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Sub-Saharan Africa International Relations Essay

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Updated: Mar 12th, 2020


The problems affecting sub-Saharan Africa in the global system could be comprehended through the understanding of colonial legacies (Taylor 2010, p. 12). The Europeans divided sub-Sahara Africa into various units for easy administration. Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa were categorized as settler regions whereby the locals were forced to live in the suburbs while colonialists occupied the major towns.

This division and application of defective policies resulted to the problems that are still haunting the sub-Saharan region even in the modern society. World systems theory states that sub-Saharan African is the periphery while the west is the core. The sub-Saharan economy relies on cheap-manufactured goods from the west yet the region has enormous resources that cannot be compared to those of any other region in the world (Fortna 2008, p. 13).

Therefore, it could be easy to describe Sub-Sahara Africa as a marginalized region, yet the region plays a significant role in the global map.

Sub-Sahara Africa is known for its resources hence many states in the international system have always wanted to associate themselves with the leadership of the region. World economic powerhouses such as the US, Britain, China, and Canada have always generated strong foreign policies towards states in sub-Sahara Africa such as Kenya and South Africa due to their enormous economic chances.

There have been various changes in the foreign relations between the sub-Saharan region and other actors in the international system (Goldstein 2011, p. 70). These changes are brought about by the economic and political developments of the global system, especially the last part of Cold War and shift from bipolarity to unipolarity.

For instance, conflicts are no longer rampant in the sub-Saharan region such as Sudan and some parts of the East African region, which have redefined the relationships between states in the sub-Saharan region and other units (Howard 2009, p. 72). This article looks at the changes that the sub-Saharan region has gone through, which have readjusted its relations with other actors in the international system.

Research Question

To what extent has Africa’s dependency on external actors evolved over the last decade?

The Issue of Dependency

Dependency theory emerged to challenge modernization theory after it surfaced that the major role of global bodies such as the United Nations, World Bank, and IMF is to fulfill the wishes of the developed countries. The theory was formulated in Latin America to challenge the views of modernist theories, but it is widely applied in understanding African politics.

Immanuel Wallerstein developed a closely related theory referred to as the world systems theory to support the ideas of dependency theorists. Dependency theory insists that the ongoing relationship between the south and the north is not natural or accidental, but instead it is synthetic given the fact that colonialists created it.

The riches in the developed world are attributed to the imbalance of trade that takes place between the developed and the developing world. Therefore, developed countries could not be boosting of the economic achievements without the underdeveloped countries.

Industrialization in Europe and North America could not have materialized were it not for the slave trade that took place between Africa and the Caribbean Islands. In fact, some scholars accuse multinational organizations such as Barclays Bank and the IMF of benefiting from slavery.

Foreign direct investment and aid are the two factors that have dominated the foreign relations of sub-Saharan African states and other powers, particularly the western powers. However, the state of affairs is changing because Africans feel that they are sovereign and they should be given the chance to elect their leaders freely. The west has always influenced the outcome of elections since it seems to support friendly leaders.

In other words, the western powers throw their weight behind leaders who support their policies. A number of African leaders have been forced to rely on foreign aid meaning that they cannot formulate any policy without consulting the donors.

Moreover, almost all projects being implemented in the African continent are controlled by western powers. Major investments are also owned by western powers since they never relinquished industries after colonialism. This leaves the sib-Saharan region to depend on foreign aid and foreign direct investment.

Political Changes

In the 1990s, civil wars were very common in the sub-Sahara region, especially in the central African region such as Congo, mainly because of the presence of warlords and the effects of the Cold War. The conflicts were organized because particularly government-funded rebels carried out crimes against humanity in large-scale.

Many states in the region are celebrating their fifth anniversary, but the nature of violence has changed because only post-election violence is witnessed. This is mainly evident in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Mali, Senegal, and Ivory Coast. Previously, the governments organized and funded violence, but currently the focus has been on elections.

