-keeping. This approach is reflected in the adoption of ambitious agendas by the various regional economic communities (RECs), and also in the development of the African Union as a regional organisation endowed with a bold mandate for intervening in the affairs of its member states.

The translation of institution-building blueprints into institutionalisation processes has only met with limited success, however, due to resistance on the part of most African states to conceding any loss of sovereignty. Ambitious agendas are also severely constrained by the uneven ability or willingness of member states and their rulers to dissociate ‘public’ policies from private interests. While region-building in Europe has progressed through a (chequered) process of ‘constitutionalisation’ of integration, region-building in Africa remains associated with the dissemination of a culture of ‘thick institutionalism’ prone to bureaucratic expansion, despite the vacuum generated by delays in, or non-implementation of, the expected transfers of sovereignty.

As a result, region-building is characterised by a lack of congruence between the regionalist ambitions of the regional organisations, and ‘regionalisation’, shaped by processes and interactions that do not necessarily correlate to regionalist projects. Characteristically, while informal trade flows and other, often illicit, trans-state interactions, have flourished in many parts of the continent, formal intra-regional trade levels remain relatively low and the integration of markets and policies in most of the RECs is still embryonic.

There is no doubt that region-building in Africa is more dynamic than it was a decade ago, thanks largely to improved governance in sub-Saharan Africa and a greater capacity to generate sustainable public policies. Increased engagement with the global economy has also been creating fresh incentives to ‘defragment’ and consolidate African markets beyond existing borders and barriers. Among the eight RECs, the East African Community (EAC) can claim special status due to significant progress with respect to the convergence between regionalism and regionalisation. The EAC’s achievements, build upon lessons learnt from the failure of earlier integration experiments, the emergence of the region as a ‘social and cognitive entity’, and its treatment as a ‘common good’ by member states.

The EAC is a reminder that there is potential for effective region-building in Africa. Current depictions of Africa as an ‘emerging’ continent also proceed from the assumption that the continent is ready for a process of ‘defragmentation’ and region-building in conjunction with bottom up and investment driven agendas At a time when the European integration experiment is coming under significant strain, sticking to a model that, in any case, was never truly accepted in Africa is both costly and counterproductive. Unless the propensity to equate ‘new’ regionalism with thick institutionalism is reconsidered, African countries may simply end up following a path that diverges from the pattern whereby, as in many parts of the world, new regionalism is the vehicle for the rise of new regions.


This note is based on a presentation on “The trajectory of ‘new’ regionalism in Africa” given by Professor Daniel Bach, a tralac Associate based at the University of Bordeaux, in November 2011 at a conference on regional integration held by the Consortium for Comparative Research on Regional Integration and Social Cohesion (RISC) in Rustenburg, South Africa.

More of Professor Bach’s work can be accessed at http://www.centredurkheim.fr/PagesCV/Bach_bis.html.


Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Tel +27 21 880 2010