The re-emergence of the debate to reform the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for a permanent seat or seats for Africa is a reminder of the prolonged struggle for justice and democratic rights for the continent. This long struggle by African nations for respect, dignity, and recognition on the world stage are certainly not new. As is widely known, only four independent African countries represented the continent when 50 representatives of different countries met in San Francisco, California, in 1945 to complete the Charter of the United Nations. With the current 54 African member countries of the UN, it is inexplicable that only four African states – Egypt, Liberia, Ethiopia, and South Africa – were part of the founding members of the UN.
The answer to this puzzle – or better put, historical injustice – that occurred in 1945 is not difficult to find. Simply put, the rest of Africa was not in San Francisco in 1945 to represent their own interests in the creation of the UN because of European colonialism. Africa was under oppressive colonial rule with their voices and interests suppressed by foreign invaders.
Notwithstanding, Africans are resilient people who always fight for their rights and dignity, even under the worst condition of human brutality against them. They demonstrated this resilience when nationalist leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and others led their countries to independence in the late 1950s and 1960s from colonial rule and domination.
Within the context of Africa’s marginalization in the UNSC since the establishment of the UN, this paper advances the argument that Africa’s search for a permanent seat or seats on the UNSC should be a matter of justice to correct the historical injustice while acknowledging the continent’s quest for its democratic rights and full representation.
This paper is divided into three main parts in examining these critical issues. The first part explores the history of the UN and Africa. The second examines the interplay of Africa and the UNSC with emphasis on peacekeeping missions. The final part draws on the historical context of Africa and the UN with examples in making the case. This will include recommendations on how justice and democratic rights can be attained for Africa through the reform of the UNSC.
Africa and the United Nations
After the demise of colonialism across Africa in the 1960s, many of the newly independent countries not only became active members of the UN, but also contributed and continue to contribute significantly to the UN, especially in peacekeeping missions around the world. The first UN peacekeeping mission started in 1948 after the UNSC authorized the deployment of UN military observes to the Middle East to monitor the Armistice Agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. More than 70 peacekeeping operations have since been undertaken by the UN with the engagement of many African countries.
A paper by the Brookings Institution on UN peacekeeping operations in Africa notes that the UN Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) have not only played a critical role in fostering sustainable peace after conflict outbreaks in many parts of the world, especially in Africa, but more the 50 peacekeeping missions have been undertaken across Africa since the 1960s.
As some experts have observed, more than fifty thousand troops have been deployed in Africa for UN peacekeeping missions with tens of thousands of more troops deployed for operations led by African countries. The African Union (AU) Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), which was authorized by the UN with funding, is a case in this point.
It is also important to highlight other UN-supported peacekeeping operations of regional blocs, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The preceding analysis has revealed two essential points about Africa and its history of engagement with the UN. First, African countries have been actively engaged with the UN for decades, especially on peacekeeping operations. For example, countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Ghana are among the top ten contributing countries of troops to UN peacekeeping operations. Second, the African group of countries represents the largest group, with 28 percent of the UN membership. The Asia group comes next with 27 percent, while the Americas constitute 17 percent. The region of Western Europe constitutes 15 percent.
With Africa’s significant contributions to UN peacekeeping operations and its status as the largest regional group of UN members, it becomes obvious that the continent needs to be fully represented as a permanent member of the UNSC.
Africa and the UN Security Council
The UN Charter created six major organs of the UN, including the Security Council, which has the primary responsibility for maintaining global peace and security. Unlike other organs of the UN that make recommendations to member states, it is only the Security Council that has the power and authority to make decisions that member states are obligated to implement under the Charter.
Article 23 of the UN Charter provides details of the composition of membership of the Council. The UNSC was originally composed of 11 members with five permanent and six non-permanent members. The UN General Assembly (UNGA), however, recommended an amendment to the Charter in 1963 to increase the membership of the Security Council to 10 non-permanent members, making a total of 15 non-permanent members.
Each of the five permanent members, also known as the P5, has a veto power. They include China, France, the Russian Federation, United Kingdom, and the United States of America. The 10 non-permanent members are elected for a two-year term by the UNGA. Currently, the non-permanent members (with end of term year) include Albania (2023), Brazil (2023), Gabon (2023), Ghana (2023), India (2022), Ireland (2022), Kenya (2022), Mexico (2022), Norway (2022), and United Arab Emirates (2023).
