Wiser council - Issue 163 - Magazine | Monocle
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geopolitics ––– africa

Mary Fitzgerald on why African representation at the UN is becoming a battleground for thr West and its rivals. 


When it comes to matters of peace and security, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is both the world’s most important forum and hopelessly out of sync with current geopolitical realities. The council’s cohort of five veto- wielding permanent members – the US, Russia, China, France and the UK – once reflected power balances underpinning the postwar international order but in today’s rapidly changing, multipolar world it no longer appears fit for purpose. So it’s not surprising that calls for its reform are a hardy perennial at the UN’s headquarters in New York. African countries in particular have long argued that a more representative unsc would include at least one permanent seat for their continent. In the past year the case for greater African representation has grown stronger, a development related to the fallout of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The ambivalence of some African states towards Russia’s acts of aggression has unsettled Western leaders, as has Moscow’s growing influence on the continent. Last September the US president, Joe Biden, endorsed calls for permanent African representation on the unsc; the French and German foreign ministers did the same on a trip to Ethiopia earlier this year.

“The ambivalence of some African states towards Russia’s acts of aggression has unsettled Western leaders, as has Moscow’s growing influence on the continent”

It makes sense to have Africa at the decision-making table, in the form of one African Union (AU) seat or two country seats. The continent’s weight in the UN General Assembly, the body that includes all 193 member states, is greater than any other, carrying 27.5 per cent of the votes, ahead of Asia with 26.9 per cent, the Americas with 18 per cent and western Europe with 15 per cent. Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent in terms of population; by 2050 almost one in four people on Earth will live there. The unsc operates on a framework drawn up in 1945, before most African countries gained independence. Much of its agenda pertains to the continent but its people have little say in what the so-called Big Five decide. Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, recently described this lack of permanent representation as a “burning” issue, adding that it was unfair that some countries could “decide in the place of others”.

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Africa has collectively been pushing for an overhaul of the existing UN system for almost 20 years. In 2005 the AU issued a declaration demanding full representation on the unsc. According to what is known as the Ezulwini Consensus, that would take the form of two permanent seats with veto power, as well as five non-permanent seats. Beyond a possible AU seat, two countries are most often mentioned as leading contenders for permanent representation: Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation and a founding member of the AU, and South Africa, the only African state in the g20 and one of the so-called Brics countries.

Reform is impossible without the support of the unsc’s existing members, and Russia and China have been lukewarm about expanding the Big Five to include Africa. At a unsc meeting last October, Russia and China were two of only four countries not to explicitly endorse African representation, exposing the hollowness of their claims of solidarity with the Global South. Moscow and Beijing risk frosty relations with African states if support for an African seat on the unsc becomes a test for bilateral engagement. The path to a more equitable world order leads through Africa and it’s time that the UN woke up to this.

Mary Fitzgerald is Monocle’s North Africa correspondent.

Illustrator: FagoStudio

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