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date: 21 November 2018

African Agency in International Politics

Summary and Keywords

International Relations theory has tended to overlook the role of Africa and Africans in the international system. Traditionally, the discipline’s most influential theorists have focused instead on relationships between and perspectives of “major powers.” A growing body of work, however, has challenged these more limited efforts to conceptualize African agency in international politics. This scholarship has emphasized the significant space available to, and carved-out by, African states in molding the agendas of international institutions, and the role of African governments and advocacy networks in influencing the trajectory of major international debates around issues such as aid, development, trade, climate change, and migration. The study of African agency in international politics continues to wrestle with two key debates: the meanings of “agency” and “African.” Much of the literature focuses primarily on the role and influence of African states rather than that of African citizens and communities. This focus provides, at best, only a partial and qualified view of the ways in which African agency is secured and exercised at the global level, particularly given the significant structural constraints imposed on Africa by global economic and political inequalities. The extent to which contemporary analysis captures the breadth of African engagement with the international system is also compromised by current state-centric approaches. It is thus necessary to examine a range of approaches adopted by scholars to deepen and nuance the study of African agency in international politics, including work on agenda-setting, mesolevel dynamics and microlevel dynamics.

Keywords: international relations, agency, African states, norms, international politics, African politics

Introduction: From “Politically Empty Spaces” to “African Agency”

According to Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations (1973, p. 369), Africa was a continent of “politically empty spaces” during the 19th and early 20th centuries. For the founding father of the Realist school of International Relations, European protocolonial powers could apparently peacefully carve up Africa between themselves without fear of substantive resistance from local political authorities, which he depicts as—at best—passive bystanders.1 For K. Waltz, another key figure in shaping International Relations as a modern discipline, major studies of power within the international system should focus necessarily upon “the great powers.” The idea of examining other powers’ global relations as a means to derive wider theoretical insights would, Waltz (1979) suggested in Theory of International Politics, be “ridiculous” (p. 72). Indeed, Africa has rarely been considered worthy of comment by International Relations’ most prominent and influential theorists, even when writing about the South.2 In his book, Structural Conflict, a study of how “Third World states want power and try to get it,” Krasner (1985) mentions Mexico on more occasions than every one of his African examples combined.

Africa as politically marginal on the global stage has not just been a theme in the writings of International Relations’ Realist pantheon. Approaching international politics from a very different perspective, Marxist and neo-Marxist thinkers of the so-called dependencia (or Dependency Theory) school theorized Africa—and Latin America—during the 1960s and 1970s as an exploited and underdeveloped periphery of the international system (Amin, 1972; Dos Santos, 1973; Frank, 1967; Furtado, 1964). For influential writers such as Walter Rodney, African states were incorporated into the global hierarchy during the colonial era as base suppliers of raw materials for the powerful—Northern—“core.” This rendered modern Africa, he suggested, underdeveloped and heavily dependent upon export markets and trade mechanisms governed and managed by Northern states; in other words, as a continent with little control over its economic and developmental destiny (1972). Later studies by political economists—both African and non-African—have developed these notions of African politicoeconomic dependency around empirical case studies, including Nigeria (Ake, 1981) and Kenya (Leys, 1977).

At first sight, the situation in the early 21st century is quite different. Inspired by the rise of constructivist thought within International Relations and by foundational reevaluations of Africa’s historical experience produced in the 1990s and 2000s (Bayart, 2000; Clapham, 1996; Lonsdale, 2000; Ranger, 1995, 1999), a vibrant and multidisciplinary literature has now emerged on “African agency” in international politics.3 The purpose of this article is to examine and critique this body of work and to assess how far it offers a different perspective on the place of Africa in the international system. The study highlights and recognizes the innovative and critical work undertaken by scholars of International Relations, Political Sociology, Historical Sociology, and Comparative Politics in challenging academic presentations of Africa as passive, dependent, and “acted upon” in its engagement with the outside world. A myriad of studies now demonstrates the ways in which past and present African governments have actively secured space for maneuvering and influencing in arenas such as international trade, development aid, security assistance, peace and conflict resolution, and humanitarian intervention. This scholarship clearly underlines the importance of moving away from what Brown and Harman refer to as “the tired tropes of an Africa that is victimized, chaotic, violent and poor” and toward understanding the continent’s global relations as a site of “interaction, rather than one-way domination” by powerful external actors (2013, p. 2).

