The participation of African member states at international gatherings has so far created no meaningful interest for the continent. Why?
BY MELA GHEBREMEDHIN | (Edited by Metkel Sewra)
The United Nations is concluding its international meeting season, hosting the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) that began on September 12th. Year in and year out, UN member states and organizations flock to New York to discuss pressing international issues under a changing yearly theme. This year’s theme was “Placing the human being at heart of efforts for peace and a decent life for all in a sustainable planet”.
The yearly charade – pun intended – is supposed to be a platform for peace building and finding solutions aiming at improving the lives of all. Although all UN member states are represented at the General Assembly, its real value in terms of contribution to meaningful change is close to nil. It carries a status of recommendations rather than binding decisions making this international gathering quite pointless (Taylor & Curtis, 2006:409).
High expectations of anything fruitful coming out of these meetings often times fall flat on their face. Messages – some quite awe-inspiring and others quite arrogant – are delivered by world leaders perpetuating the same global hierarchy based on power and might. In fact, crisis after crisis, increased diplomatic tensions and one humanitarian emergency after another shed great doubt on a system that is supposedly global and supposedly built to serve the world’s majority populations.
The 72nd session was no different than previous years. A high number of member states called for a more flexible UN and for reform of the institution – as they do every year. African nation states were in majority calling for a better representation of their continent at the international arena.
The 2008 FES Report of the Conference on “The Relationship between Africa and the UN: From Disenchantment to a more Effective Cooperation”, stated that African countries represent the largest regional group at the UN with over a quarter of all UN member states and yet African countries are far from being represented in any decision-making processes. This year, only ten African leaders came to speak at the formal opening session of the UNGA.
African nation states continue to play a secondary part in any discussions. They continue to be seen as the “infants” and their future is decided according to the interests of others. They are seen as a group rather than individual states. This is in fact the case in most international forums and meetings dealing with Africa; namely, Nordic-Africa Business summit, the US-Africa summit and the EU-Africa summit.
One country or an institution gathered a bunch of heads of states to discuss the fate of the continent where, often, pro-active decisions at the advantage of Africans are absent. William Gumede phrased it best in an article in The New African Magazine:
“beyond being paraded as case studies, socializing with and being talked down to by Western money, multilateral organizations and political elites, very little concrete development for Africa comes, or can come, from this”.
The idea of gathering and coming up with agreements in terms of trade, economic development and cooperation are trumped by aid, assistance, containing migration, disadvantaged terms of trade of export of raw materials versus manufacturing goods.
President Trump organized a working lunch with a group of African Heads of states in parallel with the General Assembly on September 20th. His speech was on media tabloid during which he mentioned how his friends are getting rich by working in African countries. He then thanked those African leaders for that.
He also kept confusing names of African countries such as “Nambia”. Media outlets later guessed he may have been referring to Namibia or Zambia or Gambia. This level of negligence would be truly laughable if it were not seriously depressing and an indication of how Africa is viewed by the world.
Unfortunately, this dismissive attitude of an entire continent is not coming only from the West. Emerging powers are showing similar gestures. The China-Africa and the India-Africa Forums are just different countries with same ideologies on the African continent. Natural resources, exploitation of the land, energy and human resources aiming at profiting them continue to occur.
The media representation of the African continent has an important part to play in marginalizing those states. The little interest in broadcasting speeches by African leaders during the UNGA opening is an example. Al Jazeera, for instance, was airing live coverages of others’ speeches and when Presidents Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and Paul Kagame of Rwanda took the stage, only their images were shown, without sound and journalists were talking over them about different stories.
This is clearly another example illustrating the little importance given to African member states. Paying attention to African Heads of states is only apparent when big powers need to rally voices for a cause serving their best interests such as sanctioning a member state or to come up with an agreement to intervene in another one.
Often, promises of investment or certain trade in exchange of their support influence African member states. Eritrea has witnessed it when African states rallied against the country in 2009 when sanctions were imposed. Certainly, the presence of African member states at international gatherings is of little interest for the continent because of a lack in creating a united front benefiting all 54 countries. The UN in itself does not encourage such unity by giving little chance to African member states to be treated as “first-class participants”.
Institutional changes are best solutions for the organization to sustain. Accordingly, the speech delivered by Minister Osman Saleh of Eritrea’s Foreign Affairs on September 23rd hit the headlines when he stated that “Africa remains the most marginalized of all continents, and therefore talk of an African Renaissance […] is misplaced and premature”.
Similarly, President Kagame mentioned in his speech, on September 20th that “the United Nations is not meeting our needs and expectations” and he also called for proper institutional reform, which is not a “one-off event”. Calling for reform of the UN is part of this year’s General Assembly goals and Eritrea has been consistently calling for it in the past years.
Conversely, while some African states seem to share a common understanding of the international community such as the Moroccan Nasser Bourita of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said that “Africa can no longer be seen as a burden on the global community – the continent must play its role in tackling global challenges, including broader development”.
By the same token, Minister Alain Amie Nyamitwe of External Relations and International Cooperation of Burundi, shifted his discourse of calling for aid last year to calling for the respect of national sovereignty and non-interference.
Others, however, called for more assistance and demanding for additional peacekeepers as Central African Republic, Niger and Chad called upon. The latter focusing mostly on increasing international assistance and UN aid to the regional anti-terror force, the G5 Sahel Joint Front. Clearly those calling for more assistance and aid are handcuffed by the lack of stabilities their region is falling into. Nonetheless, this year’s UNGA showcased a majority of countries reiterating call for UN reform and with greater focus towards sustainable development.
Advocating for a reform of the UN would require good will from those taking advantages of the marginalization of others and specifically of the African continent. When one observes any international meetings, it seems that African countries’ representatives have a passive role of observers rather than having an active and leading role in any conversation.
There are two worlds between those who discuss high and mechanized warfare technology and nuclear proliferation and the others trying to figure out how to improve the access to potable water or healthcare. These two extremes have put the continent to a status of second-class of member states giving little reason to attend.
Moreover, the image of Africa continues to be seen as a one entity, with same problems and characteristics of corruption, poverty, hunger, and war without differentiating each case. President Kagame at the Corporate Council on Africa-US relations said that
“Corruption is not African, it’s just corruption. People have developed a misconception that corruption is the way of life in Africa […] In fact, in Africa when corruption occurs, it involves non-Africans” (Akwei 2017).
Hence, talking about promoting “a decent life for all” is matter of debate when one observes those men and women warming their chair in the cozy hall of the UNGA. The African continent continues to be seen as a burden or a place to exploit for individual gains. Attending such international gatherings have seen little impact to the continent and instead may have increased the promotion of individual interests and unnecessary missions of so-called peacekeepers. Actually, Africa has more than half of all international peacekeeping missions on its soil with little improvement and diverting themselves from the initial goal of keeping peace.
Since the time of decolonization the African continent has not seen any real changes and instead continues to be seen as either a burden or a place to exploit. The image of Africa hence continues to be of an inferior class where some Africans themselves believe so. Consequently, creating political and economic dependence. The day when the fate of African member states at such gatherings would shift would occur only when those institutions will look at African states as partners.