Re-imagining Africa: What if big states did better?

Currently neither South Africa nor Nigeria are anywhere near their constructive potential as swing states. Kenya is doing much better in one critical respect, but it too is beset by grave challenges.

22 January 2016 ·   9 min read

Re-imagining Africa: What if big states did better?


See South Africa's vital signs

Explore now
World map

Swing states in Africa cannot act as a stabilising force in their region if they, themselves, suffer from major internal conflict and violent divisions; instead they become exporters of insecurity. They also cannot galvanise regional or continental consensus around the key issues of our time if they are not acknowledged as leading nations, which represent and advance certain shared values and interests.

Imagine an Africa where its best performers are its most powerful states. It’s not easy but you should try. For many years the best performing states in Africa have been tiny. Atop the list of most major human development rankings are Seychelles, Mauritius and the “big” one of the lot, Botswana. After the latter two, puny Cape Verde is the best governed, according to Mo Ibrahim. Of the top five countries ranked by per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Botswana is the largest by population at just over two million. That’s about one-tenth the size of Lagos.

Apart from all the benefits accruing to their own people – they are usually safer, healthier, richer and better ruled than other Africans – Africa’s smallest states have not had much impact beyond their borders. The countries that really matter are hefty ones – the swing states. Such states can generate substantial political and economic effects – positive or negative – in their region and continent in ways that smaller states typically cannot. That’s why their performance bears particular attention. Think the United States, Japan, Germany. Being a swing state is partly a function of size but, it also relates to relative diplomatic and economic power, and geography.

Since independence, Africa’s swing states have not done very well. Their large territories and populations amplified the herculean challenges faced by the first generation of post-independence African leaders. Notwithstanding their own failings, none could have been prepared to manage relations between the fragmented ethnic groups perilously bequeathed into their new states by colonial rule. At the same time, basic economics would suggest that big states have inherent advantages in creating economies of scale and lower costs of trade. But for various reasons Africa’s larger states perennially disappoint. Thus we rarely consider how different the continent would look if the reverse were true.

That was the challenge put to a number of senior officials and analysts from three swing states in Africa – Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – brought together by the Brenthurst Foundation and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung for a roundtable last year. To dare to imagine “what if”…

  • Kenya’s economic dynamism translated into a GDP per-capita the same as that of Mauritius, which is currently eight times higher?
  • Oil-rich Nigeria’s governance record over the past three decades was similar to Botswana’s?
  • South Africa’s hard-earned political and moral stature of the early post-Apartheid years still obtained today in Africa and the world?

It’s worth reflecting on what these and other “what ifs” might mean for swing states' neighbours and the continent as a whole in terms of economic and human development, peace and security. Not as some thought experiment, but as a way to create new maps and narratives to chart Africa’s future.

In the African context there are three specific reasons why the performance of swing states merits particular scrutiny.

The first relates to regional integration. Africa’s economic prospects are strongly linked to how effectively clusters of neighbouring states cooperate, club resources and support each other. A recent study by Yale University found that Africa is the least integrated region in the world economy. Comparative advantages exist within all its sub-regions – in building infrastructure, diversifying supply chains, combining tourism products – but are almost never exploited. Experience elsewhere shows that the extent of regional integration depends heavily on the commitment and political leadership of swing states. Europe without the consistent and strong political will of Germany and France would simply not be “Europe”.

The second reason is security. While the number of deaths in Africa resulting from armed conflict has dropped massively in the past two decades, vast swathes of the continent are still grappling with acute security threats and political volatility. Global experience suggests that swing states willing to use diplomatic and, if necessary, military might prudently to counter regional security threats are generally better “stabilisers” than external interveners. It is swing states, not United Nations or other foreign missions, who know the terrain best, and have the most skin in the game.

Subscribe to our newsletter

And the third reason is Africa’s role in the international system. Africa is at the margins of global politics. The interests of the great powers still prevail on issues of international justice, finance and security. But the global distribution of power is not static. The trend towards multi-polarity and the diffusion of power away from states is bound to alter the core political and economic institutions that have framed international relations for over 70 years. Resource-rich Africa, with a population predicted to reach two billion by 2040, must play a greater part in shaping that new future. Strengthening Africa’s voice globally will rest to a significant degree on the ability of swing states to forge a common narrative and approach to issues of concern to Africa and the world, such as reform of the UN Security Council. Ideally the African Union (AU) should play that role, but the organisation is still finding its feet, and unable to represent the African agenda internally or globally as effectively as joined-up swing states (potentially) could.

