The G20 is more representative, and African Union membership would provide direct access to the world’s largest players.
Africa lacks a permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council – a situation that will likely remain for a long time. Does membership of informal multilateral clubs like the G20 and BRICS offer Africa a useful alternative voice on global decisions?
In a world order shaken by Russia’s war against Ukraine, Africa needs more than ever to ensure it isn’t marginalised. This week at the G20 summit in Bali, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called on his peers to give the African Union (AU) a permanent seat in the club.
He noted, for example, that continued G20 support for the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative ‘as a means of bringing clean power to the continent on African terms’ could best be achieved with the AU as part of the G20.
South Africa is currently the only African member of the group. And Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who attended the summit ex-officio as current AU chairperson, repeated his previous calls for the AU to be admitted. In September, he told the UN General Assembly that the AU should be ‘granted a seat within the G20, so that Africa can, at last, be represented where decisions are taken that affect 1.4 billion Africans.’
Both Ramaphosa and Sall announced in Bali that Chinese President Xi Jinping had backed their call for AU membership. French President Emmanuel Macron also said he supported the proposal. Sall said the G20 agreed to discuss the matter at its summit next year.
Unlike other formations such as the G7 or G77+China, the G20 tries to bridge the divides
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, believes it’s ‘an important achievement for the AU to have won the support of its members to represent them in a forum like the G20.’ Notably, the proposal is also gaining favour among other G20 members.
The G20 serves in part as a more workable proxy for the UN Security Council where Africa and others are seeking permanent representation. The G20 brings together 19 ‘systemically significant’ countries and the European Union in an informal association to consider mainly economic issues of pressing global concern. These include debt, financial crises, health and climate change.
Of course it lacks the UN Security Council’s power to enforce compliance with its decisions. But as the war in Ukraine has shown, the council is paralysed by disputes among its veto-wielding permanent members – Russia among them. That has shifted some of the Security Council’s power to the UN General Assembly, but the latter is an unwieldy body.
Meanwhile, the G20’s existence for 14 years at summit level shows its useful purpose as something of a global kitchen cabinet on non-security issues. Unlike other formations such as the G7 or the G77+China, which each gather countries of similar interests and dispositions, the G20’s appeal is that it tries to bridge the divides. It seats the developed and at least emerging, if not developing, nations around the same table.
Africa has been indirectly, though not explicitly, represented on the G20 through South Africa’s membership since the start. More recently, the G20 has regularly invited the current AU chairperson to attend its summits. But South Africa and probably many other African countries don’t think this is enough.
Africa has been indirectly represented on the G20 through South Africa’s membership since the start
Ramaphosa no doubt meant that Africa needed a louder voice at the table than just South Africa’s. It’s probably also true that South Africa is not always an appropriate representative of Africa’s interests. As a hybrid country straddling the developing and developed worlds, it often has different interests.
When South Africa repeats the familiar complaint that Africa should be compensated as a victim of global warming that it has not caused, for instance, Pretoria seems to forget that the country is the world’s 12 largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
And when Ramaphosa campaigned vigorously as AU chair for a waiver of global patents on COVID-19 vaccines so South Africa and the likes of India could make them more cheaply, it was debatable whether this served Africa’s wider interests. The continent probably needed a faster infusion of vaccines by whatever means possible rather than a long-term manufacturing capacity.
Meanwhile the BRICS bloc may also be poised to expand, raising the question of whether it has anything to offer Africa. In much the same way as South Africa was invited to join the G20 as an unofficial representative of Africa, the founding BRICS members – Brazil, Russia, India and China – evidently also offered membership to South Africa in 2011 in part to represent its continent.
Yet BRICS doesn’t carry the same weight as the G20 because it is much smaller and has so far gathered only emerging nations. All BRICS members are also G20 members, and so BRICS behaves partly like a caucus of emerging countries in the G20 – a counterpoint to the G7 which represents rich, developed nations.
However BRICS is poised to expand. In 2021 it accepted Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Uruguay as members of its New Development Bank. And at its summit in China this year, BRICS leaders decided to begin the process of broadening the membership of BRICS itself.
BRICS is in some danger of merely consolidating its identity as an emerging market caucus
Argentina, Mexico, Egypt and Indonesia are all pushing hard to join. Moscow and Tehran announced after the summit that Iran had applied to join. And when Ramaphosa visited Saudi Arabia last month, Riyadh also declared its interest.
One official from a BRICS country told ISS Today that the bloc’s leaders had decided that each of the five current members should nominate a new candidate member from its region. South Africa is still mulling over who to put forward, though it seems to be a toss-up between Egypt and Nigeria. The thorny task of steering the issue of expanded membership will fall to South Africa when it assumes the BRICS chair next year.
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Caution is advised though, for African countries aspiring to join BRICS. This is not the same as joining the G20. While the G20 is broadly (though not of course completely) representative, BRICS is in some danger of merely consolidating its identity as an emerging market caucus.
Worse, there were disturbing signs at the BRICS summit in China that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be trying to weaponise BRICS as a more aggressive alliance against the West. That seemed to be the context of Moscow’s announcement that Tehran was keen to join. It has subsequently emerged that Iran is supplying Russia with weapons that it’s using against Ukraine.
Perhaps allowing more countries in would dilute such tendencies. New members like Argentina and Mexico would help in that regard. But perhaps not. Certainly South Africa sees an expanded BRICS as boosting the club’s weight as a counterpart to the West – to balance what it regards as a unipolar, Western-dominated global order.
But greater polarisation isn’t what the world needs right now. Better for Africa to prioritise permanent membership of the G20 through the AU to gain a seat at the table where it can talk directly to the largest global players.
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria