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Africans Struggle to Be a Unified Force in the UN Security Council, Complicated by the Coronavirus

Jerry Matjila, the ambassador of South Africa to the UN, was rotating president of the Security Council in October, above. During its term, the country has been striving to unify the positions of the elected African members on the Council. The pandemic has made the goal harder. KIM HAUGHTON/UN PHOTO

The three elected members that represent Africa on the United Nations Security Council generally present a unified front on the continent’s numerous challenges — many involving foreign intervention — that land on the Council’s agenda. The problem for Africans is that the big world powers routinely ignore them.

The other problem is that Africans themselves don’t always agree with one another, and this dynamic seems likely to go on this year, despite concerted efforts by at least one country, South Africa.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads and numbers rise in Africa slowly but surely, the three African countries represented in the Security Council right now may have more trouble than ever unifying on the Council’s agenda, especially as the 15 members are only meeting online, a major hindrance for diplomacy.

South Africa, one of the most powerful nations in the continent, already has the most confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Africa — 2,272 — as of April 13. The country’s voice in the Council as a nonpermanent member has been strong from the start of its two-year term, in January 2019. It has been elected three times to the Council since 2007 and was often successful in presenting a unified African, or “A3,” front last year.

That is when it shared the African elected Council seats with the Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea, the former a Francophone country and the latter, Spanish-speaking.

“South Africa made a really big push in trying to unify the A3, and I think they were quite successful in a lot of issues, especially on responding to the Security Council’s inaction on Sudan,” said Richard Gowan, the United Nations director of the International Crisis Group in New York. The Sudanese people’s revolt a year ago ousted the dictator, Omar al-Bashir, but the Africans in the Security Council had limited sway on its reaction to Sudan’s change in leadership.)

So far, this year is presenting more challenges for the A3, as the coronavirus outbreak has made work more cumbersome for every Council member, as they are all forced to meet in virtual sessions, which have technical limits and are not live-streamed.

“The A3 has, however, found ways of coordinating online and will continue with our joint statements, together with St. Vincent and Grenadines,” wrote Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa’s political coordinator in the Security Council, in an email. The Caribbean nation currently represents the UN’s Latin American and Caribbean bloc in the Council for a two-year term.

Permanent representatives, political coordinators, their deputies and experts, van Schalkwyk added, “are interacting online and coordinating positions and inputs for resolutions and statements. So while our interaction and coordination cannot be as comprehensive as always, we are doing fairly well under the current circumstances. As time goes by, we are also getting better at using online tools to further improve our coordination.”

Beyond the huge complications of the pandemic, the three African countries on the Council in 2020 may be less cohesive than last year’s trio, as the colonial legacy between Anglophone and Francophone countries persists in Africa. South Africa is finishing its term on the Council this year, while the two newcomers for the next two years, Tunisia and Niger, may not ally automatically with Anglophone South Africa. Niger has close ties to France, while Tunisia abides by Arab geopolitics.

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The division within Africa is also playing out in the competing candidacies of Kenya (Anglophone) and Djibouti (Francophone) for the open African seat of the Security Council for 2021-2022.

Although a unified A3 seems to have clear regional benefits, “political and institutional dynamics nevertheless threaten to disrupt the bloc,” said an analysis by the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

The African “agreement is frequently tested by broader geopolitical conflicts and the interests of powerful council members. Deepening divisions among permanent members in particular strain alliances between the A3,” wrote the authors of the analysis, Gustavo de Carvalho and Daniel Forti.

As an example of how fraught the A3 group can be, representatives from the Ivory Coast, who served on the Council from 2018 to 2019, as well as Niger and Tunisia, all declined to comment for this article. The representative of the African Union at the UN, Fatima Kyari Mohammed, also did not respond to requests for an interview.

“Washington seems to have only just woken up to China’s massive economic investments in Africa, and is scrambling to regain some influence in the region,” said Tatiana Carayannis, the director of the conflict prevention and peace forum at the Social Science Research Council, a think tank in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Pompeo’s recent Africa trip was an effort in that direction.” (Pompeo traveled there in February, visiting three countries.)

“The coronavirus pandemic is adding further fuel to the fire, as China is taking advantage of Washington’s disastrous domestic response and failure of global leadership, to emerge as the global leader in this pandemic, sending medical supplies, expertise, and personnel to Europe and Africa,” Carayannis said. “The unipolar moment is over and the A3 are surely feeling the pressure.”

Libya’s catastrophe

The conflict in Libya is perhaps the most dramatic example of the tests faced by Africans in the Security Council. In 2011, NATO forces bombed Libya after an ill-conceived Council resolution, which resulted in the assassination of the longtime leader, Muammar el-Qadaffi. The country is now enmeshed in a civil war that is leaving the Council nearly impotent on the matter. UN efforts to support a Covid-related cease-fire in Libya appear to have failed.

“It’s an extremely difficult issue trying to get the AU [African Union] voice heard in the Libyan affair because the influence from outside is overwhelming. It’s frustrating the amount of influence and involvement from outside since 2011,” van Schalkwyk said.

The international community, he added, “can’t make decisions about an African country and have an impact on the outcome without Africa.”

Yet that’s precisely what is happening. Van Schalkwyk said that African involvement is not just absent from the peace proposals for Libya, but some Western countries perceive Africa’s participation as challenging the dominance of big powers in the Security Council. That includes not only the US, France and Britain but also China and Russia.

The conflict in Libya is far from a confrontation between the two main factions, the UN-recognized Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and the self-declared Libyan National Army, led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar. At least two other major armed groups participate in the conflict, which could be seen as a proxy war for world powers.