For the catalytic power of swing states to be harnessed for the betterment of their regions, the continent and the world, they need to be successful. They cannot manage or develop regional economic bodies if their own economies are mismanaged or dysfunctional. They cannot act as a stabilising force in their region if they themselves suffer from major internal conflict and violent divisions; instead they become exporters of insecurity. And they cannot galvanise regional or continental consensus around the key issues of our time if they are not acknowledged as leading nations, which represent and advance certain shared values and interests.

Currently neither South Africa nor Nigeria are anywhere near their constructive potential as swing states. Kenya is doing much better in one critical respect, but it too is beset by grave challenges. The briefest amalgam of lists would include: collapsing currencies, acute corruption, rising terrorism, declining commodity prices, communal discord and increasingly factious politics. Distinguished Africa expert Christopher Clapham once described the challenges facing Africa’s larger states as a “complex of interconnected predicaments”. Some of those predicaments flow from the “peculiarly damaging” way African states were historically incorporated into the global system and which continues to “exercise its baleful influence”.

Yet, each country, in their own way, also evince powerful signs of what is possible, areas of excellence which could spawn virtuous cycles of development and stability within and beyond their borders. For all Nigeria’s manifold problems, the country holds together despite near-constant predictions of its imminent collapse. Last year’s election was free, fair and peaceful, an outcome few thought possible. Cell phone penetration is now 100%, and across numerous sectors, the green-shoots of a more diversified economy are sprouting. And Nigeria is big. The fourth most populated country in the world in less than 25 years. That’s a lot of potential – potentially.

Kenya has often been left out of lists of Africa’s big players, but their exclusion is getting much harder to justify. It has become a subtle powerhouse in East Africa. Its wealth of innovators and entrepreneurs is epitomical of the Africa Rising story.

South Africa is straining, to be sure. But no African country has ever attained the international clout South Africa enjoyed in the 1990s, which it utilised to impressive effect as peacemaker and representative for a project of African renewal that is as essential and relevant today than when first articulated. The largely untapped influence and power of these three countries to lift the entire continent should not be underestimated.

All that said, much depends on swing states doing better at home. A recent example illustrates what can happen when they do not. South Africa’s economic weight in southern Africa is similar to that of Germany’s in the Euro area. Across nearly all key sectors such as telecommunications, retail, finance and mining, South African companies are heavily invested throughout the region. They act as drivers of growth in those economies, impacting civil societies and people on the ground in myriad ways. That South Africa’s economy is an “important anchor of economic stability” in southern Africa and even further into the continent is beyond doubt.

Within South Africa itself, migrant workers from neighbouring countries – numbering in the millions – provide much-needed revenue to their home countries in the form of repatriated wages. Zimbabweans comprise the majority of these migrants. Vast numbers returned home in 2015 for the Christmas holidays only to find that their hard-earned Rands did not go very far in a country on the brink of economic meltdown and localised famines. The price of staple products like bread was nearly twice as expensive as last year. Worse still, the collapse of South Africa’s currency, due in significant part to intensifying global pessimism over the future of Africa’s most advanced economy, meant that in places like Gweru and Bulawayo migrant workers found it difficult to find any vendors willing to even accept the South African currency. So they could not buy basic necessities like bananas, phone credit or a ticket for a taxi. Such are the second and third-order consequences swing states can unwittingly trigger in the continent when things go awry at home.

Banal as it may sound, being successful at home is key to being a successful swing state. “Success” does not mean being excellent on all levels simultaneously. Progress is bound to be uneven and subject to reversals, especially in Africa where nation-building processes are still in their infancy. And the basic ingredients for success – effective and inclusive institutions, political stability, sound policy choices – are often easier said than attained. History, as historians continually remind us, always unfolds in a contingent way. Amidst the particular challenges affecting Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, however, I would flag one key contradiction – elegantly framed by scholar Peter Lewis – that all three must confront boldly: transparency without accountability. Underway in each are a raft of commissions and investigations on issues vital to their future prosperity: official corruption, policing, state-owned enterprises. The list is long and growing. Transparency, a vital component of good governance, is strengthening. But this is largely meaningless unless it translates into more prosecutions, reforms and real accountability, which has yet to happen on a concomitant scale in any of the swing states. Kenya and Nigeria have their own Marikanas and their own Guptagates.