Even the global powers were involved in committing crimes against innocent people because they supplied weapons, especially in places such as Congo whereby there are enormous resources. Currently, conflicts are mainly internal because groups fight over governmental power and authority (Fearon & Laitin 2011, p. 199).

The conflicts were mainly inter-state, but the recent conflicts are mainly intra-state whereby various groups rise up to challenge the validity of the government. Mass killings, forcible transfer of the population, and civil wars, have characterized the political systems of the sub-Saharan states. These political issues have dictated their relations with other actors.

Some political analysts observe that sub-Saharan region is the mainly affected ferocious region globally. Sub-Sahara Africa has been able to shift from civil disorder to the state of stability mainly because of the developments in the global arena.

Fragile countries, jagged topography, oil deposits, valuable natural resources, as well as economic differences characterize the sub-Saharan region. All these are considered a curse because they always cause conflicts. Other actors in the international system formulate policies based on these factors (Mamdani 1996, p. 29).

The activities of civil groups cannot be neglected when analyzing the changes that have taken place in the region as regards to foreign relations. The west has always worked with civil groups to put pressure on various governments to accept reforms, especially after the Cold War. In the Cold War era, the United States and the Soviet Union provided funds to insurgent groups and governments, as long as they supported the western policies.

This support was given to countries in the Horn of Africa and those found in south of sub-Saharan Africa. Illegal groups and government militias had access to weapons, technical support in terms of training, and diplomatic support (Morten 2009, p. 36). After the Cold War, the west started holding states responsible because world powers such as the US advocated for democracy.

Many militias became vulnerable to attack and others surrendered because they could no longer sustain the conflicts. The civil groups put too much pressure on governments to accept reforms and embrace democracy.

Some powerful personal rulers such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Liberia’s Samuel Doe were vulnerable to internal and external attack because they could not maintain their armies (Autesserre 2008, p. 23). In Angola, UNITA became very weak because it relied on the west for everything, especially in terms of military support.

In the last decade, starting from the late 1990s and early 2000s, the insurgent groups could no longer receive state funding or international funding because policies were designed at the global level barring illegal acquisition of firearms and offering training to illegal groups. In some places such as Sudan, the insurgent groups were supported mainly to counter the influence of foreign illegal groups.

The government of Sudan supported the Janja Weed to counter the influence of the Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda. After Cold War, society was perceived to be open mainly because of the idea of the multiparty elections because all groups were invited to participate in selecting the country’s leadership (Herbst 2000, p. 43).

Many insurgent groups avoided fighting from the bush and instead shifted their focus on overthrowing the status quo using the legally acceptable means, which is democracy. The international support has shifted in the past decade because funding is now directed towards elections (Fearon & Laitin 2003, p. 80).

The west supports the candidates that are perceived to be responsive to their policies. Intense lobbying and cutthroat competition usually characterize campaigns in the sub-Saharan region mainly because the stakes are always high.

The presence of rebellious groups in the region is another challenge that the governments of the sub-Sahara region have had to contend with because this dictates their relations with other actors in the international system. These rebellious groups are mainly counter-system meaning that they are against the existing social and political structure.

The groups aspire to change the rules of the game by suggesting a fundamental approach to issues (Barnett & Finnemore 2004, p. 76). These groups include AQIM, the Al Shabab, and the Lord’s Resistant Army. Others include the separatist groups of Namibia and Senegal, which has pushed the government to the wall to accept reforms. These groups seek the changes that cannot be attained because they affect the lives of the citizens negatively.

In Senegal and Namibia, these groups demand for their own administrative units with powers to form their own self-governments. In a democratic society, the groups can only be allowed to secede through a referendum. The Al Shabab demands that Islamic laws be applied in regions populated by the Islamic community. This is against the wishes of the majority because Islamic laws are oppressive.

On their side, the Lord’s Resistance Army demands that they should be allowed to form a government in Uganda without going through a democratic process (Young 1997, p. 89). Terrorism, which is closely related to extremism, is considered a global threat because it affects the sovereignty of all states in the world. Moreover, it affects the existence of all other actors in the international system.