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The UN launched a peace effort earlier this year, in which participants that included France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey and Britain committed to refraining from interference in the armed conflict or the internal affairs of Libya. Van Schalkwyk said that South Africa supported the initiative, although the African Union has yet to be involved in peace negotiations.

Moreover, the UN’s special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, resigned on March 2, citing poor health. On March 31, the European Union set up a yearlong military operation, called Irini, in the Mediterranean to enforce the UN arms embargo. And in a clear picture of outside powers trying to call the shots in Libya, the US refused to agree to the UN’s candidate to replace Salamé — a former Algerian foreign minister named Ramtane Lamamra. The acting head of the UN mission in Libya is an American, Stephanie Turco Williams.

“You have multiple power players in Libya, and neither the Europeans nor the US nor the major Arab players in the conflict seem to want the AU to have a role,” Gowan said.

Despite Egypt’s possible interference in Libya, other African countries could find common ground in carving a political solution to the conflict, said Anatolio Ndong Mba, the ambassador of Equatorial Guinea to the UN. His country was an elected Council member from 2018 to 2019.

Mba said that except for minor differences in the current South Sudan peace process, where the two main opposing leaders have agreed to resolve many conflict-related crises, the A3 always agreed on African topics in 2018-2019. That is a remarkable level of understanding, considering that 70 percent of the Council’s items are related to Africa.

Still, he conceded that Libya represents a geostrategic stronghold for the five permanent members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, leaving the A3 relegated from peace initiatives.

“African countries are saying there’s a historical injustice,” Mba said. “That’s why we have been pushing for 27 years for a Security Council reform. That’s why we demand two permanent members in the Security Council and two additional elected members.”

Historical injustice

The P3 (Britain, France and the US) have had a monopoly as “penholders” (writers of draft resolutions) on African issues in the Council for decades. In what looks like another colonial legacy, France acts as penholder on most Francophone African issues, while Britain and the US lead on the South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia agendas.

“This system means that the A3 often have little early input into resolutions on major UN peace operations or political efforts on the continent,” said a report by the International Crisis Group on the relationship between the Council and the Africa Union’s Peace and Security Council, which is the equivalent of the UN Security Council.

Scarce coordination among African countries with the Peace and Security Council of the African Union also hampers unity. The A3 are expected to present the African Union position in the UN Security Council, although it has not been always successful.

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President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed of Somalia, known as Farmajo,  front, and his delegation at the Russia-Africa conference in Sochi, 2019. Russia’s first-ever such event was meant to influence leaders and sell weapons. JOE PENNEY

Getting the UN Security Council and the Peace and Security Council of the African Union “to align on the same files is an enormous expectation for the A3. The challenge is magnified by the bloc’s rotating membership, which means there are steep learning curves for each member when joining the UNSC [Security Council] as well as for working within the A3 bloc,” the Institute for Security Studies’ analysis said.

The working methods between the Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council could be vastly improved, de Carvalho suggested, if there’s clarity on how to proceed when the two groups hold opposing views on an issue.

Improving communications between the A3 and the African Union has been slowed since the coronavirus pandemic. An African diplomat told PassBlue that the coordination is continuing online, although the meetings are not as comprehensive as in the past.

Before the pandemic, some African countries appeared to be counting on China as an ally in the UN, especially in the Security Council. Public statements from the Chinese delegation supported that strategy.

In a meeting on March 3 at the UN in New York, before the Council moved its meetings online, the Chinese permanent representative, Zhang Jun, said that Beijing’s goal in the Council was “to hear views from the African Union, from the Secretariat, from African states, especially in obtaining some practical ideas” on topics such as combating terrorism.

Yet China is not a reliable partner, it seems, and the limited influence that African countries have on matters related to their own continent was evident last June, after the April 2019 deposition of the Sudanese dictator, Omar al-Bashir.

The A3 pushed for a statement stressing the need for a transition to a civilian rule in Sudan, but China and Russia, with close military ties to the government in Khartoum,  the capital, blocked it. Russia said that such a statement interfered in Sudan’s internal affairs.

The frustration of the A3 peaked when the trio then read a statement to the media, in a rare public gesture, underlining “the primacy of African-led initiatives in the search for a lasting solution to the crisis in Sudan. There should be no external interference by whomsoever in the process of resolving the current crisis.”

Gowan of the International Crisis Group said that overall, “I have to admit that I struggle to think of an example where the A3 have been able to use their regional credibility or moral weight to push a policy that P5 would otherwise have resisted.”

The problem is not just for Africa. This situation “has resulted in a lot of mistrust of the Security Council in Addis Ababa [headquarters of the African Union] and among African policymakers,” he added. “Ultimately, it hurts the credibility of the United Nations in the continent.”

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Maurizio Guerrero is the senior writer in New York and at the United Nations for Proceso, a political newsweekly based in Mexico, for which he writes on topics ranging from international diplomacy to immigration and criminal justice. Guerrero also regularly publishes in Forbes Mexico. For 10 years, he was the New York bureau chief for the Mexican newswire agency Notimex. Guerrero studied journalism in Mexico City, followed by postgraduate work on print media at the Thomson Foundation in Cardiff, Wales.

1 thought on “Africans Struggle to Be a Unified Force in the UN Security Council, Complicated by the Coronavirus”

  1. Amazing piece by the way.
    But, one cannot help but notice the ills of the UN towards Africa.
    Why are we still affected by an historical perspective that did hurt our memories for decades?
    So, literally some Western powers ideologies are still dominant in Africa’s policy making and peace process??
    This is just did heartening!

    Reply

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