We Need to Talk about Africa and the UN Security Council

We Need to Talk about Africa and the UN Security Council

Will Africa support Canada’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council? This has been the question on everyone’s lips after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s official visit to the continent was announced. Will Trudeau’s attendance at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa and his journey to Senegal earn Canada the much-needed African votes in the UN General Assembly in June?  ‘Too little, too late’, say the critics.  ‘Canada has many friends on the continent’, the optimists reply.


I would like to change the question. Rather than ‘Will Africa support Canada’, let’s ask ‘Should Africa support Canada?’  What are Africa’s interests vis-à-vis the UN Security Council? In other words, let’s put Africa at the centre of the analysis.

From the perspective of many African countries, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is an out-dated, undemocratic and unfair institution in dire need of reform.  The composition of the UNSC reflects the balance of power at the end of the Second World War, granting permanent seats and veto power to the United States, the UK, France, the Russian Federation and China, the so-called P5.  Much has changed since this arrangement was set up in 1945.  Back then, Africa was still under colonial rule. Today it consists of 54 independent states and over 1.2 billion people. The Security Council, however, remains the same, and for many African leaders this renders it an illegitimate and profoundly unjust geopolitical dinosaur.

African countries have long called for reform of the UN’s most powerful organ. In 2005, the African Union (AU) adopted the Ezulwini Common African Position on UN Reform, which recommends expanding the UNSC from 15 to 26 members.  Africa wants two permanent seats and five non-permanent seats, one for each of the five regions – north, east, west, central and south. Although the AU is opposed in principle to the veto, it demands that as long as it exists for the P5, it should be granted to all permanent members.

African countries have long called for reform of the UN’s most powerful organ.

On this point, the Ezulwini Position differs from Canada’s stance on UN reform. As a member of a 12-nation group called ‘Uniting for Consensus’, Canada supports an expansion of the UNSC, but not the granting of veto power to new members. If the ambition is to win African votes for Canada, one might want to sweep this inconvenient fact under the carpet and not yell about it from the rooftops, as suggested by a recent Global News report.

Of course, everyone – including the AU – knows that the UNSC will not be reformed and that the P5 will not give up the veto any time soon. To believe otherwise would be naïve in the extreme.  The demand for UNSC reform is more symbolic than realistic, but that does not make it any less important.

For the AU and many African states, the demand for reform of the UNSC is part of a broader quest for recognition in international affairs. In the media, policy debates and academic analyses alike, the continent is frequently treated as a passive bystander to world events rather than an active participant contributing to the direction of global policies and the shaping of international relations. Way back during the Cold War, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania gave voice to the continent’s frustration at this representation: ‘The big question is always: Is this country pro-East or pro-West?’ These kinds of views, he charged ‘are based on a very fundamental mistake – and I would add, an unwarranted degree of arrogance! They imply that Africa has no ideas of its own and no interests of its own.’  The frustration is as acute today as it was then.


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What does this mean for Canada’s bid for a seat on the Security Council? My point is not that African countries should not vote for Canada, or that Canada has no chance of receiving support among African member states. Canada has a lot of friends on the continent, and Canada and Africa have many interests in common, including the women, peace and security agenda and the fight against climate change. But it is also true that many on the continent are disappointed by the Trudeau government’s international policies. When the Liberal government was elected in 2015, I was at an AU High-Level Retreat on Peace and Security. At breakfast that morning, I was greeted with cheers that ‘Canada is back’.  Since then, I have watched the optimism and anticipation be replaced by scepticism and disappointment as Canada has failed to deliver. But how the 54 African countries will vote in June is little more than educated guesswork, at least for those of us without ringside information.

Africa is not simply a repository of votes that can be won in a last-minute effort to avoid the embarrassment of another defeat in New York.

My point is that Africa is not simply a repository of votes that can be won in a last-minute effort to avoid the embarrassment of another defeat in New York.  Instead, Canada would do well to devise creative ways of recognising Africa’s past, present and future agency and influence in international affairs.  A first step towards building such a relationship would entail actively recognising that Africa is not just a recipient of aid or peacekeepers, a supplier of resources, or a provider of UN votes.  Despite the continent’s multiple challenges, it is emerging as a vital new part of global politics, with its own interests, ideas and agendas.  By 2050, one in every four humans will be African.  Since 2000, about half of the fastest-growing economies in the world have been in Africa.  Other countries, most notably China, but also the UK and France, are slowly beginning to recognise Africa’s centrality and are reformulating their relations with the continent. Canada should not simply follow, but take the lead in resetting its relationship with the continent.


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