The UN Security Council and the Veto Power
As noticeable from the earlier discussion, the UNSC is not only one of the principal organs of the UN, but it could be described as the principal organ of the UN given its enormous power to impose binding obligations on the 193 UN members in its core responsibility to assess threats and maintain global security and peace. While the Council’s responsibility of assessing threats to global security, which includes the threats of inter-state conflicts, civil wars, arms proliferation, and terrorism among many others are intact, two important issues that have continued to attract concerns is the Council’s composition and its inability to effectively respond to emerging global conflicts hence the renewed call for reforms.
For some, the ineffectiveness of the UNSC in responding to global threats to peace and security intensified in the post-Cold War era with the increasing use of the veto power by some of the P5 members which has resulted in restricting the ability of the Council to effectively respond to major conflicts and crises around the world, especially in developing countries.
The SCR (Security Council Report) captures the above assertation quite well in their recent report on the veto power and its impact on the ineffectiveness of the UNSC. According to the SCR, beyond the concept of permanency itself, the veto power is perhaps one of the most fundamental distinctions between the permanent and non-permanent members of the UNSC. P5 members often use their veto power to either defend their national interests or push for their foreign policy objectives on the world stage.
The former Soviet Union, now the Russia Federation cast the most vetoes by blocking more than 100 resolutions since the establishment of the UNSC. The United States is second after Russia in using its veto power to block resolutions. While China’s use of the veto power has increased in recent years, France and the UK, as the records show, have rarely used their veto powers since 1989.
The inability of the UNSC to prevent the U.S. war against Iraq, its failure to resolve the civil war in Syria as well as the ongoing military onslaught on Ukraine by Russia and the question on Russia’s use of the veto power on the conflict, constitute some of the examples of the challenges facing the UNSC, the use of the veto power, and the debates on its effectiveness.
The Case for Permanent African Seats on the UN Security Council
As evident in the extant literature, the real power in the UNSC is imbedded in the P5 members with veto powers. This raises the question on what could be described as the “misuse of the veto power” by some of the P5 members in serving their own national interests for several decades. In this case, as this paper argues, some of the P5 members, if not all, have “hijacked” the UNSC in the promotion of their interests at the expense of the other members of the UN.
Inactions have become the norm rather than the exception as these inactions by some of the P5 members have continued to pose greater threats to global peace and security. As the common adage goes, “Who keeps the watch on the watchman?” In this case, who keeps the watch on the P5 members whose actions and/or inactions are posing threats to global stability? Russia’s ongoing military offensive in Ukraine is a case in point. This gain explains why the reform of the UNSC is needed right now.
The paper makes the case for African permanent seats on the UNSC. As generally known, this reform discourse has been part of what we will describe as the “speech tokenism” at UNGA each year by African political leaders who deliver their annual speeches on global affairs at the UN. Tokenism speeches cannot deliver the result Africa needs in reforming the UNSC.
It is time, as this paper articulates, for African political leaders to move beyond ideas, proposals, and big speeches to concrete and practical steps on how to start the reform process of the UNSC. We provide some recommendations as a starting point.
First, it is critically important for a systematic framing of the issue, as earlier noted, as a matter of justice and democratic rights. As known, most African countries were not at the table when the post-World War II era global institutions such as the UN and the Bretton Woods Institutions were established. Several years after, Africa continues to be marginalized in the affairs of these institutions although African countries are active members of these international organizations. Being part of what could be described as the “general global dinner table” (i.e., membership of these organizations) is one thing, but whether a country is part of the “global high dinner table” where important decisions are often made is another aspect of the puzzle.
This is where the interplay of global power, decision-making, and control vis-à-vis the marginalization of Africa comes into question. Clearly, Africa is often invited to be part of the “general global dinner table” given its size, population, and perceived global role in terms of its utility of vast natural resources but being invited without the leverage of decision-making power becomes problematic in the first place. Indeed, the existing global institutions such as the UNSC are inherently undemocratic from the onset. In addition to their undemocratic nature, many of these institutions have also continued to perpetuate inequity, unfairness, and injustice since their establishment hence the need for reforms.
Like the post-Cold War era wave of liberal democratic norms and ideas that swept across many parts of the Global South in the early 1990s, we believe that the world is evolving into a new era where many are calling for the democratization of global institutions with power structures that are controlled by the Global North countries (global gatekeepers). Africa is well-positioned to lead this effort with the rest of the world, including other countries with interest in the reform of the UNSC such as Brazil, Germany, India and Japan.
The United States and other P5 members should be part of the key players in the reform process as well. U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent speech at the UNGA (September 2022) where he expressed his full support for Africa’s bid for a permanent seat on the UNSC, as was the support from Japan, are encouraging developments. This represents an extraordinary window of opportunity for Africa to take the lead on the reform agenda. This is where African leaders and their diplomats need to get to work as soon as possible. The question is how?
