African countries’ commitment to multilateralism has often gone unnoticed. But, at a time when the world is increasingly turning its back on shared institutions, this could change, with Africa emerging as a vocal – and empowered – champion of multilateralism at the regional, continental, and global levels.
African countries have long recognized multilateralism’s integral role in fostering development, prosperity, and peace. That is why, beyond supporting global efforts – such as the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the G77 – Africa established the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. From the 1960s to the 1990s, multilateral initiatives provided critical support for African countries, as they escaped colonialism and ended apartheid.
The OAU’s successor, the African Union (AU), embodies the widely held conviction that global cooperation and regional integration are continental imperatives. A pillar of global multilateralism, the 55-member organization is particularly effective at the UN General Assembly, where sheer numbers are key to getting motions passed.
At the continental level, the AU comprises eight regional bodies covering Southern, Central, Eastern, Western, and Northern Africa. Regarded as the building blocks of the wider African Economic Community, these bodies facilitate coordination among neighbors in ways that support the AU’s broader peace, security, development, and governance agendas.
Given the persistence of violent conflict in Africa, most of the AU’s resources are channeled toward promoting continental peace and security. The AU now takes the lead on peace operations on the continent (including those deployed by the UN) and participates in most political negotiations and mediation efforts.
Have you read?
The AU sometimes contributes to such efforts directly. For example, in Sudan, AU negotiators, led by Special Envoy Mohamed el Hacen Lebatt of Mauritania and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, were instrumental in securing a power-sharing agreement between the ruling military council and civilian opposition leaders.
When appropriate, however, the AU defers to regional bodies, while continuing to offer active support. The Southern African Development Community takes the lead in mediation efforts relating to conflicts and political impasses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe. Likewise, the Economic Community of West African States stands at the forefront of counter-terrorism efforts and responses to violent extremism in Western Africa.
The AU also works hard to deepen economic integration, especially by fostering intra-continental trade. Here, Africa has a long way to go: as it stands, only 15% of African countries’ exports stay on the continent (for comparison, Asian countries account for 58% of Asian exports, and 67% of Europe’s exports remain in Europe). Against this background, plans to establish an African Monetary Union with a single currency by 2023 are highly ambitious, to say the least.1
But that does not mean that no progress is being made, or even that this single-currency goal is unattainable. The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) – which entered into force last March and has now been signed by 54 of 55 AU countries – could well unleash rapid economic integration.
Africa has established several other multilateral organizations to facilitate dispute resolution and foster cooperation. These include the Pan-African Parliament; the African Development Bank, the Economic, Social and Cultural Council, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.
But severe financial constraints impede these institutions’ ability to fulfill their mandates. As a result, Africa still relies heavily on global multilateral institutions. The majority of UN Security Council resolutions focus on Africa, where UN agencies – such as the UN Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, the UN Children’s Fund, and the World Food Programme – also do much of their work.
While such efforts are valuable, they sustain an imbalanced dynamic and perception of Africa acting more as a beneficiary of global multilateralism than an active participant – let alone a leader – in it. But no one understands the African context better than Africans. And, given their long-standing commitment to multilateral approaches, and it seems clear that Africans should be playing a larger role in guiding international initiatives on the continent and beyond.
Such a shift requires, first and foremost, continued progress on African integration. In economic terms, this means building on recent successes like the AfCFTA in order to advance toward true economic and monetary union. In political terms, it means strengthening the AU, including by implementing proposed institutional reforms and ensuring sustainable financing.
At the same time, the structure of global institutions must be better aligned with a changing geopolitical context. African leaders are already calling for an expanded role in the UN Security Council. World Trade Organization rules and International Monetary Fund quotas should also be revised, so that they no longer place developing regions at a disadvantage.
Africa may still need support from the international community, but that does not mean that it should be a passive aid recipient. Instead, global multilateral institutions should empower the continent to participate actively in setting and implementing their agendas. As reforms are introduced and progress accelerates, the need for external support will only diminish.
Founded on a strong sense of shared identity and driven by common interests, Africa’s commitment to multilateralism is a force to be reckoned with – or, at least, it can be. With international institutions under unprecedented strain, unlocking Africa’s potential as a champion of multilateralism is in everyone’s interests.