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WORLD (DIS)ORDER OP-ED

BRICS 2.0 – What’s in it for Africa?

BRICS 2.0 – What’s in it for Africa?
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa with fellow BRICS leaders, President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, President of China Xi Jinping, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pose for a family photo with delegates, including six nations invited to join the BRICS group, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, during the closing day of the BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on 24 August 2023. (Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images)

The 26-page Declaration of the August 2023 BRICS summit in Johannesburg set a high normative bar but it seems also to contain a double-bind message: Beyond challenging Western hegemony and its underlying hypocritical double standards, it could be read as dismissing Russia’s – and other non-Western countries’ – open breach of norms and principles of international law and the UN Charter.

Monetary de-dollarisation and increased internal trade in local currencies, regional representation and geostrategic interests seemed to be among the factors motivating the decision to increase the number of member countries of BRICS from the current five – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – to 11 by 2024. Three of the members will then be from Africa.

The change, agreed at the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg in August 2023, was noted in the BRICS Johannesburg II Declaration.

The 26-page, 94-article document sets the normative bar rather high. It declares a “commitment to the BRICS spirit of mutual respect and understanding, sovereign equality, solidarity, democracy, openness, inclusiveness, strengthened collaboration and consensus”, and “the promotion of peace” (art. 2).

It emphasises “upholding international law”, to “ensure the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all” (art. 3). It expresses “concern about the use of unilateral coercive measures, which are incompatible with the principles of the Charter of the UN”, and reiterates commitment to a democratic and accountable international and multilateral system” (art. 4). The need for “promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms” and “respect of democracy and human rights” (art. 6) is repeatedly emphasised.

This seems a classically double-bind message: beyond challenging Western hegemony and its underlying hypocritical double standards, it could also be read as dismissing Russia’s – and other non-Western countries’ – open breach of norms and principles of international law and the UN Charter. Article 16 reiterates the principle “African solutions to African problems”. This makes one wonder if this extends beyond Western influence (if not control) over parts of the continent to other forms of direct intervention – not least by BRICS members.

With democracy and human rights as the most prominent normative values stressed, the decision “to invite” Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “to become full members of BRICS from 1 January 2024” (art. 91) was unexpected.

While initially only Russia and China were in favour of expanding the membership, a last-minute compromise was negotiated by “conceding” Argentina to Brazil and Egypt and Ethiopia to South Africa. More importantly, Russia and China for the first time indicated willingness to barter over UN Security Council reform, which they had previously opposed.

The declaration supports “comprehensive reform of the UN”, increasing “the representation of developing (sic.) countries”, with Brazil, India and South Africa playing “a greater role in international affairs, in particular in the United Nations, including its Security Council” (art. 7).

The devil is in the detail

As two scholars of the University of Johannesburg have warned: “If an expanded BRICS is to be an agent for change on the world scene, it will need to be capable of action. Having rivals, or states that are at least ambivalent towards each other, seems anathema to that.”

Expansion will not resolve animosities between China and India. Nor are the proposed new members free from conflicts with each other. Not least, Egypt and Ethiopia are at loggerheads over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile.

While many wondered why Nigeria was not invited, the country’s representative at the summit clarified: “So far, we have not applied for the membership”, mainly because President Bola Tinubu “is a true democrat” and “believes in consensus building.”

This draws attention to the fact that, among the six invited new members, only Argentina is a democracy – elections are to be held there in October, and a new government might consider not accepting the invitation to join BRICS. Whatever the outcome, as of 2024, democracies will be a minority in BRICS.

This suggests that not only uplifting the global South in international relations and multilateral politics is on the agenda. At stake is also whether a club of mainly authoritarian regimes can exert stronger influence over the world order. As one German newspaper’s Africa editor observed, BRICS is not about a just world order. The global governance ambitions of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are not those of a multipolar world in which the same regulations – albeit ones that are far too often disrespected – apply to all.

In contrast, according to economist Branko Milanovic, BRICS is an anti-Nato response and a rebirth of the Group of 77 – a formation of “developing countries” at the UN. For Milanovic, the desire for declared non-alignment has no common policy or ideological orientation, but is an effort not to be drawn into a new Cold War. However, he offers no answer to how this should be achieved when Russia is among the bedfellows, and with conflicts in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Essayist Pankaj Mishra bluntly diagnosed the opposite: “The assortment of princelings, autocrats, demagogues, and war criminals … have neither the prestige nor the foresight possessed by the delegates at Bandung”. For Mishra, “the ‘vision’ that BRICS countries, including its newest members, have in common, amounts to little more than a cynical expediency: to increase their bargaining power in the trade, technology and military deals that they will continue to vigorously pursue with the United States and Europe”.

That the current (dis-)order of the world is abused by hegemonic Western powers (albeit powers in decline) justifies efforts for a more balanced global governance. But it does not justify aborting the normative principles in place. Credit is given to this by BRICS if not in spirit, then at least in word, as seen in the above quotes from the summit declaration document.

For African countries, a BRICS+ with three members from the continent does not resolve the balancing act between the competing big powers. As suggested by University of Pretoria’s Christopher Isike: “The trick is for Africa to articulate its own interests and pursue them consistently.”

This remains a challenge. After all, as Obert Hodzi from the University of Liverpool points out: “BRICS plays second fiddle to the individual interests and foreign policy objectives of its most powerful members.”

Russia as the unknown variable

While Russia’s influence in Africa has grown since its invasion of Ukraine, this influence is mainly based on the support of autocratic if not military regimes, through arms supplies and not least units of Wagner Group fighters. In contrast, Russian economic engagement is minute and has even declined. As concluded after the Russia-Africa Summit by Joseph Siegle of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies: “Anaemic investment, normalising autocracy, fomenting instability and intervening in African domestic politics doesn’t sound like a winning strategy for building a long-term partnership.”

Russia has benefited from anti-Western sentiments and Africa’s colonial history. Western double standards are easy prey for pseudo-anti-imperialism, distracting from similar behaviour not least by some of the BRICS members. But Putin’s address to the BRICS summit failed to garner support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to be the proverbial fifth wheel – he was the only one of the five highest BRICS representatives not to speak at the presentation of the declaration.

Russia will host the 16th BRICS Summit in 2024 in the city of Kazan. How the internal dynamics of an enlarged BRICS and the war in Ukraine will unfold before then, and how they affect African countries remains to be seen. DM

Prof Henning Melber is an Associate at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State, and Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Commonwealth Studies/Centre for Advanced Study at the University of London. He came as a son of emigrants from West Germany to Namibia in 1967, where he joined Swapo in 1974.

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  • Max Ozinsky says:

    A good summary of all the arguments the collective west can marshal against an expanded BRICS, cloaked in liberal social democracy. However these arguments can’t explain the shock and horror being experienced from Washington, London, Berlin, Paris and even Oslo, today.

    Is Egypt’s, which has survived for decades on Washington’s charity, accession to BRICS based on them being close to South Africa or Russia? More to the point why would Cairo spit in Biden’s face?

    How can India, which just 3 weeks ago was being wooed by Nato at the G20 summit it hosted, now be openly at war with both the Canadian and the US leaders? Aha, the 5 Eyes f-ed up badly.

    As the 5 Eyes +Nato show every day, where ever you are in the global south, imperialism cannot be a trusted ally. This as their intellectuals spout increasingly fantastic fables of anti-Russian drivel.

    Even the Poles, the most anti-Russian and anti-black racists of all nations, have dropped Ukraine. And with elections all over Europe and the US, sustaining the slaughter of Ukrainian boys as a proxy for Nato expansion will probably come to an end before they are all used up.

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