The proliferation of economic summits and partnerships and the opportunities they bring, present an opportunity for Africa to reassert its agency, as well as redefine and reapply pan-Africanism.

In the past decade, there has been a noticeable increase in foreign economic and diplomatic engagement with AfricaIn 2000, there was a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC); in 2008; the India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) and notably, in 2019, the Russia-Africa SummitSome have referred to this increased engagement with Africa through summitry as a ‘new scramble’ for Africa.

Folashade Soule argues that referring to the increased engagement with Africa as a ‘new scramble centres foreign countries’ interests and removes the agency from African actors, because unlike the 1884 scrambleAfrican leaders are involved in the agenda-setting and exercise agencyThus, Africa’s engagement in these fora is itself an exertion of agency.


African states compete to attract foreign investment through forum shopping, and can actively diversify economic partners to reduce dependency, improve visibility and, in some cases, temporarily escape from continental political isolation or pariah status. Partnerships with countries such as China and Russia are renowned for having fewer or no conditionalities attached, in comparison with the West. This development, and the competition from other foreign entities looking to invest and find favourable partnerships on the continent, means that African states have a wider range of options and flexibility than they have had since the end of the Cold War. As such, engaging and acting collectively strengthens the continent’s position relative to these partners and secures greater benefits for a greater number of states, including some that may otherwise be overlooked in unilateral dealings. 

As African actors exercise their agency through these summits, it is important to focus on what the material outcomes and benefits can be not just for leaders, but for African citizens at large. Agency needs to exceed forum shopping and include the execution and materialization of these interactions. For example, improving regional infrastructure and interconnection, a shared priority of regional organizations, would improve intra-regional trade and lead to higher economic growth across the continent. Essentially, agency should extend to acting on the plans and Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) already in place, not just signing up for more.

Revisiting the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, for instance, suggests that by conducting more of its international relations through regional and sub-regional bodies, Africa can maximize the benefits to be gained from this proliferation of foreign partnerships and summitsRegional platforms afford African countries more leverage in negotiation. They also provide the added benefit of realizing pan-African ideals in the sense that the continent would be acting collectively to achieve common economic goals.  


According to William Brown and Colin Wight, agency is acting with intent in a representative capacity, to effect a change. Wight argues that agency has a tripartite character, namely: ‘doing something’ (acting), ‘being an agent of something as bearers of the context from which they originate’ and occupying particular roles which, depending on the context, may empower or constrain the agent’s choices. They acknowledge that agency is shaped by a combination of internal and external factors, in relation to wider socio-political constraints. To this end, Brown argues that no analysis of African agency is complete without discussing ‘Africa as a collective actor’ i.e. through its regional bodies, and ‘Africa as a collection of states with a shared history’ i.e. colonization and decolonization 

African regional organizations are fundamentally pan-African actors. This is evident from their actions, the socio-cultural and historical contexts in which they were created and exist in, and the roles they play vis-à-vis the states they representSuch organizations were formed in the context of post-independence, pan-Africanism, and regional economic integration. Through their separate sub-regional organizations with varying mandates that empower them differently from national or sub-national actorsAfrican regional organizations take actions ranging from declarations to interventions, advocacy, and peacekeeping.  

An extension of this mandate to include a more active role in foreign relations, an arguably more effective approach to summitry, would entail involving the regional economic communities (RECs), commissions, or secretariats, similar to how the AU commission was actively involved with the Sochi summit and others before it. Having the eight RECswith their own commissions and executives, replace Heads of State declutters these summits and streamlines the continent’s collective goals. It also allows for greater involvement of those most actively involved in the day-to-day running of the REC and its regional integration plans, leading to closer alignments between summit agreements and pre-existing regional plans. 


In the period between the fifth Pan-African Congress (1945) and the new millennium, pan-Africanism as practiced and applied in Africa focused on securing colonial independence and territorial sovereignty. What Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah called ‘the political kingdom’ was to be realized first through independence and eventually as a supranational unified African government.  

To other newly independent African leaders, Nkrumah’s singular political vision was perceived as a power grab. The consensus was that economic cooperation was more important and feasible. This culminated in the creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 and the East African Community (EAC)an independent continuation of a colonialera customs unionin 1967.   

