Multilateralism in 2023: Africa’s growing voice on the world stage

September 2023

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African countries are becoming increasingly visible on the world stage. In 2023 African leaders attended numerous summits, negotiated new trade and security deals, and multilateral blocs such as the G20 and BRICS extended memberships to African states. This is not surprising, however, and reflects Africa’s increasing geopolitical importance in world affairs amid increasing competition between the West, China, Russia, and mid-tier powers. Issues like the green transition are also featuring more prominently on policy agendas, putting Africa’s minerals resources at the centre.

Similarly, African leaders, discontent with the post-World War II international order – whether the composition of the UN Security Council or the rules that govern the international financial system – are keen to change the rules of the game. Equipped with a stronger global voice and a repurposed sense of agency, African leaders are pushing to reform these key global structures which no longer serve the current political, economic, and social landscape.

Africa more prominent on the world stage

African representation in multilateral bodies has increased and African leaders have a stronger voice on the world stage. In August 2023, the G20 made the African Union (AU) a permanent member of the bloc. By cementing the AU’s participation in the G20, Africa’s financial officials and finance ministers will contribute to annual discussions about the global financial architecture, which will ensure African views are better represented in these debates. The same month, Ethiopia and Egypt were among the six countries invited to join BRICS, a move designed to strengthen the bloc’s geopolitical and economic clout. Furthermore, in October 2023 the World Bank and IMF will hold their annual meeting in Morocco. This marks the first time in five decades that the annual meeting will be held on the African continent, signalling wider acknowledgment from multilateral institutions and global players that Africa’s voice is critical to ongoing debates about debt sustainability and development.

African states also continue to feature highly on world leaders’ agendas. In August 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made high profile visits to Johannesburg, South Africa for the 2023 BRICS summit. A few days prior to the summit, Lula da Silva was in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alongside his Indonesian counterpart President Joko Widodo for a tripartite summit on rainforest preservation. This follows high profile visits from western leaders including US Vice President Kamala Harris and French President Emmanuel Macron earlier in 2023. Similarly, African officials frequently travelled abroad to attend summits including the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris in June and the Russia-Africa Summit in Saint Petersburg in July. 

Increased confidence behind push for systemic reforms

Africa’s prominence on the world stage is due in part to increasing confidence on behalf of its leaders, who are making stronger demands and pushing for mutually beneficial policies with global counterparts. This includes follow-through on climate commitments, reforms to international financial systems, and more African-led solutions to global challenges. Following the first African Climate Week, African leaders pointedly called on richer countries to stick to climate promises and fund climate resiliency and adaptation measures across the continent, demands solidified in the Nairobi Declaration.

It is also evident that leaders have more weight behind their demands and have taken initiatives to advocate for changes on their terms. On the economic front, African countries have called for reforms to international lending practices. Despite facing a dire economic crisis and 27.9 percent sovereign bond yields, Tunisian President Kais Saied rejected a bailout package from the IMF. The Tunisian leader claimed that conditionality would further hurt the economy. It would certainly be hard to think of African leaders facing dire economic distress rejecting IMF loans a decade ago. Leaders are also advocating for African economies to decrease reliance on the US dollar. In May 2023, Kenyan President William Ruto publicly backed the Pan-African Payment Settlement System (PAPSS), launched in January 2022 by Afreximbank to encourage companies across Africa to settle payments in local currencies. On trade, the AU designated 2023 as the Year of AfCFTA: Acceleration of the African Continental Free Trade Area Implementation. As such, African officials are pushing for intra-African trade and integration through a range of public and private sector initiatives. African leaders are also forming strategic trade deals with global powers. Kenyan President William Ruto, for example, announced that he negotiated a deal for a grain hub with Ukraine following Russia’s withdrawal from the programme in July. Pretoria and Beijing also signed USD 2.2 billion in trade deals prior to the BRICS summit with the intent to boost the manufacturing sector in South Africa.

Similarly, African policymakers are leading on major security issues, particularly through regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This contrasts with occurrences over the past few decades wherein states were quicker to seek military assistance from former colonial powers such as France. ECOWAS and the AU have, to date, mostly refused foreign assistance to send troops to reinstate recently toppled regimes in central Africa and the Sahel. Most recently, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi called on the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) to accelerate leaving the country after 25 years, citing their failure to ease conflict in the east. Conversely, in July 2023, African leaders visited Russian President Vladmir Putin with the stated intention of mediating an end to the war in Ukraine.

Diversified partnerships are the way forward

African leaders have, in recent years, taken care to not upset geopolitical balances, but this is no longer the case. This is also a symptom of increasing African agency and confidence. African leaders are focusing less on navigating geopolitical competition and more on how policies and investments benefit them. Recall in May 2023 South Africa faced criticism from the US over its alleged sale of arms to Russia amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. To the anger of US officials, South Africa also sought to have Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the BRICS summit without serving him an international warrant of arrest. While South Africa has historically been one of the US’s strongest allies, Pretoria-Washington D.C. is now a strategically complex relationship. Ramaposa has refrained from taking a stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but South Africa is now preparing to host the US trade forum in November, further signalling the weight African countries are pulling.

African leaders are also increasingly working with private sector actors. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Rwandan President Kagame met with Pfizer representatives, advocating for healthcare investments. Similarly, Kenyan President William Ruto met with leaders from the National Basketball Association (NBA) who plan to open an office in Nairobi. NBA executives also committed to developing sports infrastructure in Kenya. As African countries seek investment over aid and loans, there will be more opportunity for private sector actors to work directly with governments to meet Africa’s challenges. Ahead of COP28, Masdar – whose Chairman Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber is COP28 President – committed to building renewable energy projects across Africa and signed deals with Angola, Uganda, and Zambia to build power plants. More recently, the DRC announced that it is still seeking partners to develop the 44-gigawatt Grand Inga hydroelectric project which remains stalled. This comes as Emirati investors recently made significant investments into the Congolese mining sector.

An increasing voice is not enough

It is evident that African countries are increasingly present on the world stage, but there are lessons to remember. While African countries collectively have a larger presence, the continent continues to face significant challenges. In September floods swept through Libya and earthquakes hit Morrocco, highlighting heightened climate risks as global warming nears 1.5 degrees. Furthermore, in 2022, nine of the 10 poorest countries in the world were African, and as of this month only 15 percent of the UN SDGs are on track to be completed by 2030. In the meantime, coups across the continent are symptoms of underlying social and economic stressors underpinning fragile regimes.

There are massive opportunities for private and public sectors in Africa. However, to take advantage of these opportunities, multinational entities need to also understand the challenges and how these challenges can be addressed in such a way as to contribute to a global economy where Africa continues to have a bigger voice. With several key conferences occurring in the last few months of 2023 – IMF and World Bank annual meeting in October and COP28 in December – African countries will continue to be heard on the world stage, but to achieve sustainable development and promote the right investments, the world needs to listen.