The sub-Sahara region has been forced to strengthen its relations with other actors in the international system mainly to resolve the issue of extremism. In the last decade, Kenya, Eritrea, Tanzania, and Uganda have been the targets of the extremists because of their close links with the west.

The demands of the insurgent groups such as those of Al Shabab, AQIM, and Lord’s Resistance Army cannot be met because they seek different political setups that cannot flourish in any society. In Ivory Coast, the insurgents reemerged in 2002 and persisted to 2010 when the international community was forced to kick out the autocratic ruler (Bellamy & Williams 2011, p. 846).

This changed international relations of sub-Saharan states in relation to the west. Previously, African presidents could always retain power using unscrupulous means such as stealing elections. The insurgent groups in the last decade are different from those in the previous decades because they fought for inclusion in the electoral process.

The west had no option but to support the insurgents, such as that in Ivory Coast because its fight was aimed at instituting democratic ideals. In the Horn of Africa, the relations between East African governments and other global actors are even stronger given the fact that they are both faced with a similar problem, which is related to terrorism (Stathis & Laia 2010, p. 417).

Recently, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Djibouti sent their troops to Somalia to flush out members of the Al Shabab, which has been destabilizing the economy of the region through the abduction of tourists and piracy at sea.

Economic Relations

After the Cold War, the major economic partners in the sub-Saharan region were the British, French, and Americans. However, things have changed in the last decade because China is the major trade partner in many parts of the region (Holslag 2010, p. 368). China’s approach is different because it does not give conditions. In fact, China’s major oversees policy is non-interference with the local issues of other countries.

China has never engaged itself in the supply of weapons to insurgent groups, as was the case with the British and the Americans. However, there is a conflict between the governments of the sub-Saharan region and the western states such as the United State and various other states of Europe. China gives foreign aid without requesting governments to adopt democratic ideals.

With the conclusion of the Cold War, strong crisis resolution of mechanisms has been instituted in sub-Sahara Africa (Collier & Hoeffler 2004, p. 565). Conflicts related to resource allocation and trade barriers are currently addressed through the regional bodies and international organizations. The region plays a critical role in international trade because many states are signatories to global and regional trade pacts.

The United Nations is one of the conflict resolution bodies that have shaped relationships between states in the sub-Saharan region and other actors (Clapham 2005, p. 78). The Chapter VII mandate of the UN allows states in the region to resolve their conflicts using the best available mechanisms. This is different from the previous treaties of the decades that only allowed states to act based on the Chapter VI mandates of the UN charter.

The Changing Economic Trend

There is a shifting trend whereby many sub-Saharan states are embracing China and subsequently abandoning the west. On its part, the rising demand for African materials in China has forced the Chinese government to shift its focus to Africa. Statistics show that trade totaling over fifty billion US dollars took place between China and sub-Sahara Africa. In particular, China imported timber from Congo, copper from Zambia, and oil from Angola.

The GDP of sub-Sahara Africa has grown tremendously due to the presence of the Chinese in the region. Moreover, the prices of African oil and other natural resources, such as metal, have gone up. Chinese aid and foreign direct investment is a blessing to many African states since it does not come with conditions.

However, the relationship between China and the sub-Saharan region is also affecting local production since the prices of oil has gone for countries without oil while the presence of cheap Chinese goods is a threat to local industries.

The west accuses China of propagating poor governance and destabilizing macroeconomic management, yet sub-Saharan states view the presence of Chinese in the region as a blessing since they do not hold leaders responsible.

Through regionalism, sub-Saharan Africa has achieved most of its economic interests because trade barriers have been reduced greatly. In the global arena, the various regional bodies have been able to negotiate as a bloc. Regional blocs play an additional role of ensuring that peace prevails in the region (Stewart 2008, p. 23).

Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) is one of the regional blocs that have been active as far as boosting the region’s economic interests is concerned. Regarding conflict prevention and resolution, regional blocs have resolved so many issues in the last decade. In the Kenyan crisis of 2007/2008, the African Union set up a committee to broker a deal between the two warring groups.

Kofi Annan was chosen as a leader to represent African Union in ensuring that post-election violence and crisis in Kenya ends (Cederman, Weidmann, & Skrede, 2011, p. 482). Within one month, Kofi Annan managed to bring together the Party of National unity (PNU) and the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) to the negotiating table.

A power sharing deal was agreed whereby the PNU side accepted to relinquish some cabinet positions to the ODM side. This shows that the relations between states in the region and the global society are changing. In 1997, the incumbent president of Kenya was accused of stealing elections, yet the west did not take any action. Things changed in 2007 because the west could not sit back and watch things go wrong.

In 1994, there was a serious conflict in Rwanda that resulted to the destruction of property and massive loss of life, yet the west did nothing (Peskin 2008, P. 89).

In 2010, the Kenyan premier, together with other African heads of states, was put to task to ensure that sanity is restored in Ivory Coast following the much-disputed elections (Bassett & Straus 2011, p. 130). In the region, South Africa is one of the states that have a critical responsibility in shaping financial and political events. This is mainly because of its economic and military power.


Relations among the sub-Sahara Africa states and relations between these states and other actors in the international system have improved in the last decade. This is mainly attributed to the growth of the international system, which shifted from bipolarity to uni-polarity in the early 1990s.

The west started holding leaders responsible after the Cold War meaning that governments were expected to embrace democracy and open up their economy to individual investors. Before 2000, foreign states designed policies towards states of the sub-Saharan region with violence and civil disorder being some of the major factors that were considered.

List of References

Autesserre, S 2008, The Trouble with the Congo: Local violence and the failure of international peace building, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Barnett, M & Finnemore, M 2004, Rules for the World: International organizations in global politics, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Bassett, T & Straus, S 2011, “Defending democracy in Côte d’Ivoire: Africa takes a stand”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, no. 4, pp 130–40.

Bellamy, A & Williams, P 2011, “The new politics of protection? Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and the responsibility to protect,” International Affairs, Vol. 87, no. 4, pp 845-870.

Cederman, L, Weidmann, N & Skrede, G 2011, “Horizontal inequalities and ethno nationalist civil war: a global comparison”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 105, no. 3, pp 478–495.

Clapham, C 2005, Africa and the International System: The Politics of State Survival, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Collier, P & Hoeffler, A 2004, “Greed and grievance in civil war,” Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 56, no. 4, pp 563–595.

Fearon, J & Laitin, A 2011, “Sons of the soil, migrants, and civil war,” World Development, Vol. 39, no. 2, pp 199–211.

Fearon, J & Laitin, D 2003, “Ethnicity, insurgency, and civil war,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, no. 1, pp 75–90.

Fortna, P 2008, Does Peacekeeping Work. Shaping belligerents’ choices after civil war, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Goldstein, J 2011, “Humanitarian intervention comes of age’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, no. 6, pp 60–73.

Herbst, J 2000, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Holslag, J 2010, “China and the coups: coping with political instability in Africa”, African Affairs, Vol. 110, no. 40, pp 367–386.

Howard, L 2009, UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Mamdani, M 1996, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, James Currey, Oxford.

Morten, B 2009, “New nationalism and autochthony: tales of origin as political cleavage”, Africa Spectrum, Vol. 44, no. 1, pp 19–38.

Peskin, V 2008, International Justice in Rwanda and the Balkans: Virtual trials and state cooperation, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Stathis, K & Laia, B 2010, “International system and technologies of rebellion: how the end of the Cold War shaped internal conflict”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 104, no. 3, pp 415–429.

Stewart, F 2008, “Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict: Understanding group violence in multiethnic societies”, Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Taylor, I 2010, International Relations of Sub-Saharan Africa, Continuum, London.

Young, C 1997, The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective, Yale University Press, New York.

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