Regional powers are not always benevolent leaders when it comes to the building of regional institutions. While powerful states – particularly the “new” rising powers – may have a vested interest in regionalism as a means of projecting influence, regional powers may behave as coercive or benevolent leaders, or alternatively display an absence of leadership altogether. The drivers of varying regional power behavior can be attributed to their competing concerns regarding (economic) power, functional efficiency, international legitimacy, and neopatrimonial networks. This paper explores the varying behavior of Nigeria and South Africa in relation to the institutionalization of free trade areas and regional courts within their respective regions. Nigeria has displayed little leadership in ECOWAS trade integration due to domestic opposition; however, a newly-democratic Nigeria’s search for international legitimacy drove the establishment of the ECOWAS Court of Justice. Likewise, South Africa’s search for legitimacy drove its support for the SADC Tribunal, but the competing demands of different audiences led it to abandon this support. South Africa has also displayed leadership in relation to the SADC Free Trade Area; however, its neighbors perceive it as a self-interested, almost coercive actor. The findings suggest that the motivations for regional powers’ behavior vary across time and policy sectors, and that inconsistent behavior is driven by a change in the priority granted to different drivers.
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