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


Is there a distinctive African security culture?



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2. Is there a distinctive African security culture?
What does it mean when the OAU makes statements describing an ‘African way’ of conflict resolution and spells out the crucial roles that women can play as agents of it?24 Or when the AU makes declarations about policies ‘premised on a common African perception of what is required to be done collectively by African states to ensure that Africa’s common defence and security interests and goals … are safeguarded’?25 What do the continent’s statesmen mean when they emphasise the need to find ‘African solutions to African problems’ or when analysts talk of the ‘African way of doing things’?26 For the purposes of this study, statements such as these hint at the existence of an African security culture.
Although rarely explicitly expressed in such terms, Africa’s security culture – at least as defined here – is inextricably related to the existence of an African society of states. This society ‘is intended to provide international political goods that guarantee the survival, security, identity and integrity of African states, which the majority of African states cannot provide individually.’27 Its existence, in turn, assumes a degree of regional awareness and collective identity to the extent that “Africa” has become what Emanuel Adler called a ‘cognitive region’.28 That is, African state leaders and diplomatic elites perceive themselves to be members of an “African” international society based on a degree of shared historical experiences and cultural ties. As Jackson and Rosberg put it, ‘“Africa” is a political idea as well as a geographical fact’. At its heart was ‘a distinctive ideology: African nationalism.’29
Africa’s security culture is thus embedded within the normative fabric of a discernable but only partly autonomous African international society. It is only partly autonomous because it is embedded within a wider international society which played an important role in influencing how Africa’s newly independent states thought about sovereignty, statehood and security. On the one hand, the birth of African international society was a reaction against Western imperialism. On the other, it embraced the form of polity – the state – and the colonial borders that the imperial powers foisted upon the continent.30 African international society thus has a unique blend of normative characteristics and ideological symbols, some of which influence the security policies of African states.
In this paper I take African international society to be synonymous with the changing membership of the OAU/AU. This focus can be justified in at least two ways. First, focusing on these organizations is important because of the large number of small and weak states in Africa. As Christopher Clapham noted, since most African states ‘are small, poor, and weak; it is therefore unsurprising that much of the continent’s diplomacy should be conducted through multinational organizations, or that states should seek through myriad cooperation and integration schemes to compensate for their weaknesses as separate units.’31 Recognising the importance of international organisations does not mean, however, that I endorse the neorealist logic that would explain their emergence as ‘basically the natural response of weak states trapped in the world of the strong.’32 Nor do I accept that the OAU was a mechanism to balance the power of an African hegemon.33 Rather, the formation of the OAU had an important ideological as well as instrumental dimension that revolved around the construction of a certain idea of “Africa” and African unity. This relates to a second justification that the OAU was, as Jackson and Rosberg suggested, ‘less an “organization” with its own agents, agencies and resources than it [was] an “association” with its own rules: a club of statesmen who are obligated to subscribe to a small number of rules and practices of regional conduct’.34 And like any club, as one commentator observed, ‘If you follow protocol there are certain things you don’t talk about when heads of state meet.’35
The importance attached to this ‘club of statesmen’ should not be underestimated. As Klaas van Walraven suggested, the OAU was held, by African statesmen at least, to ‘emblematize “Africa” and as having given this concept … its most concrete, institutionalized expression.’36 As such its decisions were taken seriously even by arguably the most militarily powerful state in black Africa, Nigeria. As Olijade Aluko concluded, ‘While aware that the OAU has no coercive force, the Nigerian government leaders believe that once any issue is overwhelmingly supported by over two-thirds of its members it should be regarded as something morally, if not legally, binding on all.’37 Put another way, important ‘symbols of authority and legitimacy [were] vested in the OAU’.38
As a source of authority and legitimacy the OAU exercised a degree of influence over its member states. Indeed, by 1975 Colin Legum went as far as suggesting that the OAU had succeeded in developing an ‘African foreign policy’. ‘Although it is obvious that not all 42 OAU member-states adopt an identical foreign policy,’ he argued,

their policies nevertheless have sufficient points of common interest over a sufficient number of crucial questions to constitute a continental approach to international affairs. This continental approach is determined, in part, by African states voluntarily subscribing to certain policies; and, in part, by majority pressures on unwilling states to make them accept the dominant view.39

One of the earliest pan-African concerns, for instance, was ‘the formulation of a common African policy on international affairs, and the co-ordination of the activities of African states in this field, particularly at the United Nations.’40 Other examples might include the African stand adopted in 1972 against dialogue with South Africa, the African position on relations with the EEC, or the way in which from 1973 all but one African state (Malawi) severed diplomatic ties with Israel. Legum concluded that ‘Even such stalwart pro-Israelis as President Houphouet Boigny, Jomo Kenyatta and the Emperor of Ethiopia found that they could not afford, politically, to stand out against the ‘consensus’ of African opinion.’41
African international society emerged in earnest from the late 1950s with the independence of Ghana in 1957 representing a crucial step forward (see below). Its progress was intermittent however because decolonization occurred at different speeds depending on the respective colonial masters (Britain, France and Belgium effectively ended their African empires during the 1960s, while Portugal took until the mid-1970s).42 Arguably this process remains incomplete even after the end of white minority rule in South Africa in 1994 because several territories, including Western Sahara, Zanzibar and Somaliland, retain their claims to independence today (see section 5).
Nevertheless, by the late 1960s there had been sufficient progress for William Zartman to conclude that an African states system existed ‘as a fact in contemporary world politics’.43 Zartman based his claim on the existence of a geographic region; coincidence with an international organisation, the OAU; and the fact that the member states possessed at least a degree of autonomy from external powers. ‘In sum,’ he concluded, ‘an autonomous, subordinate, African system with certain identifiable characteristics does seem to exist and to be capable of performing limited functions under certain conditions.’44
Within this African society of states Zartman noted that alongside the military and economic instruments of state power an ideological dimension also existed. In particular, he observed that states attempted to become ‘centers of authority for others which are susceptible to appeals to “correct,” or “truly African,” or “revolutionary” action. If a state can monopolize popular symbols without destroying their universality, it can create rules of conduct for fellow believers.’45 In short, they could ‘decree the unthinkable’.
This was only possible because of the system’s normative framework, or what Zartman called the rules. ‘These “rules,”’ he argued,

are de facto guidelines of policy, established by consensus through the development of the subordinate system and resulting from its power configuration. Like any laws, they are not universally accepted and have been broken in the past. Each time they are used as a basis of a state’s policy decision, their effectiveness is reinforced; conversely, if they are broken too frequently or in particularly important cases, such action creates pressure for normative readjustment.46



Zartman identified four such rules in particular:

  • Rule One is that intrasystem solutions are to be preferred over extrasystem solutions to African problems whenever possible.’

  • Rule Two establishes a hierarchy among the three primary goals of African states: independence, development, and unity, in that order.’

  • Rule Three states that wars of conquest are not policy alternatives.’

  • Rule Four is that all available means will be used to extend the boundaries of the inner system to its outer limits. This is a restatement of the emphasis on independence of the entire continent, but Rule Two also indicates the limitations on the means.’47

Although I prefer to talk of norms rather than rules of behaviour, Zartman’s analysis provides a useful starting point for thinking about the central tenets of Africa’s security culture during the key period of institutionalization in the 1960s.


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