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ISS TODAY OP-ED

African Union set to join G20 at critical period of world order turbulence

African Union set to join G20 at critical period of world order turbulence
Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia (Photo: Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India/Flickr)

The African Union's admission into the G20 this weekend is set to shake up the elite club, bringing in a new voice to an increasingly fractured global order – and potentially a new way of doing things.

The African Union (AU) will likely be admitted as a permanent member of the G20 at the latter’s summit in New Delhi this weekend. To date, the AU has only attended summits of the G20 — the world’s foremost club for addressing global issues — as a guest. 

The G20 comprises 19 of the world’s ‘systemically’ most important economies plus the European Union (EU). South Africa is an outlier, brought in largely to represent Africa. 

But now Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is hosting the gathering, and other key G20 leaders, have backed the AU’s bid for a permanent seat. The continental body looks fairly certain to be accepted into what would presumably become the G21. 

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, Chief Executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs, suggests that inviting the AU in is something of a guilty charm offensive by G20 leaders. This is because of its “double standards, of its rhetorical support for developing country concerns, which have not been matched by action (such as vaccine apartheid, debt sustainability and development finance), and of its own violation of some of the principles of the UN Charter when it suited it”.

Even so, the AU would be joining at a fraught moment in the G20’s history, as the elite club increasingly exhibits symptoms of fracturing under the pressure of a polarising global order.

Key figures absent

Russian president Vladimir Putin didn’t attend last year’s summit in Indonesia, and is not expected at this one either, because of tensions with the West since Russia invaded Ukraine. And there are now strong suggestions that Chinese President Xi Jinping won’t be at the summit, though that hasn’t been officially announced. Whether this is because of friction with the United States, India or both, isn’t clear. 

John Kirton, Director of the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto, told ISS Today he was sure Xi wouldn’t attend because of competition with Modi about who should represent and lead the global south. Some of those tensions were apparent at last month’s BRICS summit in Johannesburg.

Read more in Daily Maverick: BRICS expansion adds clout to bloc, but also imports new tensions

That meeting was deemed a success for Africa as Egypt and Ethiopia were admitted to BRICS, along with four other countries. The bloc’s membership expanded for the first time since accepting South Africa in 2010.

G20 dysfunction

BRICS Plus, or the BRICS 11, boasted that it now had a bigger collective gross domestic product in purchasing power parity terms than the G7. But as British economist Jim O’Neill, author of the BRICs concept, told Daily Maverick last week, the important thing was not for the G7 or BRICS to be stronger than the other. It was to ensure that the G20, which encompasses both of them and other major countries, functions properly. 

Which it’s not doing at the moment, evidenced by its failure to address Russia’s aggression against Ukraine head-on. Yet the G20 has become more important than ever because the United Nations, particularly its Security Council, have been paralysed, mainly by the Ukraine war.

So the AU would be entering choppy waters, forced to navigate the Ukraine issue, rising tensions between China and the West, and seemingly now also those between China and India.

African Union position

Africa doesn’t have a common position (unsurprisingly) on any of those issues. That’s true of other countries and regions too, but the AU would be in a unique position. Its membership has been advocated largely on the grounds that the EU is already a member. But the EU is different because it’s a supranational and not just an intergovernmental body like the AU, and so has a more (though not completely) coherent foreign policy.

The EU also has a more focused institutional structure. It is represented at the G20 (and elsewhere) by both the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and its EU Council President, Charles Michel. The AU would be represented by the AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, and AU Chairperson, Comoran President Azali Assoumani.

The difference though is that the AU chair rotates every year, while the EU Council president is elected for a two-and-a-half-year term, which can be renewed once. This gives the position continuity the rotating AU chair lacks. 

As a result, says Paul-Simon Handy, ISS Regional Director for East Africa and AU representative, and analyst Félicité Djilo, the AU should be represented at the G20 by the AU Commission chairperson. As a long-term position, it provides the necessary continuity. Others have suggested having a former head of state represent the AU for a multi-year term. 

These analysts all agree the AU would have a lot of preparatory work for G20 membership, including formulating common African positions. As Handy and Djilo observe, the G20 covers a range of subjects, and so the AU would have to devise policies on many issues it probably hasn’t considered, such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Or worse, issues it is deeply divided on, like whether Israel should be an observer at the AU.

Many matters before the G20 are however extremely pertinent to Africa, like global tax reform and other methods of tackling illicit financial flows, debt relief, addressing climate change and democratising international financial institutions. 

Either way, this will require assembling the sort of infrastructure South Africa — currently the only African representative — has had to mobilise for its G20 membership, including appointing sherpas, facilitating think tanks and the like. 

The AU and the global south are clear in their demands for a greater voice in global economic and political governance — and rightly so. Gaining a seat at the G20 table will give the AU a chance to redress these deficits. But it will also test whether the AU can translate rhetoric into reality. DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.

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