International experiences suggest that if regional powers - what we characterise as ‘swing states’ - are successful they will usually generate political and economic benefits well beyond their borders. When swing states perform badly, the consequences of failures - economic turmoil, political instability, armed conflict - reverberate in the region and continent of which they form part in ways that similar failures in medium or small states typically do not. Africa as a whole is especially malleable to the influence - positive or negative - of swing states owing to the relative infancy of its nation-building processes. The social and institutional architecture of Africa at the national level can be more easily altered for good or ill by what happens ‘next door’.

In August 2015 the Brenthurst Foundation and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung convened a high-level Dialogue to examine three countries in sub-Saharan Africa - Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa - which are particularly illustrative of the importance of swing states to regional and continental success. This Discussion Paper reflects on some of the main arguments and perspectives that emerged from the Dialogue though, unless otherwise stated, its conclusions are the author’s own.

The three countries were selected on account of their relative economic and diplomatic weight, location and level of international integration (regionally and globally) - factors which could make them engines of regional growth and stability. Three key assumptions underpin why, this Paper argues, the performance of swing states bear particular attention:

- Deeper regional economic integration, upon which wider development across the continent depends heavily, will not be achieved without the leadership of swing states;
- The most important guarantors of security in Africa are swing states willing to use diplomatic and, if necessary, military might prudently to counter regional security threats; and
- Strengthening Africa’s voice globally rests to a significant degree on the ability of swing states to forge a common narrative and approach to issues of concern to Africa and the world.

Each of the swing states examined here is grappling with grave challenges, ranging from escalating domestic and regional terrorism to declining commodity prices, endemic corruption, collapsing currencies, labour unrest, refugee crises and highly factious politics. Various factors could be advanced to explain why all three are currently performing well below their potential. Yet each, in their own way, also evince powerful signs of what is possible: areas of excellence which could spawn virtuous cycles of development and stability within and beyond their borders.

This Paper suggests a number of ways the catalytic power of Africa’s swing states could be harnessed for the betterment of their regions, the continent and the world. While almost too obvious to mention, highlighting the importance of ‘doing better at home’ is nonetheless essential due to the second and third-order consequences of swing states’ performance on their regions; and for the essential legitimization from neighbouring states as their regional leader. A major hurdle to overcome for each, though to a lesser extent for Kenya, is convincing their neighbours and the continent as a whole that their external agendas are not entirely self-serving. Kenya would appear to understand better than either Nigeria or South Africa that there is a particular onus on swing states to build (or repair) trust in Africa’s regional frameworks, not least because their own agendas are questioned the most.

The ‘politics’ of regional integration need to give way to practical solutions. Through their interactions swing states have a particular role in devising and promoting home-grown answers to Africa’s most pressing economic questions, not least the need to move away from an inherently fragile reliance on the continent’s resource wealth towards more sustainable and diversified economies. Politically, swing states must do more to champion the African Union and communicate what it does and why Africa needs to make it work. To date swing states have yet to articulate a common, compelling narrative about the AU to other Africans and the rest of the world. This narrative is key to enhancing African agency within the international community. That said, until such time as the AU has grown into its mandate and is able to effectively represent the African agenda internally and globally, swing states must step-up and pool diplomatic resources in order to drive a consistent and common strategic approach that will strengthen Africa’s voice on key issues of global governance, reform of the Security Council and the architecture of global finance and trade.

Published in January 2016 by The Brenthurst Foundation

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