To what extent, however, do these analyses fundamentally challenge past thinking on Africa’s global position and influence? To what extent do they offer a clear alternative to past analytical frameworks that present Africa as weak and passive? In 2000, Lonsdale wrote about African “agency in tight corners,” and more recent works have, rightly, begun with an acknowledgment of “the very obviously tight corners which constrain Africa’s choices in the international system” (Brown & Harman, 2013, p. 1). This article argues that many contemporary discussions of African agency—including in some works of this author—effectively reproduce the instrumentalist expressions of so-called small or weak state agency found in the “tail wagging the dog” International Relations literature of the 1970s (Keohane, 1969; Vital, 1971; Weinstein, 1972). Though the former take a far more nuanced approach to unpacking the international approaches and domestic politics of weak states, their ascription of agency to these entities often continues to focus on the securing of short-term, strategic goals in settings where they hold limited—or no—influence over the rules of the game themselves. How far can one take a theory of African agency in international politics built around African states’ strategic deployment of “trickery” and “extraversion,” to use the words of Bayart (2000)?

This article suggests that while Africanist scholars have successfully moved forward debates on African agency in the international system since the 2000s, the discussion continues to be constrained by—and limited to—focus on the actions, motivations, and approaches of governments, state officials, and leaders. As the discussion in “From African Agency to African Agencies?” contends, a wholesale reshaping of the African agency agenda requires a more ambitious approach to examining the phenomenon; one that moves beyond the statist and structuralist inheritance of traditional International Relations theorizing and considers the role that Africans at all levels, and beyond the state, play in the global system. Beyond specific negotiations over security assistance packages, for example, how do Africans influence, challenge, and mold core international concepts and norms? Recent work on peacekeeping and Responsibility to Protect (R2P) suggests how this broader form of inquiry might be tackled. Likewise, studies on the relationship between China and Africa demonstrate how examinations of African agency beyond—and within—the state can be undertaken.

The discussion is structured around three sections. The first explores how African agency has been examined, theorized, and demonstrated by scholars. In doing so, this part of the article interrogates the limits scholars have placed around Africa’s exercise of agency and the conceptual ambiguity surrounding the use of the term in the literature. The second section examines the extent to which current debate engages with African agency overall, or just African state agency. It also explores the constraints placed by a statist conceptual focus on broader theorizing on the nature of African agency at the global level. The final section reflects on recent work that points toward ways of resolving some of the dilemmas and limitations highlighted in the previous sections.

Agency in Tight Corners? Unpacking the Concept of African Agency

A challenge presented to those seeking to engage with the African agency literature is the slipperiness of agency as a concept. The term is used by scholars—sometimes interchangeably with words such as “influence,” “power,” and, in Development Studies scholarship especially, “ownership”—across a range of fields and to describe phenomena and relationships at very different levels and scales. How the concept is being used in these contexts is not always clarified, and there is a tendency for scholars to assume that agency’s contours are suitably understood and agreed upon by the readership, to the degree that limited conceptual elaboration is merited.

