From Unity to Union: The historical development of Africa’s regional security culture 

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From Unity to Union: The historical development of Africa’s regional security culture
Paul D. Williams

Department of Political Science & International Studies

European Research Institute

University of Birmingham


Birmingham B15 2TT, UK
Paper presented to the conference “Regionalisation and the Taming of Globalisation”, University of Warwick, 26-28 October 2005.

***** WORK IN PROGRESS *****


  1. What are regional security cultures and why do they matter?

  2. Is there a distinctive African security culture?

  3. What are the constitutive norms of Africa’s security culture?

  4. How did these norms emerge?

  5. How have these norms developed? (I) Internal Contradictions

  6. How have these norms developed? (II) Towards a New Union

  7. Conclusions

Questions about how and why political actors construct certain issues as threats to their security and why they adopt particular instruments and policies to deal with these threats have long been central to academic International Relations in general and the field of Security Studies in particular. In Security Studies the appeal of using cultural theories to study these topics has waxed and waned. According to Michael Desch, the field is currently experiencing a third ‘post-Cold War wave’ of cultural theories (the first and second waves appeared after World War II and during the Cold War, specifically the late 1970s and early 1980s).1 Yet in spite of this resurgent interest in how culture shapes understandings of security relatively little attention has been paid to how this relationship plays out at the regional level with most studies focussing on national or ostensibly global norms and ideas.2 In 1997, for instance, David Lake and Patrick Morgan noted that although ‘the regional level stands more clearly on its own as the locus of conflict and cooperation for states’ there remained an urgent need for research that could identify how material and cognitive factors interacted to produce not only regional security complexes but also to ‘define the choices available to decision makers.’3 Similarly, as recently as 2003, Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver concluded that ‘the regional level in security has been neither adequately conceptualised nor sufficiently taken into account as a distinct element in the seamless web of global politics.’4 They lamented that analysis of ‘regional security’ usually occurred ‘without any coherent theoretical framework because, other than a few basic notions about balance of power and interdependence borrowed from the system level none has been available.’5 Although Buzan and Wæver have made an important contribution to filling this gap in the literature, their approach is not directly helpful here for at least two reasons. First, Africa does not constitute what they call a regional security complex. Rather it contains (in their terminology) two regional security complexes, two proto-complexes, one sub-complex and a range of ‘insulators’. Second, their approach focuses on two kinds of relations between a region’s actors (power relations and patterns of amity and enmity)6 rather than the cultural beliefs shared by all African states regardless of their position in the regional distribution of power or their definition of regional friends and enemies. Thus while Buzan and Wæver’s work usefully highlights the importance of the regional level in studying international security practices it does not take us very far in understanding the central question posed here.
This paper is concerned with analysing the role of ideas, specifically shared cultural beliefs and norms, in the construction of the security policies pursued by African states. More precisely, it explores how transnational cultural factors have influenced the ways in which regional organisations in Africa, specifically the African Union (AU) and its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), respond to security threats by helping to define the range of legitimate options available to policy-makers. To answer this question I employ the concept of “regional security culture” by exploring two central questions:

  1. Do these African regional organisations have distinct security cultures?

  2. To what extent, if any, do these cultures influence how the members of these organisations respond, either collectively or individually, to security threats?

These questions, in turn, generate at least three sets of issues: How did Africa’s regional security culture form? How has it developed (in line with challenges to existing beliefs and attempts at their reaffirmation)? And in what ways, if any, does it influence the behaviour of members of the OAU/AU, either collectively or individually?
To address these issues the paper proceeds in six parts. Section 1 develops the concept of regional security culture and asks how it is relevant to Africa. Sections 2 and 3 discuss the central tenets of Africa’s security culture while section 4 provides an overview of how these cultural norms emerged. Sections 5 and 6 analyse how these norms were consolidated and subsequently developed following the establishment of the OAU. Section 5 discusses the role of the culture’s internal contradictions in this process while section 6 looks at two new developments and the establishment of the AU in 2002. The conclusion reflects upon how these cultural norms help us understand the AU’s approach to transnational security challenges such as those currently evident in Darfur, Sudan.

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