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Why Africa Needs a Regional Hegemon

The Covid-19 pandemic and the impact it is having on countries across the globe mirrors significantly the question: Does Africa needs a regional hegemon? I proceed with the thesis that Africa requires an African regional hegemonic power if it wants to catch up with global trends and developments, and remain relevant and competitive in global affairs. Thus, a regional hegemon is needed to give shape to the present formlessness of the continent. Several reasons underpin this postulate to which I shall outline below.First, it takes a hegemonic power to establish and maintain the rules of regional and global engagement and to institutionalize them. Historically, hegemons have developed the institutionalized context within which leadership is exercised. They do this by assuming the cost of creating these institutions and providing the leadership needed to move these institutions in the direction envisaged as well as persuading others into the vision of the institutions.

For example, the United Nation’s architecture and other global structures and institutions owe their existence to the United States’ leadership as the global hegemon. Indeed, the US remains the largest contributor to the UN’s annual budget and working capital. Available facts show that US covers about 22 percent of the cost of running the UN and its various institutions. This figure outweighs the contributions of the next three highest donor countries combined (UN, 2019; 2018; 2017). In peacekeeping terms, the figure stands at about 29 percent. In the creation of sub-regional institutions, mention can be made of the leadership (albeit reluctantly) of Nigeria in the establishment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in West Africa and South Africa’s leadership role in the establishment and workings of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Southern Africa among others.

On the continent-wide, however, the lack of a regional hegemon has rendered many of the regional intergovernmental institutions ineffective in the delivery of their mandates. The AU, for example, has been ineffective in the discharge of its duties for its inability to mobilize necessary resources. According to the AU (2017), “about 30 member states default either partially or completely on average annually, creating a significant funding gap between planned budget and actual funding” (para. 2). This gap is usually filled by donor partners who use this leverage to exert influence on the agenda of the institution.

Even several attempts to address this challenge have proven futile. For example, only 14 out of the 55 states have complied with and implemented the 0.2% levy on eligible imports agreed on at the 27th Summit in Kigali, leaving the institution still languishing in the quagmire of financial distress. This problem would have been ameliorated if the continent had a hegemon willing to run this institution and provide it the needed leadership. The hegemon just as in the case of the US at the global level, would have assumed the biggest share of the cost of running the institution and hence bolster its effectiveness.

In addition, a hegemon in a region contributes to the development of the region through the provision of public goods: consciously or unconsciously. Deliberately, a hegemon may provide these goods in an attempt to lieu weaker states into its vision and goals as a way of enhancing legitimacy and support for its leadership. Unconsciously, hegemons in an attempt to expand their powers through enhancing their capacities, engage in certain developmental and technical projects that foster the development and growth of others. A historical example is the transportation and trade infrastructural development under the Mongol empire. Similarly, the industrial revolution spearheaded by Great Britain in the 18th century led to the transfer of technical and technological know-how which sped developments in Europe and beyond.

In the context of Africa were serious developmental challenges in the area of infrastructure pertains, a regional hegemon is needed to foot or accommodate large portions of the cost of fixing this challenge. The possibility of this stems from the spiral underpinning of hegemonic power. As the hegemon gains preponderance, it seeks more power and hence invests in activities that enhance its extraction capacity in particular. Individually, African states have small markets compared to others. However, when taken from a collective perspective, the continent boasts one of the biggest markets in the world. Given this, a regional hegemon would more likely tap into this opportunity by enhancing interstate connections. In this way, all states stand to benefit as the cost of doing business home falls.

Third, hegemons provide leadership by presenting their own goals as common and collective goals to get the buy-ins of relatively weaker states. In the context of hegemonic stability theory, these goals are equated as ‘common security and survival’. Nonetheless, hegemonic leadership cannot be reduced to just material provisions, it also encapsulates nonmaterial and non-transactional dimensions of leadership which entails issues such as ideology and norm creation. If well-orchestrated, the hegemon succeeds in the couching of or reshaping identities in the region: a major challenge bedeviling the effort at integration and the formation of a meaningful union in Africa.

On many occasions, African countries have failed to adopt a common position on global issues primarily for lack of continental-wide leadership. In cases where common positions prevailed, those positions had been fragile unable to withstand the divide-and-rule tactics of external powers. The European Union posts remarkable success in this regard. During its trade negotiations with ECOWAS, the EU successfully employed the divide-and-rule tactics when it realized that it could not get its way by negotiation with ECOWAS as a bloc. States like Ghana had to sign an interim deal because of the threat of losing trade concessions to the Ivory Coast. With a hegemon, the continent is more likely to present a common and a formidable front on global matters such as trade negotiations among others.

Finally, the psychological renditions of other states to form coalitions to balance the power of an emerging hegemon has important implication for cooperation on the continent. Moreover, playing by the same cards, infiltrated powers on the continent would also find the pleasure (risk aversion) to attract bandwagon in an attempt to keep the status quo. Grafting into these innumerable schemes would be the turning of the continent into a focal point of global power politics in a form that spares further flow of investments and other productive resources into the continent. Spirally, these schemes usually culminate in building the capacity of others likely to emerge as contending states for the hegemonic position in the future. Thus, the initial attempt at balancing the power of an emerging hegemon produces spiral and vicious cycle which stands to benefit the entire continent. To borrow liberal economic cliché, competition fosters further growth and progress.

In conclusion, I am not oblivious of the problems regional hegemons could subject regional politics to in their bid to maintain and expand their powers. However, it would be erroneous to attribute tensions in state relations entirely to the presence of a hegemon. Interstate relations have always been and continue to be characterized by tensions, whether in the presence of a hegemon or not. What remains incontestable is the contribution of hegemons in the development of their area of influence and beyond. For example, it took the marshal plan of the US (the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere) to get Western European countries out of the miseries of the Second World War (WWII) and set them on the path of growth and development. To icing the cake, it is far beneficial for a regional power vacuum to be filled then remain empty. The emptiness of the vacuum creates more havoc than the complete occupation of the power vacuum.

By Zulkarnain Mohammed

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