A consequence of this is that presentations of African agency in international politics vary dramatically in scope, including regarding similar ideas and language to describe quite different processes. At one end of this spectrum sit analyses of African states driving and reframing key international agendas and norms (Bah, 2017; Beswick, 2014; Brown & Harman, 2013; Fisher & Anderson, 2015; Mohan & Lampert, 2012); at the other end sit everyday examples of choice, resilience, or resistance (Omata, 2016; Turton, 2003). Aside from the problem of analytical imprecision, a broader critique which could be advanced regarding this situation is that African agency can potentially be identified and celebrated in virtually any context—somewhat obscuring deep structural inequalities and embedded Northern power structures. The development, promulgation, and implementation of continental security and governance norms via the African Union since the late 1990s, for example, has been argued by some to be an example of African agency and ideational entrepreneurship (Bah, 2017) in spite of their deriving from what Obi terms “neoliberal and elitist interests which hardly reflect African realities” (Obi, 2014, p. 62).

For most scholars writing on African agency, the dilemma is where the balance should be struck between agency as a philosophical concept and agency in context. Where it is articulated, most define agency in terms laid out by Buzan et al. (1993) as “the faculty or state of acting,” demonstrated through the “exerting [of] power” (p. 103). As Hay notes, “to attribute agency is to attribute power” (1995, p. 191).4 International Relations theorist Colin Wight nevertheless points out that acting and the exertion of power are not necessarily indicative of a choice being actively made, pointing to the example of an oxidizing agent in nature, which acts and exerts power but does so—obviously—without thought or consideration (Wight, 2006, p. 206). Intentionality is also, therefore, a critical dimension of assigning agency in Africanist scholarship, albeit often one which is difficult to evidence, particularly in relation to high-level decisions by elites and senior policy makers.

Actors exist, however, within—and are coconstituted by—structures (Carlsnaes, 1992; Giddens, 1976). Even the most powerful of states is limited in the actions it can take at the international level by issues such as the following: the extent of its resources and those of its actual or potential opponents; prevailing domestic, regional, or international norms, regulations and governance mechanisms; and strategic and economic ties and the degree to which these are likely to be upset or destabilized by particular choices. International Relations theorists have increasingly moved away from viewing these structural factors as static or independent of the actions of agents. Cerny (2000), for example, contends that the relationship between structural and agent-centered forms of power in the international system are constantly shifting and being renegotiated. He argues that any exploration of power at the global level should focus on context and the “tightness” or “looseness” of structural constraints on state actors existing at any one moment (pp. 436–438). In tighter contexts, he suggests actors may be unable to do more than “passively adjust” to prevailing trends and external impositions. He underlines, though, the space available for even seemingly weak actors to challenge, break down, and recalibrate structural straitjackets at particular moments of global transition and upheaval, and the centrality of them choosing to exploit these situations to the subsequent political space available to them.

What distinguishes these kinds of debates on Africa’s global relations from those on almost every other continent is the fact that African polities have much less room for maneuvering at the international level. The continent’s global economic footprint is negligible when compared to that of Europe, Asia, or North America (partly as a consequence of colonial era policies described by scholars such as Rodney (1972) and Ake (1981), while many African governments rely upon Western or Chinese donors to help finance their budget or to train and arm their security services (Alden, 2007; Fisher & Anderson, 2015). Colonialism and the reshaping of the international system after 1945 saw the then major powers design and embed a network of global institutions and relationships that consciously excluded or marginalized Africa, and these structures continue to severely inhibit African agency in the contemporary era. Those examining African agency in international politics are therefore quickly faced with what Brown refers to as “how much questions” (Brown, 2012, p. 1894); in other words, a need to understand African agency in relative terms. Africa is not the United States or China. For a multitude of reasons, its polities are not in a position to fundamentally upend the basic governing structures of the international system; therefore, examples of African agency being secured must arguably be located in less transformative actions and phenomena. Most studies of African agency in international politics are therefore imbued, explicitly or implicitly, with assumptions around how high or low this bar should be set, given the continent’s unique historical incorporation into the global system.

The majority of contemporary theorizing on the subject in African Studies, International Relations, Comparative Politics, and Political Sociology has tended to conform to at least one of two somewhat restrictive tropes. Both of these seek to interrogate the nuances and limits of African agency within a deeply asymmetrical set of international relationships, and both conceptualize the securing and exercising of agency by African states within the existing externally governed rules of the game.

