South Africa and Secondary Powers: Contestation in Sub-Saharan Africa

Photo: WikiCommons, David Stanley

The second most powerful states in regional hierarchies – or secondary powers – can be expected to contest against hegemons.

Angola and Nigeria, and to a lesser extent Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, can be considered secondary powers in sub-Saharan Africa. This paper assesses the policies that these states pursue in terms of regional economics and security, and shows how these affect South Africa. Whereas contestation is commonly defined as counter-policies of secondary states that seek to contain or even end hegemony through competitive or conflictive means, findings show that contestation in sub-Saharan Africa is often unintended. This means that policies pursued by secondary powers might undermine South Africa’s position but they are not specifically designed for that purpose. For example, Angola’s foreign policy has shifted from unintended contestation to a strategy of soft balancing owing to the country’s growing economic influence and its reluctance to join the SADC free trade area. Ethiopia, in turn, cooperates economically with some of its neighbouring countries and has deployed armed forces to countries in the region that are gripped by violent internal conflicts.

However, given the lack of overlap between Ethiopia’s objectives and South Africa’s, there is no evidence of contestation. Kenya, meanwhile, may contest against South Africa at an economic level but has not done so yet. The potential for contestation is linked to disagreements between the two countries over the role of the Tripartite Free Trade Area and the fact that both compete for markets in East Africa. Nigerian–South African relations have been tainted by incidents of diplomatic friction but these fall short of a deliberate strategy of contestation. Yet unintended contestation in an economic sense is evident owing to Nigeria’s economic diplomacy. Sudan does not pursue an active policy on sub-Saharan Africa. It mostly reacts to security problems resulting from its own instability. This means that Sudan does not, in any way, contest against South Africa.

28 Sep 2017