Power and influence in Africa

This paper explores the changing power capabilities of Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa (the ‘Big Five’) over the next 25 years. Of these countries, Ethiopia and Nigeria are forecast to increase their power capabilities, whereas Algeria, Egypt and South Africa are expected to stagnate or decline. Of the Big Five, two currently punch above their weight – one that is rising, Ethiopia, and another whose growth is stagnant, South Africa. If Nigeria were able to take the necessary steps that would see far-reaching changes to the governance issues and social challenges that currently beset the country, it could become Africa’s lone superpower.

Power permeates every dimension of international relations. Strong states are able to influence the domestic and foreign policy of weaker states and shape regional and even global agendas.

This paper explores the historical distribution of power in Africa and how it is changing over the next 25 years with a particular focus on the capabilities of Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa (the ‘Big Five’). In a context in which Africa both aspires and is expected to take on more responsibilities for development, peace and security on the continent, the question of regional leadership is key.

Africa has been peripheral in approaches to international relations that have tended to focus on so-called ‘great powers’ or the ‘states that make the most difference’.1 The more recent popular ‘Africa rising’ narrative has changed this only superficially, and so far only South Africa and, to a lesser extent, Nigeria and Egypt have attracted the attention of scholars and analysts as potential middle or emerging powers. Changes in the global distribution of power, however, will influence Africa’s ability to project power and its capacity for informal and formal alliance building – both continentally and globally.

The Big Five powerhouses of Africa – Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa – will inevitably shape the future of the continent because of their demographic, economic and military size, as well as their historical role as regional leaders. Collectively, these states account for 40% of Africa’s population, 60% of the African economy and 58%2 of Africa’s military expenditure. These figures are forecast to remain roughly unchanged by 2040.3 Others countries, such as Angola and Morocco, are also expected to increase their capabilities significantly. However, both countries face considerable governance and developmental hurdles and currently punch well below their weight. They cannot be seen as regional leaders, and Morocco has, since 1984, not been a member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)/African Union (AU).

The first section of this paper, ‘Conceptions of Power’ briefly clarifies the author’s approach to power and the complexities around measuring and forecasting power.

The second section, ‘Africa in the World’, sets the scene and places the analysis of power in Africa in a global context. From a global perspective, the forecast projects that Africa will remain pretty much where it is by 2040: at the margins of global power. This despite Africa’s sustained high levels of growth and an ongoing broad transformation on the continent over the period.

The third section, ‘An overview of Africa’s Big Five’, explores how Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa are performing in terms of governance, including domestic security, government capacity and inclusion. This section contextualises the analysis of power and highlights the main transitions and challenges that will have an impact on the Big Five’s power trajectory.

The fourth section, which looks at the capabilities of Africa’s Big Five, uses a new historical measure of relative national power, the Hillebrand-Herman-Moyer Index (HHMI), to forecast the power capabilities of the Big Five to 2040. These countries have the largest current or forecasted capabilities. This section explores their power status using subcomponents of the HHMI to provide a multidimensional perspective using relevant drivers, such as technology, demographics, international interactions, economic size and military might.

Section five, ‘From potential to power projection in Africa’, explores whether these states are doing more or less than their capabilities would indicate, and how these dynamics are likely to evolve. The findings show that South Africa and Ethiopia do a good job of punching above their current power capabilities. Algeria and Nigeria, on the other hand, punch below their weight in Africa and the world, while Egypt punches above its weight internationally but below its weight in Africa.

The conclusion brings together the main findings of the paper.


This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies.

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