The first of these focuses on the different ways in which African states leverage their assumed strategic value to major powers—mainly Western states, but also the former USSR and, increasingly, China—to secure resources, influence, or favor which might otherwise be unavailable to them. An early example of this kind of argument can be found in Lefebvre’s (1987) analysis of U.S. military support to imperial Ethiopia during the 1950s and 1960s, where he observes that Addis Ababa successfully extracted disproportionately generous military assistance and political support from Washington as a quid pro quo for U.S. access to the Kagnew communications facility in Asmara during the height of the Cold War.5 Aspects of this literature have been reconsidered and reapplied to Africa recently by scholars such as Gilbert and Grzelczyk (2016) in their revisiting of 1980s scholarship on “small states.”

The most influential frameworks, however, derive from the works of Clapham and Bayart. In his examination of how African governments and states have survived since independence, Clapham (1996, p. 201) explains “subversion” as one of three possible responses of African states to external structural pressures (alongside “compliance” and “defiance”). In this regard, he highlights Cameroonian president Paul Biya’s escaping of French censure over falsified election results by playing on French fears that he might be replaced by an Anglophone successor who would move the country out of Paris’s sphere of influence. He also provides examples of similarly savvy strategies employed by authoritarian regimes in 1980s and 1990s Togo, Kenya, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire to survive external pressures to democratize from powerful Western donor governments (1996, pp. 203–204).

Bayart (2000) seeks to provide a longer-term view of African agency in the global system through his concept of “extraversion,” a “dynamic mode of action” employed by African political authorities from the days of colonial chiefs through to postindependence warlords which has entailed the mobilization of resources from external parties precisely through manipulating African structural dependencies on these actors. Emphasizing, like Clapham, authoritarian leaders of states, including Cameroon, Kenya, and Togo, as well as Gabon and Zimbabwe, Bayart underlines how African states have been “active agents in the mis en dependence of their societies” (2000, p. 219) by showing how various authoritarian regimes have, for example, disingenuously used prevailing international “discourses on democracy” to extract resources that have helped them to remain in power (2000, pp. 219–226). Key elements of extraversion for Bayart are “duplicity” and the use of “make-believe” (2000, pp. 225–226).

Manipulation of structural dependencies has subsequently been a central lens through which scholars have analyzed African states’ securing of agency in a deeply asymmetrical international system. This has generally been premised on the argument that, in spite of their much greater global influence and impact, major powers continue to rely on certain weak states to secure particular international objectives. In their study of aid “ownership” (defined here as “control over [the domestic] policy agenda”), for example, Whitfield and Fraser argue that Ethiopian and Rwandan officials have carved out much greater authority in negotiations over policy choices with Western donors (who, during the 2000s and 2010s, have funded a substantial chunk of both countries’ budgets) than counterparts in Botswana or Zambia through “manouevering themselves into the position of key ally of a major donor” (Whitfield, 2009, p. 344; Whitfield & Fraser, 2009, pp. 40–41). A range of scholars argue in this vein that governments of states, including Chad, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Rwanda, and Uganda, have secured much increased and largely uncritical support from key Western donor states by leveraging their perceived reliability as partners in Western counterterrorism agendas (Chad, Ethiopia, Mauritania, and Uganda), as models of externally supported developmental success (Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda) or as guarantors of stability in insecure regional environments (all five; Beswick, 2010, 2014; Borchgevink, 2008; Fisher & Anderson, 2015; Furtado & Smith, 2009; Jourde, 2007).