In 2002, the African Union (AU) was launched as the OAU’s successor, with a renewed emphasis on continental economic integration and cooperation. This shift in focus represents the evolution of both the agent and the approach to exercising their agency, in response to significant factorsin this case the end of colonization and apartheid. With the proliferation as a new significant factor whose outcome affects all Africans, pan-African agents should be more actively engaged in this summitry.  

At various points since declaring their independence, African countries and organizations have infused pan-Africanism in their foreign relations. Nigeria’s first foreign minister, Jaja Wachuku, centred pan-Africanism in the country’s foreign policy, emphasizing continental cultural and economic cooperation and a duty to people of African descent. One of the OAU’s stated aims was eradicating neo-colonialism and apartheid, manifesting through the diplomatic and military aid offered to South African freedom fighters. Along with military staging and some financial help, the OAU also leveraged its size in the UN to grant the ANC observer status and impose an arms embargo on the South African government.  

More recently, African countries fought for their economic interests as part of the Doha Round of World Trade Organisation negotiations, adopting benchmarks and common positions on development objectives as the African group. Although that negotiation round is effectively dead, the cooperation shown at that level can be replicated when engaging with the summitry to ensure more favourable terms and outcomes for Africawith the Sochi 2019 Summit being one such example . 


As part of its efforts towards a more multipolar world with reduced Western influence and to improve its own foreign pedigree, Russia has intensified its outreach to African countries. Throughout the decolonization era, the Soviet Union (USSR) was another option for African states unwilling to align with the US. The USSR went as far as supplying arms for independence wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau and providing university scholarships for African students to study in Moscow. Although these acts were strategic in the context of the Cold War, they allowed African leaders to diversify their options and exercise agency, by presenting an alternative to the US and its Cold War alliances with former colonial powers 

The International Agency for Sovereign Development (IASD) was formed in 2019 and is led by Putin ally Konstantin Malofeev. Its mission is …to assist the governments of Russian partner countries, [particularly] African states, in carrying out economic reforms, attracting investments in international financial markets and unlocking the potential for increasing shareholder value of the region’s major corporations, as a means of achieving economic independence because ‘real sovereignty begins  with economic sovereignty’. The IASD plans to strengthen Africa’s economic sovereignty by restructuring the continent’s existing debt on supposedly more favourable terms to strengthen African states’ sovereign wealth funds. The IASD also aims to issue more unsecured Eurobonds and strengthen African infrastructure and extraction sectors.  

The IASD’s emphases on sovereignty and independence are intentional, given their importance to African countries with their histories of colonization and economic reliance on primary goods and foreign aid. Furthermore, with the concerns about the continents debt to westerndominated international financial institutions and China, along with worries about Africa’s ability to service such debts (and complaints from leaders about interest rates)the focus on debt servicing and restructuring helps ingratiate Russia to the continent and its leaders. 

Following the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, the Kremlin reported $2.5 billion worth of deals had been struck, although they were mostly Memoranda of Understanding (MoU). This includes the MoUs signed by the IASD with DR Congo, Guinea, and Niger, to advise them on leveraging sovereign debt to attract foreign investment and funding.  

Before the formation of the IASD and the summit, Russia’s African presence had mostly been arms and military-related. Since 2015, over 20 military cooperation agreements have been signed with African countries including Nigeria, Mali, and Sudan. Russian private military contractors are supporting militia against the UN-backed government in Libya, while in the Central African Republic such contractors are supporting the UN-backed government. Only 3.7 per cent of Russian exports go to Africa, with about one per cent of that to Sub-Saharan countries.  

While Russia is the continent’s biggest arms supplier, Africa accounts for 16 per cent of Russian arms exports, with 80 per cent of that going to Algeria alone. This militaristic emphasis is also reflected in the 2019 summit’s theme: ‘Peace, Security, and Development’. In his addresses and interviews around the summit, President Putin frames the militaristic relationship as necessary to protect independence and sovereignty, including from extremist and terrorist groups and to the continued cooperation between Africa and Russia on regional security.  

