P. H. Bischoff: African Foreign Policies

African Foreign Policies. Selecting Signifiers to Explain Agency

Bischoff, Paul-Henri
Routledge studies on African politics and international relations.
Abingdon, Oxon, New York 2020: Routledge
288 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ulf Engel, Institute of African Studies, Leipzig University

Déjà vu: Here is another interesting contribution to the debate on African agency. Recently I have discussed a volume on this topic edited by Elijah Nyaga Munyi, David Mwambari and Aleksi Ylönen – today we take a look at Paul-Henri Bischoff’s recent collection. The editor is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, Grahamstown-Makhanda (South Africa). He was head of department from 1999 to 2003 and, again, between 2007 and 2018. After retirement last year, Bischoff has remained active as a professor emeritus. In his long career, he has published widely on African foreign policies and in recent years focussed on the role of China on the continent.1

Apart from the editor’s introduction and conclusions, there are 13 chapters, mainly authored by African scholars. The volume brings together a group of seasoned and early career scholars, many of which have received parts of their post-graduate training at Rhodes University. With two exceptions – Tunisia and Guinea – the focus is on case studies from Anglophone African countries. Theoretically the contributions to this volume follow different approaches, though most of them have a leaning towards new neo-realism which seems to dominate the African scholarly landscape (notable exceptions acknowledged). In the first chapter Bischoff introduces the notion of the “signifiers” of African foreign policy agency. Those are said to be related, first, to an analytical shift “from one of the study of external dependence and asymmetries with the West to either a more dedicated adaptation of existing knowledge or the radical epistemological decolonisation of knowledge” (p. 3). Second, awareness for the relevance of regionalism and Pan-Africanism has increased. Third, interconnectivity with the outside world has increased. In recent years the continent is confronted with the advance of non-Western countries such as China, India, Turkey, Brazil, Iran, Israel, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea. Fourth, with the alleged rise of geo-political regions (and the demise of the principle of multilateralism in global politics, one might add) African global foreign policies responses have become more important.

In chapter 2 Bischoff himself starts the roundelay with conceptual notes on past academic writing on African foreign policies. His empirical example is focused on South Africa, Mbeki’s African Renaissance and the transformation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) into the African Union (AU). With the latter being key to African agency (p. 25), chapter 3 is devoted to that new continental body. In his analysis Tshepo Gwatiwa (University of the Witwatersrand) discusses “how the AU projects foreign policy” (p. 30), thereby exercising “agency” in global politics. According to Gwatiwa this is mainly done through “summitry” and “international partnerships”. The author clams that “it is difficult to locate the role of (African) identity in the AU’s international engagements because African multilateralism lacks ideational and structural authenticity” (p. 35). This is said to be because “[i]n most cases, African bureaucrats find themselves transliterating ideas and initiatives from elsewhere” (ibid.). This generalising statement seems to overlook the careful development of collective policies at the AU Commission over the years, be it on responses to unconstitutional changes of government and the actual role played by AU-led International Contact Groups, the common position on climate change or the reform of the United Nations’ architecture, to name but a few. Adding to the interest in regionalism, in her contribution Cecilia Lwiindi Nedziwe (University of Johannesburg) in chapter 13 reflects on collective policy making and the role of non-state actors in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This is the only chapter which, from a conceptual point of view, goes beyond the state-centrism of the debate (by interrogating the issue of gender security and arguing in favour of a mix actor approach followed by SADC).