A major hurdle to overcome for each swing state, though to a lesser extent for Kenya, is convincing their neighbours and the continent as a whole that their external agendas are not entirely self-serving. No one should underestimate how deeply fear of dominance runs in Africa’s middle and smaller states. The robust spirit of Pan-Africanism has always co-existed with strongly nationalistic tendencies. Africa’s leaders have been fiercely reluctant to lessen the sovereignty of their states by surrendering powers to any supranational body despite the ethic of “African Unity”. In part this stems from fear that more powerful states will use Africa’s regional economic communities (RECs) to further their regional hegemony.

World map


Browse our content by country

Explore now

South Africa has come under particular scrutiny for what some neighbouring states perceive as “aggressive” economic policies, and also for putting their own global pretensions – exemplified by their BRICS membership – ahead of regional commitments. Kenya has arguably been most successful at achieving greater regional and continental influence through quiet diplomacy and collaboration. The indictments against Kenya’s president and other officials by the International Criminal Court illustrates the point, however one might feel about the merits of the case. Kenya deftly marshalled broad African support behind its cause without disengaging from the institution or its international partners that support it. Kenya would appear to understand better that there is a particular onus on swing states to build (or repair) trust in Africa’s regional frameworks, not least because their own agendas are questioned the most.

Kenya’s demonstrable commitment to building and empowering the East African Community (EAC) – the most integrated regional bloc in Africa – affords the rest of Africa salutary lessons on the benefits of integration. Perhaps above all, it shows what’s possible when the “politics” of regional integration give way to practical solutions.

Doing more to facilitate private sector regionalism should be a key priority of swing states. Business is already driving key regional initiatives. Corporate Pan-Africanism, exemplified in the major investments across borders by Nigerian cement mogul Aliko Dangote or South Africa’s SABmiller or Kenya’s ICT companies, is creating new identities and new connectedness outside the traditional spheres. By eschewing protectionism and instead promoting greater freedom of movement for business and labour, swing states will help Africa cure the pernicious “us (government) versus them (business, society)” disease.

Relations between swing states are vital to the success of continental organisations like the AU and the attainment of its Agenda 2063, the aspiration for “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena”. The European Union’s success would not have been possible without the complete transformation in relations between France and Germany in the second half of the 20th century. South America’s leading trading bloc, Mercosur, would not have been possible if its economic giants and close strategic partners, Argentina and Brazil, did not put aside mutual hostility and a dangerous nuclear rivalry in the 1980s. In the same way, the future success of the AU rests significantly on how the likes of Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and other major powers get along.

People-to-people links between Africa’s swing states are a key part of their relations. Currently, they are very weak. Educational, cultural and other types of exchanges between their respective citizens are, by international standards, comparatively meagre, and mostly confined to business. In the case of South Africans and Nigerians, levels of trust are low. Nigerians living in South Africa are often caricatured as gangsters or drug pedlars; the reputation of South Africans are scarred by the eruptions of xenophobia against other Africans and their own ‘delusions of exceptionalism’. In business, South African companies are very active in Nigeria, but it’s a one-way street: Nigerian (and other African) firms frequently cite South Africa’s protectionist policies and BEE regulations as barriers to entering its market, and a hard brake on intra-continental trade.

At the government level, much of the rhetoric suggests the two are in a battle for economic dominance in Africa and power projection globally. Much repair work will need to be done if the heady days of cooperation between then presidents Thabo Mbeki and his Nigerian counterpart Olusegun Obasanjo – originators of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – can be reinvigorated. Nigeria and South Africa’s approach appears to differ from Kenya’s “softer” diplomacy although relations between Kenya and South Africa, in particular, have suffered on account of the latter’s strict visa requirements which have deterred the flow of businesses and tourists.

Swing states need to do more to facilitate interaction between their citizens, not just in business and trade, but through the free movement of people and ideas. A common agenda and greater understanding will remain elusive otherwise.

Predictions based on quantitative data and trend analysis suggest that, from a global power perspective, for the next 25 years Africa is most likely to remain where it is currently: at the margins. Yet swing states could alter that prognosis significantly if they become, for lack of a better word, successful. Everyone has a stake in thinking about how to achieve that aim. It should not be left to dreamers to imagine what Africa might look like if its swing states were also its best performers.

This article was originally published in The Daily Maverick.