T. Gwatiwa: The African Union and African Agency in International Politics

The African Union and African Agency in International Politics.

Gwatiwa, Tshepo
Cham 2022:
Anzahl Seiten
223 S.
€ 84,99
Rezensiert für Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists von
Ulf Engel, Institut für Afrikastudien, Universität Leipzig

The African Union (AU), as much as its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity (1963–2002), is trying to build up leverage in global politics through pursuing “strategic partnerships”. In his book on The African Union and African Agency in International Politics Tshepo Gwatiwa is interrogating two classic strategic partnerships – those between the AU and the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), respectively –, and two subordinated partnerships, one with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and one with the US AFRICOM. The author concludes that different forms of partnership have emerged: While the relationship with the EU is considered to be emblematic of African agency, the partnerships with NATO and the United Nations are said to exhibit “shirking”, while that with the US AFRICOM exhibits “slippage“ – both seen as a form of “agency slack”. The book is based on the author’s PhD written under the supervision of Thomas J. Biersteker at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. Between 2012 and 2016, he has interviewed more than sixty diplomats and security experts in Addis Ababa, Pretoria, Gaborone, Geneva, Naples, Lisbon, Washington DC, and Brussels.

The author is teaching in the Department of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa), where he is also a research associate at the African Centre for the Study of the United States. Before that he has taught at the University of Botswana and the Botswana Defence Force (BDF)’s Defence Command and Staff College. He has co-edited with Justin van der Merwe the collection Expanding US Military Command in Africa: Elites, Networks and Grand Strategy (Routledge, 2021).

The volume is structured into nine chapters. Following the introduction, in chapter 2 the author introduces the conceptual notion of African agency as “agency slack”. This is “a situation wherein an actor … takes independent action to produce [otherwise] undesirable or unexpected outcomes” (p. 4). In chapter 3 a historical overview on exercising agency slack, or the African Union’s capacity to act independent from major external powers, is developed. In chapter 4 the role of agency slack in African regionalism is discussed; chapter 5 provides an overview on the early design of African peace and security institutions. This is followed by three chapters on the AU/EU partnership, “shirking” in AU partnerships with the United Nations and NATO, and “slippage” in the partnership with US AFRICOM (chapters 6–8).

My initial critique is based on three points: the limited understanding of the concept of the African Union’s “strategic partnership”, the not really comprehensive reference to the international debate on African agency, and the superficial empirical engagement with AU institutions (and of course, the latter is not helped by the fact that between some of the initial empirical research at the Union and publication date some eight years have lapsed). First, in the 60-year history of the AU (and organisation of African Unity, 1963–2022), a certain understanding of the term strategic partnership has developed. It is reserved for multilateral and bilateral partners. Currently this relates to the Arab League, the European Union, and the United Nations as well as five bilateral partners (five bilateral (China, India, Japan, South Korea, Türkiye).1 Conceptually relations with NATO and US AFRICOM, however important they may be in practice, are not discussed by the African Union under the heading “strategic partnerships”. Second, the author does not relate strongly enough to the conceptual debate on African agency in global politics. There are references to important contributions to this discussion, but in its depth and breadth, the author does not do justice to this debate. Third, the author’s discussion of AU institutions lacks detail and understanding (to give just one example, chapter 5 falls short of any serious discussion of the dynamics around the pillars of the African peace and security architecture – many statements, for instance, on the Panel of the Wise or the Continental Early Warning System, mix up details or are simply wrong. Along the same lines, some of the cited references are sloppy and/or incorrect).

My main critique of this book, however, is on the author’s tautological argumentation around the notion of “agency slack”. The African Union’s empirically growing capability to formulate and negotiate the continent’s position under the global condition, assumes the quality of both an observation and an explanatory. The protracted processes of “becoming” and developing agency, are not researched in detail and remain hidden behind this shortcut. The author fails to engage with the difficulties of the intra-Union decision-making and unravelling the “inner life” of the African Union regarding its international partnerships.2 What remains is an ambitious dissertation that for the most part does only limited justice to its – admittedly complex – subject. A serious examination of the available sources has not taken place.

1 Ulf Engel, Strategic Partnerships, idem (ed.): Yearbook on the African Union, Volume 2 (2021), pp. 203–218.
2 See Thomas K. Tieku, Governing Africa. 3D Analysis of the African Union’s Performance, Lanham, MD 2017.

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