The remainder of this edited volume is made up of contributions which circulate around two broad themes: case studies on the foreign policies of AU member states in general and reflections on the particular role of small states in foreign policy making in particular – a topic to which the volume’s editor himself had contributed to with this early work on Swaziland. There are country cases studies on South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Ghana. The Zuma presidency (2009–2017) is reviewed in chapter 4 by Mzukisi Qobo, the current head of the Wits School of Governance. The foreign policy of Ethiopia vis-à-vis Israel and the Middle Eastern Arab countries is at the heart of chapter 5, written by Makonnen Tesfaye, a UK-based senior consultant who, among others, had worked for UNCTAD before. In chapter 6 Olumuyiwa Amao, a post-doc who has graduated from Otago University in New Zealand, interrogates the balance between “agency” and “structure” in the interventionist foreign policy of his home country, Nigeria. This is followed by a chapter on Zimbabwe with focus on the cultural political economy authored by Mike Tigere Mavura, a lecturer in the Visual Studies Department at the Academy of Design and Photography at the University of Stellenbosch. In chapter 8 Korwa Gombe Adar (University of Botswana, Gaborone) and Mercy Kathambi Kaburu (United States International University–Africa, Nairobi) interrogate realist conceptions of Kenya’s foreign policy. And in chapter 14, Kwesi Aning and Kwaku Danso (both with the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra) address the relation between foreign and defence policy in Ghana from a role conception point of view (going back to K.J. Holsti 1970).

The chapters on the foreign policies of “small states” cover Botswana, Tunisia, Malawi and Guinea. In chapter 9 consultant Kabelo M. Mahupela revisits the case of Botswana. In chapter 10, visiting professor in the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, Ahmed Ali Salem (Zayed University, UAE), questions the foreign policy of Tunisia towards France. This is followed in chapter 11 by an analysis of the foreign policy of Malawi authored by Eugenio Njoloma (Mzuzu University, Malawi). And in chapter 12 Issaka K. Souaré (UN Standby Team of Senior Mediation Advisors) develops an argument on the foreign policy of Guinea.

Overall, the contributions to this edited collection make an interesting reading, often the authors are on top of the academic debate. It would not be fair to highlight the geographic gaps but, of course, the foreign policies of Algeria, Angola, Egypt or Senegal are fascinating in their own right. Yet conceptually, four issues may call for further detailed attention. First, the need for an epistemological decolonisation of knowledge referred to in the introduction (p. 3) has to be addressed more seriously and systematically. The overwhelming majority of contributions to this volume are operating within traditional IR territory which is characterized by conceptual Eurocentrism, methodological nationalism (with related strict inside/outside constructions and a skewed ontology) as well as the lack of thorough reflective debates on positionality and the underlying principles of knowledge production on foreign policies in the so-called Global South (in this respect, the chapter on Zimbabwe with its interest in the cultural turn and “Mugabeism” is a welcome exception).2 Bischoff, in his conclusion, summarizes the author’s common stance as being informed by “political and economic structuralism as explanatory frameworks”, with an “emphasis on agency, constructivism and Foreign Policy Analysis” (p. 250). Second, the role of regions, regionalisms and regional economic communities as bureaucratic actors in their own right both vis-à-vis member states and non-state constituencies has only begun to draw serious attention. Third, the policies of national, regional and continental actors in other international bodies needs to be scrutinized in far more detail (despite a most welcome start into this debate published two years ago).3 And, fourth, it is time for an empirical turn in the study of African foreign policies. While challenged by obvious constraints (e.g., the lack of accessible minutes of collective meetings at regional and continental levels), there is still much to be done to thoroughly scrutinize those sources which are available: from government documents, to parliamentary debates, to discourses in the public domain, to name but a few so far often ignored sources. In this respect, the interpretivist analysis proposed by Paul-Henri Bischoff as a guide to action “under conditions of multiplexity or interpolarity” (p. 252) may serve as a useful point of departure.

1 Among his publications is another edited volume on Africa in Global International Relations: Emerging Approaches to Theory and Practice (with Kwesi Aning and Amitav Acharya, Routledge 2016.
2 See Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Making sense of Mugabeism in local and global politics: ‘so Blair, keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe’, in: Third World Quarterly 30 (2009) 6, pp. 1139–1158.
3 See Jason Warner / Timothy M. Shaw (eds.), African Foreign Policies in International Institutions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2018.

Editors Information
Published on
Temporal Classification
Regional Classification
Book Services
Contents and Reviews
Additional Informations
Language of publication
Language of review