There are many reasons to be cautious about Russian engagement on the continent. Economically, debt-driven unsecured bonds are no longer as solid as they used to be. Whereas previous sovereign defaults could be written off or were difficult for creditors to recoup on, this outcome is no longer as certain as once thought, as countries including Argentina, Lebanon, and Ukraine have had to reach bigger-than-usual agreements with tenacious bondholders. This is because unlike previous instances of debt forgiveness, where creditors were governments, international financial institutions (IFIs), and big banks, the main creditors are now international private funds like BlackRock and Franklin Templeton. Such creditors can make a case based on their fiduciary duty’—a legal and ethical responsibility akin to attorney-client privilege—to their investors and funds, to secure more favourable debt restructurings than are typical for sovereign defaults. Furthermore, reliance on these unsecured bonds does not necessarily generate better debt habits, and in the event of a sovereign default, bondholders may end up controlling too large a percentage of a growing country’s debt as part of their settlements, which is counterintuitive to the pan-African ideals and even the IASD’s stated aims.  

The IASD approach seems to understate how volatile primary and extractive sector prices can be, and how reliant many African economies are on them. In the event of a market shocke.g., oil price drop or pandemic, these states will have less money to repay these bonds when they mature. African sovereign bonds are viewed as higher risk than those from more developed economies and with higher risk comes higher yields. Thus, there is an oversubscription to these bonds, as investors see the opportunity to win big. With a total return of 21 per cent in 2019, African sovereign bonds performed better than any other emerging market region. The downside to this is that investors are also quick to withdraw from these riskier bonds during uncertainty, and having jumpy partners is less than ideal for countries working towards stable and long-term improvement. 

Another concern with the IASD approach is the debt service-to-GDP ratio. African Development Bank (AfDB) president, Akinwumi Adesina, notes that this is a worrying trend, because by the time these bonds mature, the infrastructure projects governments Africans are counting on to generate returns to pay bondholders, may not have accrued enough returns, putting governments in a bind. There have also been complaints about an ‘Africa premium’ for Eurobonds, with countries like Senegal and Ghana paying higher interest rates than similar or lower rated European countries, which makes it costlier for the African countries to service their external debt or attend to their citizens’ needs. Given previous continental requests during the Great Recession for more African inclusion in the global economy, Africa should make the most of the increased attention and courting by ensuring and negotiating the most beneficial outcomes for its people, instead of further indebting them.  

The AfDB‘s African Domestic Bond Fund invests in currency bonds from eight African countries, and is an option worth exploring and developingas Africa has the majority voting share on the bank’s board. Combined with the AfDB’s mandate and history of cooperation with the RECs, the fund gives African countries more direct control and oversight than with the IASD. As the general illiquidity of local African bond markets makes it harder for foreign investors to sell their positions as quickly and easily as they would Eurobondsit supports the African bond market by investing in bonds issued in local currency, alleviating some of the debt burden and making them easier to pay off, compared to the foreign currency Eurobonds. Already under the auspices of a trusted African agent, this domestic bond fund could also be a starting point for African countries to establish a continental position to strengthen their bargaining for better and more competitive interest rates and eventually coordinate their increasingly popular bond markets.  


Uniting on the basis of shared economic interests on the continent has been relatively successful over time. This is visible in the progress subregional organizations like the East-African Community (EACwhich eliminated trade tariffs in East Africa between its members. Similarly, the South African Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with free intra-regional movement of people. Moreover, the AU with the African Continental Free Trade Area have made progress integrating parts of their economies.  

These organizations already have a foundation and history of cooperating to achieve regionally beneficial outcomes. A greater reliance on, and delegation to them as agents of African summitry is appropriate, especially as a lot of the proliferation is focused on the continent’s economic potential. Lastly, as these organizations are viewed as helpful by Africans, more engagement through them may also be viewed as legitimate by Africans, whose interests these organizations work to advance.  

Strategically, increased reliance on regional organizations allows the continent to maximize the benefits of forum shopping, thereby getting as much as possible to as much of the continent as possible, from as many partners as possible while prioritizing Africans’ interests. Operating through these organizations also gives many African states more leverage than they would ordinarily have in dealing unilaterally with Russia or other actors 

As Brown notesthe AU’s size and membership mean it can out-perform its weight in traditional estimations of power. With the failure of Nkrumah’s supranational political approach, it is worth trying to, instead, define and practise pan-Africanism on the continent by emphasizing the more tangible common economic interestsaround which member states can organize, to secure better terms and potential outcomes from summitry. Engaging in this manner, accrues more benefits for smaller countries that otherwise do not have big enough economies to unilaterally compete with regional heavyweights through forum shopping. 