While some of this literature conceptualizes the dynamics of African agency in this regard as little more than a cynical quid pro quo, a range of scholars have sought to go beyond this largely instrumentalist framework to show how African states have sought to challenge and redefine the analytical underpinnings of Western states’ rationales for engaging with them (Fisher, 2013a, 2013b). Beswick, for example, examines Rwanda’s role in reshaping donor understandings of regional intervention (2010, 2014), while Fisher has written on Uganda’s reframing of donor notions of state integrity and fragility, as well as security itself (Fisher, 2013a, 2013b, 2014). Wilen et al. (2015) have made similar contributions around Burundi and donor unpackings of post-conflict reconstruction. In general, this literature has now considerably rebalanced a debate on “the tail wagging the dog,” which once focused only superficially on the “tail.” There are broader questions, though, as to whether Africa’s international agency can be said to go beyond simply reframing or challenging concepts and relationships introduced, governed, or defined by external players.

The second key scholarly framework presented for understanding African agency in the international system has focused around African state engagement in multilateral institutions. This literature has examined the role played by African states in international health, law, and particularly economic fora and has scrutinized the different ways in which these actors secure room for maneuver within institutions whose rules they played no role in setting. Influenced by the 1980s “new international economic order” literature (Krasner, 1985), this body of work looks in particular at how African states employ collective strategies—and blocking mechanisms—to secure concessions or favorable policy moves (Harman, 2015; Zondi, 2013). Echoing some of Clapham and Bayart’s observations (albeit using, instead, Sharman’s “mimetic challenge” concept [Sharman, 2007]), Lee (2013) shows, for example, how African states’ collective instrumentalization of prevailing Northern discourses around development during the World Trade Organization’s Doha Development Agenda negotiations helped this group hold Northern states accountable for certain economic injustices and, in part, reconstitute the nature of pertinent debates on global economic governance. Analysis of African state engagement with international human rights bodies, notably the International Criminal Court (ICC), also underlines how collective action by African states can block or at least impede the formalization of particular norms at the global level. Mills and Bloomfield (2018), for example, present a range of African states, together with the African Union, as “norm antipreneurs” in their resistance to and collective delegitimization of the ICC since the late 2000s, arguing that these actions have, in part, helped to “stall the advance of [an] anti-impunity norm” at the international level.

Scholars who examine African agency at the international level through these lenses emphasize the extent to which grouping together in global fora can provide greater room for maneuver for the continent’s states.6 In this regard, they stress that key international organizations, notably the WTO and UN General Assembly, allocate votes of equal value to member states regardless of their size or strength. This has the effect of, at least notionally, eliminating structural barriers to influence found elsewhere in the global system, enabling like-minded African states to at least obstruct, if not override, agendas they do not support. Indeed, sovereignty is argued by most Africanist scholars to constitute a fundamental and intrinsic resource available to African states in securing agency and influence at the global level (Brown, 2012; Brown & Harman, 2013; Clapham, 1996; Fisher, 2017). As Jackson and Rosberg (1982) observed in their exploration of “why Africa’s weak states persist,” “sovereignty . . . is the central principle of international society,” and is recognized at a theoretical, legal, and normative level (“juridical sovereignty”) even when an internationally recognized government has little to no control over its purported territory (“empirical sovereignty”). Consequently, all African states, regardless of actual domestic strength or authority, can leverage their status as juridical sovereigns in a range of international fora regardless of their limited empirical sovereignty at home.

Once again, however, there is a question here as to whether this is as far as one can take explorations of African agency in international politics. Existing scholarship on African agency within international organizations continues to focus primarily on how African states instrumentalize externally derived concepts and rules to resist or subvert unwelcome agendas. There is much less evidence within this body of work of African states fundamentally and proactively changing these rules or the frames of reference within which international negotiations take place. As Lee (2013) notes, the strategies employed by African states in much of this literature can be best seen as “weapons of the weak.”

