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Africa Gains Permanent Membership in the G20: A Game-Changer on the Global Stage

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

By Benedikt Hornung

New Delhi, India — In a historic move, the Group of 20 leading economies, known as the G20, has welcomed the African Union (AU) as a permanent member. This decision marks a significant moment in global geopolitics and acknowledges the rising importance of Africa in shaping the world's future. The move was met with enthusiasm and celebration by leaders from across the continent and beyond.

© Ken Kobayashi

A Long-Awaited Achievement

U.S. President Joe Biden's call for the AU's membership in the G20 last year set the stage for the historic moment of welcoming the AU among the leading economies, emphasizing U.S. collaboration with African nations amid growing competition from China.

The systemic rival of the U.S. has been actively expanding its influence in the region by financing various infrastructure projects on the continent and in other parts of the world.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, host of the G20 Summit in New Delhi, warmly welcomed the AU's current chair, Comoros President Azali Assoumani, expressing his elation at the decision. Through the African Union, Modi hopes to put issues concerning the so-called Global South more prominently on the agenda of the G20.

A Continent's Path Forward

In May 1963, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established in Addis Ababa, with noble ideals, reflecting Africa's aspirations for political and economic betterment, anti-colonialism, and sovereignty. Africa appeared set on a solid pathway to progress, unlike its counterparts in southern and southeast Asia.

Temporarily, the sense of optimism came across as largely justified. However, all too quickly, the wealth of the continent was appropriated by the political elites, and the Cold War – often an uncomfortably hot war in Africa – distorted political relationships and stymied progress.

The war between Ethiopia, backed by the Soviet Union, and Somalia, with support from the United States, exemplified the direct impact of Cold War rivalries on the continent's stability and development. As a consequence, the 1970s and 1980s were lost decades for Africa.

The end of the Cold War brought a global shift toward reducing extreme poverty, but Africa faced complex challenges and still grappled with issues of wealth appropriation by political elites.

Nevertheless, over the following decades, Africa made remarkable progress in this respect. The global development agenda of international institutions such as the United Nations, together with the upright leadership of African figures like Nelson Mandela, proved instrumental in this advancement.

Efforts to strengthen governance, reduce conflicts, and promote economic growth played a pivotal role in supporting education and healthcare systems on the continent.

The transition of the OAU into the AU in 2002 symbolises the latter development. The OAU, in essence a club of unelected elites, became an increasingly democratic institution, under which the well-being of its citizens and the preparedness to intervene in cases of poor governance or a breakdown of peace and security were prioritised.

Visionary leaders like Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria anticipated a need for a more unified and coordinated approach instead of prioritising state sovereignty to address common challenges across the continent.

Fifty years later, it remains a work in progress, facing many challenges, including the consequences of climate change and the need to create jobs for a rapidly increasing and youthful population.

Africa's Growing Influence on the Global Stage

The decision to grant permanent membership to the AU is a recognition of Africa's increasing influence and potential as a global powerhouse. With its youthful population expected to double by 2050, Africa will represent a quarter of the world's population.

The AU's 55 member states have long sought greater roles in global bodies like the UN Security Council and have advocated for global financial system reforms.

Africa is also attracting attention from new global powers, such as China, Russia, and Gulf nations, which are expanding their engagement on the continent to secure natural resources and export markets.

Policymakers seek political recognition and legitimacy from these countries while aiming to boost their economic development through avenues like aid, investment, infrastructure projects, and trade.

Moreover, many African leaders see China, unlike Western countries, as a partner offering economic engagement without imposing standards, a willingness to invest in challenging regions, and a model for rapid economic development.

In addition, African leaders are challenging the narrative of Africa as a passive victim and are gradually taking on the role of brokers in global disputes, as seen in African peace efforts following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The AU's Contribution to the G20

The AU's G20 membership represents a continent with the world's largest free trade area and abundant natural resources, including 60 per cent of worldwide renewable energy assets and over 30 per cent of minerals crucial for renewable and low-carbon technologies.

For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone holds almost half of the world's cobalt, a vital component in lithium-ion batteries and thus much sought after by foreign actors.

African leaders are eager to leverage these natural assets for local industrial development. This strategy aligns with Africa's call for fairer treatment by financial institutions, climate financing from wealthy nations, and a global fossil fuel tax, highlighted at the recent Africa Climate Summit.

However, finding common ground among AU member states is challenging given the wide range of economic conditions. For instance, bridging the gap between agricultural and oil-dependent economies like Chad and South Africa's diverse economy remains a challenge.

Moreover, the rotating AU chairmanship, with different member states leading for just one year, hampers consistency and long-term initiatives. Coordinating AU initiatives seamlessly from one chairmanship to the next can be logistically challenging, impacting the organisation's ability to maintain consistent policies and strategies over time.

Nevertheless, as a high-profile G20 member, the common African demands on issues related to sustainable development and developing economies will become harder to ignore by the global community.

A New Direction for Global Leadership

Africa's ascent to the global stage signals a new era of leadership with immense potential to influence critical global challenges, from climate change to financial reform. The continent's determination to transition from a passive observer to an active influencer is evident.

With Africa's continued growth, it is poised to play a pivotal role in shaping the world's future. This moment underscores the importance of unity among AU member states, enabling them to speak with one resounding voice to effectively advance Africa's interests within the G20 and on the international stage.

In a world confronting numerous complex issues, the AU's permanent G20 membership marks a significant step toward finding innovative solutions and fostering global cooperation. As Africa takes its rightful place at the global leadership table, it signals a promising future for a continent positioned for remarkable growth and influence.

Sources: ABC News, Associated Press, CNBC, Development Initiatives, Reuters, The Guardian, United Nations

Written by Benedikt Hornung

September 2023

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