Increasing the size of the marketplace strengthens the continent’s collective bargaining hand and spreads out the costs and benefits of engaging with the proliferation. However, there are intra-regional politics to consider that may hinder this collective approach. For example, the disagreements between the Francophone and Anglophone ECOWAS members over the naming, transition to and pegging of the proposed currency union for West Africa illustrate leaders’ concerns about regional hegemony, cooperation problems and a mutual distrust, with Ivory Coast and other Francophone countries fearing Nigerian domination.  

Politically, Russia’s tendency to encourage incumbent state governments to stay in power is scarcely in the best interests of citizens, given that many of these governments are (quasi) dictatorships. Putin’s emphasis on military affairs and the defense of sovereignty plays on certain leaders’ fears of secessions, uprisings, and other internal issues. Problems that should be resolved with better policy and stronger independent institutions, not weapons. Additionally, with its history of projecting more power than it actually has and recent prioritization of Serbia and Eastern Europe over Africa for COVID-19 aid, Russia may not be the most reliable partner for the continent in hard times. Involving only AU and REC commission or secretariat chiefs in the summits reduces the appeal of Russian weapons for example, because unlike Heads of State, they do not stand for domestic elections and in cases like ECOWAS and the EAC, their terms are non-renewable, thereby keeping the focus on the continent’s economic interests.  

This is similar to a suggestion made in the 2017 Paul Kagame-led Imperative to Strengthen Our Union AU Reform report, that the REC chairpersons (a Head of State), along with a troika of AU chairpersons past, current and incoming, represent Africa in external partnership summits for strategic and operational reasons.  

However, the focus on only Heads of State, while matching up diplomatically with the host presidents, still leaves the summits and their results susceptible the heads of state’s domestic (national) power concerns. This greater responsibility for commissions and secretariats may also be limited by financial constraints to maintaining and improving organizational operations, as the AU and sub-regional organizations have faced documented struggles to keep their organizations running due to members often struggling to pay membership dues. This in turn leads to an overreliance on external often earmarked donor funding, yet another constraint to African agency.   

Furthermore, with five countries covering around 66 per cent of the AU budget, regional and economic hegemons may themselves be wary of more freeriding with the collaborative approach to summitry. Although the AU took steps in 2017 as part of the Kagame-led report to improve its self-financing, state-level implementation and compliance are still lacking.

Research has shown that the continent stands to benefit from increasing regional trade and economic cooperation; the UN estimates the recently ratified African Continental Free Trade Area could boost African trade by up to 50 per cent over the next 20 years, creating a market the size of the EU and reducing transborder transportation costs. As such, engaging with the proliferation through regional bodies may help quicken and improve their regional operations, especially if agreements are made in accordance with pre-existing regional economic plans, allowing for consistency and smoother implementation down the line. This empowerment would also allow regions to take more autonomy of their development, and maximize the utility from the proliferation, as each region stands to benefit from some of the proliferations offerings, from Chinese infrastructure loans to Russian energy expertise, thereby giving the continent more options. 

However, empowering regional bodies requires more transparency, freedom of information, and cooperation from African governments than there currently is. It requires political will and action at the state level to work, given member states make up these organizations and the organizations have no legislative power. The corruption and administrative dysfunction problems of individual governments filters into the operational structure of regional organizations, limiting their capacity to act and follow up on their policies. More transparent and accountable governance at the state level may also reduce the demand for Russian arms and security, because transparent and accountable governments do not need force to win elections or respond to other popular demands.  


With average commitment and implementation readiness levels for the AfCFTA hovering around 50 per cent, and the contractionary economic effect of the pandemic on sources of foreign investment and funding, economic cooperation is now as important as ever. The proliferation of economic summits and partnerships and the opportunities they bring, present an opportunity for Africa to reassert its agency as well as redefine and, reapply pan-Africanism.  

By operating more through regional organizations designed to embody pan-Africanism and mandated to represent Africa’s best interests, Africa can maximize the benefits from forum shopping through this proliferation and prioritize its interests over the summit hosts’ wider geopolitical rivalries. As these organizations have a history of cooperation and collectively have more leverage than when unilaterally engaged, a more centralized approach to summitry prevents economic balkanization, ensures a focus on securing the best terms and outcomes, and avoids entering agreements that only deliver more of the same—in this case, more weapons and debt, without regard or detail for material outcomes for the citizens. Nonetheless, this cannot come about or be sustained, without significant internal improvements in the states that comprise these organizations

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