AU RECOGNITION OP-ED
The African Union’s long walk to G20 membership has paid off, now the hard work starts
The AU must not just be a passenger within the G20 network, but should see its membership as an opportunity to provide leadership to a broken global system.
On 9 September 2023, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent waves of optimism through Africa as he declared the African Union (AU) a permanent member of the G20.
The announcement was well received by the participants from the wealthiest countries in the world during the G20 summit in New Delhi, India. The world watched as Modi embraced the chair of the AU, Comoros President Azali Assoumani, who majestically took his seat at the elite meeting.
The AU’s long walk to the G20 began several years ago and included the establishment of the G20 Compact with Africa (CwA) in 2017 – under the German G20 presidency – to promote private investment and infrastructure development on the continent.
Anticipation grew following the recent expansion of BRICS membership in Johannesburg and the mounting, genuinely warranted calls for global governance institutions to undergo democratisation and reform.
While this is a noteworthy development, the “refusal” of the current Big Five (P5) to allow for the reform of the United Nations Security Council, specifically the prospect of extending permanent membership to AU member states, highlights a stark contradiction in the UN’s professed commitment to the principles of democratisation and global equity.
Members of the G20 collectively account for about 85% of the world’s total GDP, more than 75% of global trade, and roughly two-thirds of the global population. The admission of the most important African agency into the G20 economic club is a win-win situation for members and continental Africa.
The continued exclusion of the regional body would have amounted to strategic and economic naivety of the G20 members. Indeed, global powers prioritise safeguarding their strategic interests over integrating Africa into influential organisations. This has been evident in situations like the UN Security Council, where China’s desire to prevent regional rivals from becoming permanent members has complicated its backing for council reform.
The AU’s inclusion in the G20 enhances the legitimacy of the G20 not only within Africa, but also on a global scale. It provides an important platform for Africa to cooperate with major economies on issues that affect the world.
G20 nations can reap substantial rewards from Africa’s vast mineral wealth and its youthful demographic, with nearly 70% of sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 30. This positions Africa as the planet’s youngest and potentially most valuable population, making it an enticing prospect for G20 members keen on future economic opportunities.
Furthermore, the AU’s commitment to establishing and fortifying the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), set to become the world’s largest free trade zone uniting about 1.3 billion people and boasting a gross domestic product (GDP) of around $3.4-trillion, demonstrates its determination to be an engine of economic development.
Post-colonial African nations have often been marginalised in multilateral arenas like the Bretton Woods institutions and the outdated UN, where power asymmetry persists in their interactions with global players.
Many African countries lack the necessary expertise and resources for effective negotiations within this complex system. Consequently, the African Union’s membership offers a promising avenue to rectify this disparity, serving as a bridge to help Africa leverage this platform to its advantage and assert its interests more effectively on the global stage.
Indeed, Africa has failed to deliver sustainable socioeconomic and political progress. The Sahel region has become a theatre of violence and military coups, and other African countries continue to record dwindling economic fortune. Despite its immense natural and human resources, about 490 million people lived below the poverty line of $1.90 PPP/day in 2021.
The AU has been presented with the opportunity to increase Africa’s negotiating power with global actors, leverage its partnerships to mobilise global resources, share best practices, and gain the technical expertise to solve the challenges confronting African states. The AU must not just be a passenger within the G20 network, but should partake in decision-making processes and see its membership as an opportunity to provide leadership to a broken global system.
The AU should emphasise and give precedence to policies that closely align with the continent’s security and development objectives. These include addressing concerns related to climate change, advancing infrastructure development, investing in healthcare and education, and promoting peace and security efforts.
In doing so, the AU should ensure that its positions and priorities do not undermine the modest progress achieved in pursuing trade and economic integration within Africa.
Moreover, the AU should take steps to inform member states about G20 decisions and their potential consequences and actively involve civil society stakeholders in the process of implementing G20 decisions at the national level.
The AU must acknowledge the fundamental distinction between itself and the European Union (EU), which wields supranational authority, but the AU continues to aspire toward that status. It is pertinent for the AU to draw valuable lessons from the EU’s experience in the G20. It should emulate the EU’s ability to balance national interests with a unified front, which could enable the African agency to protect African interests and navigate global issues effectively within the G20 framework.
The AU should strengthen the voices and stature of Africa in the global environment by adopting a coordinated economic strategy, like the EU’s stance within the G20. The AU must also be prepared to take a stance on some issues of global significance. Since the AU has been very inward-looking for years, one is unsure how this will play out.
Consequently, the AU must engage in extensive consultations, recognising that the priorities of its member states differ from those of other G20 nations, most of which are focused on consolidating wealth, while Africa’s primary goal is to catch up in terms of development.
The AU should approach its G20 membership with utmost seriousness, taking proactive steps such as organising preliminary meetings, establishing working groups, committing to fostering relationships with fellow G20 members, and shaping the global economic agenda to align with the interests of its substantial population.
While the AU’s inclusion in the G20 may remain a cause for celebration on the continent, it is crucial to recognise that the primary responsibility for Africa’s development lies with its regional and national leadership. Africa should not relinquish this responsibility to the G20, but rather maintain its agency in shaping its own future and the wellbeing of its people. DM
Dr Adeoye O Akinola is Head of Research and Teaching at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC), University of Johannesburg.