This brings us to our second recommendation in terms of practical steps aside the first recommendation to frame the issue as a matter of justice and democratic rights. We describe the second recommendation as the unified approach. Africa needs a unified approach to push forward with the reform agenda of the UNSC. This should be addressed from two standpoints. First, African political leaders need to call for an urgent Ordinary Session of the AU to discuss and decide on the country or countries that should be supported to represent the continent as a permanent member on the UNSC. It is also important for an Ad Hoc Committee to be established after the Ordinary Session to steer the affairs of the reform process.
While South Africa and Nigeria have been the two contending countries for decades, a strong case is also being made for DR Congo. This again explains why a critical discussion at the AU is needed for a unified decision on the issue. Other observers have also advanced the idea for a regional representation as part of the reform process of the UNSC. This is where the AU as a continental body or a region of the world can be useful in representing the voice of Africa, as other regions of the world, on how the reimagined UNSC would look like. I think the regional representation idea is a reasonable argument given the increasing trend of inter-state regional cooperation through political and economic organizations such as the AU, EU, OAS, and ASEAN among others.
At the core of international relations and diplomacy, as widely known, is the power of engagement and meaningful dialogue among global actors or players. As earlier noted, talking about the need for a reform of the UNSC through great speeches at the annual meetings of the UNGA is just a starting point. The reform debate needs to be sustained on the global agenda by moving a step forward. How can this be done?
This brings us to our third recommendation on the practical steps that African political leaders and their diplomats can take to keep the reform process forward. Once a decision is reached at the AU on the reform proposals to be put forward, the Chairperson of the AU with high-level delegations need to embark on a global diplomatic tour to solicit the political support needed for the reform of the UNSC.
The next is to initiate the steps at the UNGA to introduce a resolution to amend the UN Charter to reflect the proposed changes of the reform of the UNSC. The debate on whether to abolish the veto power should be discussed at the AU and the decision included in the reform proposal of the working committee.
While taking the lead on the reform process, it is equally important for African countries to demonstrate moral authority in their role on the global stage. The AU’s call on Russian to end the conflict in Ukraine is a positive step in the right direction. At the same time, Africa faces a huge challenge given the divergent national/geo-political interests of some countries in dealing with some of the P5 members. The UN vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine where some African countries obtained from the vote is a case in point.
One can understand the complexities of national interests of countries in the international system, but effective leadership demands courage and determination, and if Africa needs to demonstrate unified leadership in leading the reform of the UNSC, speaking with one strong voice on critical global security issues is critically important.
Africa’s contributions to world affairs in terms of its natural and human resources are unquestionable. At the same time, the continent has been historically exploited and marginalized in the governance of some of the most important global institutions of our time. The re-emergence of the debate to reform the UNSC for a permanent seat or seats for Africa is another reminder of the continued struggle by Africa and its people for justice and democratic rights. Drawing on relevant examples, this paper advances the argument that Africa’s search for permanent seats on the UNSC should be framed as a matter of justice and democratic rights. In other words, the paper argues that the existing governance structure of the UNSC is not only anachronistic, but also characterized by intrinsic injustice and undemocratic practices.
The paper makes a strong case to re-write this historical injustice by reforming the UNSC based on the following four important points. First, that the current system is undemocratic and unjust to Africa. Second, that the African group at the UN represents the largest group with 28 percent of the UN membership and needs a full representation at the UNSC. Third, that African countries constitute part of the major countries that contribute troops to UN peacekeeping missions across the world.
Finally, that critical African issues, in terms of security and peacekeeping missions are located in Africa than any other continent. So why not give Africa a voice on issues that affect them directly? There is no question that the pathway to reforming the UNSC is not going to be an easy one.
The policy debates on the reform process will be vigorous and tough. In fact, some experts in the U.S. foreign policy establishment have already declared President Biden’s full support for the reforms of the UNSC as a “bad idea.” Notwithstanding the challenges ahead, this paper believes that this is Africa’s time and the window opportunity for the reform of the UNSC is now. It is time for African political leaders, seasoned policymakers, and diplomats to lead the reform agenda of the UNSC.
Dr. Felix Kumah-Abiwu is a non-resident fellow (Governance & Democracy Division) at Nkafu Policy Institute (Denis & Lenora Foretia Foundation). He is associate professor/director, Center for African Studies Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.
First appeared in OnPolicy.org.