African Agency Beyond the State

To what extent does the focus of scholarship analyzed in “Agency in Tight Corners? Unpacking the Concept of African Agency” allow for broader dimensions of African agency to be envisaged, identified, and explored? Indeed, how African is African agency? One of the features that most unites the work of those scholars reviewed earlier is its emphasis on the actions, ideas, discourses, and strategies of African political leaders and high-ranking state officials.7 The majority of research on African agency in international security and diplomacy, for example, focuses heavily on the statements and decisions of presidents, prime ministers, military chiefs, and generals, and their relationships with counterparts in Washington, London, Beijing, and Paris (Bayart, 2000; Beswick, 2014; Carmody & Kragelund, 2016; Clapham, 1996; Corkin, 2016; Fisher, 2013a, 2017; Fisher & Anderson, 2015; Tieku, 2013). Examinations of space for African agency in international aid, health, and trade fora also place emphasis on the negotiating strategies and positions of senior diplomats, state representatives, and ministers, and on high-level talks in air-conditioned rooms in Geneva, New York, and Washington, DC (Beswick & Fisher, 2017; Harman, 2015; Lee, 2013); that is, there is a heavy focus on the African state as the embodiment of potential African action at the international level and on international institutions designed by current and future Western donor governments (notably the Bretton Woods institutions) as the focal point for pinpointing and conceptualizing the dynamics of African agency in international politics.

There is an important rationale to this focus on high politics and formal global institutions. Much research on African agency by Comparative Politics and International Relations scholars has been produced to counter the perceived Eurocentric, Realist perspectives of theorists such as those mentioned in “Introduction: From ‘Politically Empty Spaces’ to ‘African Agency’”— perspectives that have been and remain embedded in much of what one might call “mainstream IR [International Relations].” As Dunn and Shaw (2001) noted, Africa has tended to exist in IR theory as an entity only “acted upon” by others (pp. 2–4), something Croft (1997) also demonstrated in a survey where he observed that “the many paradigms [of IR] have collectively and uniquely excluded Africa” (p. 609). Arguably, to secure a wider reexamination of global power dynamics by mainstream IR theorists requires a demonstration of how African agency dynamics play out first and foremost within the spaces and relationships which those theorists themselves place at the heart of their analyses; why they matter to “the states that make the most difference,” to use the words of Waltz (1979, p. 73). While it is self-evident for most Africanist and Constructivist IR scholars that African states secure and exercise significant agency in the international system, this point remains debatable and continues to barely feature in much of IR as a discipline.8

Significant disadvantages exist, however, to an approach to African agency that continues to primarily pursue this line of enquiry. First and foremost, it can lead to an overstating of the enduring role and significance of Western actors and institutions for Africa and Africans themselves. The rise of China as a global power and of South–South cooperation in general has introduced an element of fluidity and ambiguity into the international system which African states have begun to broker to their advantage, quite outside of their historical postindependence relationships with the Western world (Mohan & Lampert, 2012). At the very least, this underlines the importance of examining new and informal international ties and linkages for understanding the broader dynamics of African agency in international politics.

More broadly, however, statist examinations of African agency discourage or distract scholars from adopting more context-specific and variegated frameworks for understanding how African agency plays out internationally. The extensive literature on the nature of the African postcolonial state raises critical questions on the relationship between formal and informal political and economic power structures and the role played by actors, institutions, and organizations at the margins of—or beyond—the internationally recognized state (Chabal & Daloz, 1999; Mkandawire, 2015; Reno, 1998; Van de Walle, 2001). Moreover, in parts of Africa, including early 21st-century Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and South Sudan, the state has limited reach within or is entirely absent from parts of its territory (Herbst, 2000). Consequently, other forms of meaningful political authority exist across the continent which engage with the international system and impact upon the lives of those under their control, but these barely feature in examinations of, for example, African agency at the UN or WTO because of their ambiguous international status (Bellagamba & Klute, 2008; Hagmann & Hoehne, 2009).

