In a seemingly virtual era, maritime commerce and shipping retain a central role in contemporary global capitalism. Approximately 90% of global imports and exports currently travel by sea on around 93,000 merchant vessels, carrying almost 6 billion tons of cargo. Oceanic mobility and long-distance networks of trade are made possible and sustained by the life and labor of over 1.25 million seafarers currently working at sea as well as regimes of global security and governance. Yet, this oceanic world and its role in shaping politics, sociality, and regulation remains, for the most part, obscured and hidden out of sight in everyday life. As one of the oldest perils at sea, maritime piracy is not only a daily threat to seafaring and global shipping but makes visible this oceanic world and the larger networks of security and regulation that govern maritime commerce. In recent years, coastal Africa, specifically the waters off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea, has seen an unprecedented rise in incidents of maritime piracy. The geopolitical and global trade importance of these areas has led to numerous national, regional, and international military and legal responses to combat this problem. While often seen as a seaborne symptom of failed states or criminality, maritime piracy has a more complex relationship with land- and sea-based governance. Occurring primarily in spaces that are politically fragmented but reasonably stable maritime piracy is better understood as a practice of extraction and claim making on mobility that emerges from deeper historical contexts and is linked to land-based economies and politics. Emphasizing maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea within these wider historical and geographic contexts highlights the imbrication of the political and economic in shaping the emergence and transformations of this practice. This is not to deny the violence that constitutes maritime piracy, but to locate piracy within larger processes of mobility, governance, and political economy on the African continent and beyond. In addition to impacting local communities, seafarers, and global shipping, maritime piracy is key to apprehending challenges to global governance from the vantage point of the world’s oceans.
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.
Peter M. Lewis
In the era following the decolonization of Africa, the economic performance of countries on the continent can be traced across three periods. The early postindependence years reflected moderate growth and policy variation, with occasional distress in some countries. From the 1980s through the late 1990s, the region was gripped by a sweeping crisis of growth and solvency shaped by a steep economic downturn and a slow, stuttering recovery. This was also a period of convergence and restrictions on policy space. By the early 2000s, accelerated growth buoyed most economies in Africa, although commodity price shocks and the global economic slump of 2008–2009 created episodic problems. Different approaches to policy and strategy once again marked the landscape. A number of influences help to explain variations in the occurrence of economic crisis across Africa, and the different responses to economic distress. In addition to structural factors, such as geography, resource wealth, and colonial legacies, middle-range political conditions contributed to these downturns. Key institutions, core constituencies, and fiscal pressures were domestic causes and external factors include donor convergence, access to finance, and policy learning. One framework of analysis centers on three factors: ruling coalitions, the fiscal imperative, and policy space. The ruling coalition refers to the nature of the political regime and core support groups. The fiscal imperative refers to the nature of state finance and access to external resources. And the policy space comprises the range of strategic alternatives and the latitude for governments to make choices among broad policy options. Applying the framework to Africa’s economic performance, the first period was marked by distributional imperatives, a flexible fiscal regime, and considerable space for policy experimentation. During the long crisis, regimes came under pressure from external and domestic influences, and shifted toward a focus on macroeconomic stabilization. This occurred under a tight fiscal imperative and a contraction of policy space under the supervision of multilateral financial institutions. In the 2000s, governments reflected a greater balance between distributional and developmental goals, fiscal constraints were somewhat relaxed, and policy variation reappeared across the region. While the early 21st century has displayed signs of intermittent distress, Africa is not mired in a crisis comparable to those of earlier periods. Developmental imperatives and electoral accountability are increasingly influential in shaping economic strategy across the continent.
The sovereignty of postcolonial African states is largely derived from their recognition by other states and by the United Nations, irrespective of their actual effectiveness. Such international legal sovereignty has been a resource to weak African states, allowing them to endure against the odds, and to their rulers who have instrumentalized it to foster their domestic authority and domination. Yet, African sovereignty has also been a curse. Being exogenous to domestic social and political relations, it tends to isolate and shield rulers from the ruled and predisposes state institutions toward predation. It also standardizes and homogenizes the continent’s institutional landscape in disregard to the wealth and promise of effective institutional arrangements on the ground, to which it denies legitimacy. Despite the equilibrium properties of the African sovereignty regime, there might be opportunities to tweak the system in ways that could unleash more effective and accountable state and nonstate institutions.
Globalization, or increased interconnectedness between world regions, is a dialectical and recursive phenomenon that consequently tends to deepen through time as one set of flows sets off other related or counterflows. This is evident in the history of the phenomenon in Africa, where transcontinental trade, and later investment, were initially small but have grown through different rounds including slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, and the early 21st-century era of globalization. However, globalization on the continent, as in other places, is not unilinear and has generated a variety of “regional responses” in terms of the construction of organizations such as the African Union and other more popularly based associations. The phenomenon of globalization on the continent is deepening through the information technology “revolution,” which also creates new possibilities for regional forms of association.