African Union Chairman and President of the Union of the Comoros Azali Assoumani and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands during a bilateral meeting after the closing session of the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 10, 2023.


African Union in the G20: On the menu or at the table?

The African Union is finally at the high table, having been admitted to the Group of 20 (G20) biggest economies of the world last week. Or is it?

At the African Union, officials praised the move, indicating it could elevate the voice of the continent. Moussa Faki Mahamat, the AU Commission Chairperson, said the decision was long overdue.

“This membership, for which we have long been advocating, will provide a propitious framework for amplifying advocacy in favour of the Continent and its effective contribution to meeting global challenges,” he said after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the rotational President for G20, announced the decision last week on Saturday.

In their final communique, the G20 listed the African Union as the second continental bloc to achieve full membership of the G20. The European Union had joined earlier.

“We welcome the African Union as a permanent member of the G20 and strongly believe that inclusion of the African Union into the G20 will significantly contribute to addressing the global challenges of our time,” G20 said in a declaration, indicating the decision had been reached by consensus.

It means the G20 was bringing on board a region that is third in population size, just behind China and India, who are already members of the Group. But there is a problem, that of considering Africa as a country rather than a continent of individual countries.

Nasong’o Muliro, a Research Fellow at the Global Centre for Policy Strategy, a think-tank in Nairobi, said admitting the AU indicates a realisation by global powers that Africa is important.

“It is ripe to be at the table and not menu. But the move still faces the challenge of treating Africa as a country. Why not invite a substantial number of African States besides AU and South Africa?

“The belated invitation seems to serve western geopolitical optics rather than meaningful engagement of continental States,” he said this week.

Admission alone won’t amount to much, he argued, unless Africa projects itself as an alternative geopolitical economic bloc with larger representation from the South.

“Africa doesn't need membership to Western crafted economic blocs, but instead needs partnership of mutual respect and benefits.”

One of the benefits the G20 said could come to Africa is tapping into the developed structures of the G20 countries. There has been a proposal to support debt survival for African countries.

“We also reiterate strong support to Africa, including through the G20 Compact with Africa and G20 Initiative on supporting industrialisation in Africa and LDCs (Least developed Countries). We are supportive of further discussing the deepening of cooperation between the G20 and other regional partners,” the G20 declaration said.

Ahead of the meeting in New Delhi, some experts had said some of Africa’s perennial problems, some linked to G20 members, should be addressed. One area of focus is corruption and conflict.

“We live in a world characterised by war and poverty, all made worse by state capture and the virus of corruption,” argued Anrike Visser, Senior Policy Advisor at The Sentry, a graft watchdog co-founded by American actor George Clooney. 

“It is essential that G20 leaders take strong action against violent kleptocracies and condemn worsening crises while beefing up resources and adopting measures such as financial tools of pressure to change the warped incentives for those who profit from chaos and misery."

The G20 did promise to seize all corruptly acquired assets stashed in their member states and return them for use in places of origin, and collaborate including through support to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and operationalisation of the GlobE Network.

Also read: What is the G20?

They vowed to “demonstrate and continue concrete efforts and share information on our actions towards criminalising foreign bribery and enforcing foreign bribery legislation.”

But that will also place obligation on the African Union, which must rally its members to seal financial leakages through bribery and stashing of illegal cash abroad.

A 2021 report by the High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flowsled by former South African President Thabo Mbeki showed that Africa loses at least $50 billion annually in illegal or corrupt transactions. The continent has lost some $1 trillion this way in the last five decades, more than it has received in development aid.

Yet the AU’s strength is a sum of its parts, as well as for those parts to actually work for the same thing.

Pat Thaker, the Regional Director for Middle East, Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) said that while AU’s admission could signal greater focus on development issues, including climate change, the continental body needs to strengthen institutions.

“The first hurdle is the AU’s fragile institutions, especially compared to the EU, and the difficulties of reaching consensus, not helped by suspension of six of the AU’s 55 members because of military coups,” she said, indicating the AU, just like the EU, offers a large membership without a dominant country. South Africa was already a member of the G20, but it actually lobbied for AU’s overall inclusion.

“Africa is still a battleground for global competition, but the AU is gradually building greater cohesion, highlighted by the slow but ongoing roll-out of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), and a recent Kenya-hosted Africa Climate Summit. 

“Africa’s other main hurdle is the questionable status of the G20, given geopolitical fracturing since the bloc launched in 2008 to help deal with the fall-out from the global financial crisis,” she said.

Africa’s first crucial role at the G20 could be in sight from next year when Brazil hosts the G20 summit and later in South Africa in 2025. These are crucial years as the continent’s members also negotiate an agreement to replace the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) with the US.

Already, there have been signs some African countries like Kenya wanted to go first and negotiate a bilateral treaty, much to the annoyance of enthusiast of AfCTA.

Perhaps one crucial pledge from the G20 is that on dealing with credit access.  The members promised to review financial quotas at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “including a new quota formula as a guide, and ensure the primary role of quotas in IMF resources, to be concluded by December 15, 2023.”

They also promised to explore “viable options for voluntary channelling of SDRs (special drawing rights) through MDBs (multilateral development banks).” But that will be subject to the notorious bureaucracies in the IMF, as well as the fact that what is owed has to be settled, leaving no guarantees of debt relief.