Finally, Africans, just like human beings living on any other continent, secure and exercise agency in international politics not only via their governments but also through a myriad of other mechanisms, and across sectors and spaces. African scholars, philanthropists, and activists, whether based in the continent or abroad, shape critical international debates and global thinking but rarely feature in scholarly examinations of African agency because of the focus taken by academics. One might question in this regard why work on African agency in international politics largely fails to name or reflect on impact of figures such as Mo Ibrahim, Wangari Maathai, John Githongo, or Chinua Achebe. To clarify, this point is not a criticism of the important research on African agency surveyed above per se, but is a point about the limitations currently placed by Africanist scholars on their own work and the way in which African agency is often conceptualized and understood by political scientists. The final section of this article therefore surveys a number of ways in which scholars are expanding and deepening understandings of the concept, suggesting a range of resolutions to some of the challenges discussed.

From African Agency to African Agencies?

In one of the most thoughtful recent conceptual explorations of African agency in international politics, Brown (2012) underscores the importance of considering the “range of different agencies at work” in the continent’s complex and multifaceted global relationships as a means to progress the debate, seeking to advance an ontological debate on agency (“what kind of agency is being analysed”), as well as the more empirical “how much” discussion explored in “Agency in Tight Corners? Unpacking the Concept of African Agency” (pp. 1889–1890). Murray-Evans has further nuanced this set of questions to more clearly distinguish between ontological and empirical considerations in the conceptualization of African agency and, indeed, African agents (Murray-Evans, 2015, pp. 1847–1848). This provides a helpful starting point for approaching the topic from a broader perspective than that adopted by many scholars to date, for the agency of states is just one element of African agency and not always the most meaningful or impactful for African peoples and communities themselves (Obi, 2014). It is appropriate, therefore, to examine what such an enquiry might look like in reality—pointing to three different approaches scholarship in the 2010s has taken to expanding and nuancing understandings of African agencies in international politics.

The first of these approaches examines how conceptual and normative agendas are set and developed at the international level and seeks to understand the role of African actors within these sets of processes. Recent research on African states’ global relationships, for example, has underlined how African leaders and officials secure agency at the international level not only by manipulating and instrumentalizing externally derived concepts (such as the “Global War on Terror” [Fisher, 2013a] or “development” [Lee, 2013]) but by reshaping and revising them. The work of Beswick (2014), Holmes (2014), and Kuehnel and Wilen (2018), for example, demonstrates how Rwanda’s involvement in international peacekeeping operations has entailed not only elements of extraversion (Bayart, 2000, 2009) but also a proactive and partly successful effort to reshape UN, AU, and Western donor perspectives on norms such as Responsibility to Protect, sovereignty, and the distinction between civilian and military roles in postconflict reconstruction and societies (see also Fisher & Anderson, 2015).

Fisher has also examined the role played by the Ugandan government during the 1990s and early 2000s in promoting and shaping what have later become key Western developmental agendas and modalities through their calibration of relations with counterparts in London and Washington, DC, in particular (Fisher, 2013b). Work by Milhorance and Soulé-Kohndou (2017) demonstrates how such practices are playing out in formal global architectures, including the UN Development Program and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, within the framework of “South–South Cooperation.” Examining the role played by African actors in shaping and (re-) negotiating the core concepts that govern the international system therefore presents opportunities for identifying and exploring African agency as an ongoing and dynamic process, and for conceptualizing African states and officials as coconstitutors of global norms.

No state, however, is a unitary actor in practice. Consequently, there is significant value in exploring how far different forms of agency can be identified and conceptualized through examining African states as composite and often contradictory structures in international politics. A particularly promising second area of inquiry, therefore, relates to explorations of African agency at the mesolevel. Work on the management and negotiation of everyday power relationships between Angolan, Beninois, and Ethiopian officials and Chinese contractors and delegates, for example, has uncovered the different spaces and forms of agency carved out by African officials in particular arenas and sectors (Corkin, 2016; Gadzala, 2015; Mohan & Lampert, 2012; Soulé-Kohndou, 2016), Moreover, exploring the dynamics of African agency at this level can allow for a more sophisticated analysis to be undertaken around agency at the margins of the state, particularly that secured and exercised by state-owned companies and subsidiaries dealing with Chinese and Western banks and corporations (Mohan & Lampert, 2012). Finally, how African agency is secured and exercised at the international level through the actions and experiences of those outside the state represents a critical, though underdeveloped as of 2018, area of enquiry. Scholarship on the daily interactions between African traders and businessmen and Chinese counterparts (Gadzala, 2015; Mohan & Lampert, 2012) provides a useful model in this regard, as does that on African civil society and NGO advocacy around human rights violations in international diplomacy (Glasius, 2009). The latter, for example, sheds critical light on the linkages between the everyday actions of African actors and organizations and the evolution and reform of major global processes and campaigns.


Once barely considered by International Relations scholars, the agency of Africa, and Africans, in the international system has become an increasingly central area of empirical and conceptual focus within the discipline and its subfields since the later 1990s. Inspired by constructivist and historical reimaginings of Africa’s global past and present, scholars have progressively challenged past portrayals of the continent and its states and inhabitants as peripheral and powerless, instead underlining the many spaces for African agency that exist, that have opened up, and that are secured in spite of the forbidding structural environment. Understandings of agency (see “Agency in Tight Corners? Unpacking the Concept of Agency”) have often been ambiguous or unclear within this growing literature, though analysts have tended to focus in this regard on conceptualizing the relationship between agential and structural factors—on how much power or influence African states (primarily) can be seen to possess or negotiate in particular empirical contexts.

However, there are empirical and normative limitations to this approach (see “African Agency Beyond the State”). In privileges the African state as an embodiment of its citizenry, focus is placed primarily on the agency of a small range of elite actors, and on relations and spaces of interaction with, major global powers, particularly Western states. “From African Agency to African Agencies?” discusses how scholarship on African agency has, since the mid-2010s, increasingly moved beyond purely empirical analyses of the phenomenon to consider in greater depth its ontological dimensions—specifically, the different forms of agency that can be conceptualized and different types of actor and relationship that it can be applied to. The article concludes by sketching out three emerging streams of inquiry in this regard, all of which seek to extend what has often been a largely state-centric discussion. The first of these examines the role of African actors in shaping ideas and norms across the global system, while the second disaggregates the African state to explore dynamics at the mesolevel—in particular the blurred divisions between bureaucrats, economic actors, and international corporations and entities. The final stream looks beyond state actors entirely to interrogate everyday interactions between African peoples, organizations, and the international system, from the market trader to the international human rights activist.


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(1.) The basis of Realist thinking—which contains multiple schools and theoretical contestations—is that the international system is anarchical and composed of state actors as the basic unit of power and analysis. These state actors are primarily concerned with their own survival, and their approaches to one another therefore focus around maximizing and, in some cases, deploying resources to protect or augment their position. For most Realists, the global system is characterized by antagonism and the self-interested actions of state actors, whose significance for wider theories depends on the extent of their global power.

(2.) The so-called English School of International Relations represents a partial exception to this generalization (see, e.g., the work of H. Bull & M. Wight on precolonial and colonial Africa).

(3.) Initially associated with the work of A. Wendt, Constructivism (1992, 1999) challenges the Realist and Neorealist position that structural power within the international system is fixed but, rather, is constructed intersubjectively by actors through social discourse and practice.

(4.) See, for example, Brown (2012), and Fisher (2011, pp. 46–51).

(5.) Recent literature on Djibouti also contains similar arguments, albeit in a very different context and in relation to a multitude of international actors, including China (Okonofua, 2015; Styan, 2016).

(6.) The work of Murray-Evans (2015) nonetheless cautions against homogenizing African regional and continental positions in analyses of international trade deals.

(7.) As evidenced by some of the references provided in this section and other sections of the article, the author includes some of his own work within this critique.

(8.) Harman and Brown (2013) rightly query, though, whether part of the mismatch between these two schools can be attributed to the continued lack of focus on theory-building in one and the limited weight given to empirically based studies in the other.