The summit of the African Union (AU) in February 2023 marked the rising stature of Africa on the world stage and the increasing support for African economic integration both regionally and globally. In fact, one of the few positive trends in the global economy in recent years has been the greater prominence of regional integration in the Global South of which perhaps the most important has been the AU-led creation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The African Union is in the process of accession to the core of the G20 grouping as a full-fledged member and is also a participant of the BRICS+ meetings that in turn are increasingly targeting regional groupings from the Global South. What will be the future course taken by the African Union along the North-South (G20/BRICS) axis and are there prospects for the AU to become a permanent part of the BRICS/BRICS+ decision-making process?
Calls for other regional blocks to join the EU as members of G20 have been voiced years ago and with respect to the African Union they have become much more vocal in the past several years as the AU has exhibited rising prominence and success on the international stage. Last year support for AU’s membership in the G20 has come from prominent academic figures (Jeffrey Sachs) as well as a number of country leaders. It appears that the likelihood of full membership of the AU in the G20 is quite high and likely to materialize in the coming years when developing nations from BRICS hold G20 presidency (India in 2023, Brazil in 2024 and South Africa in 2025).
As regards the BRICS, South Africa is presiding in the grouping this year and has already declared that it is planning to host the 15th Summit scheduled for August 2023 with the theme: “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development and Inclusive Multilateralism”. According to South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, “we want to use this opportunity to advance the interests of our continent, and we will therefore through the BRICS summit be having an outreach process or moment, where we will invite other African countries to come and be part of the BRICS because we do want BRICS in whatever BRICS does to focus on helping to develop our continent”.
At the very least the above statements coming from South Africa suggest that the African Union may be increasingly active in building ties with BRICS, including possibly via the expanded BRICS+ framework that South Africa itself has successfully implemented in 2018 during its previous presidency. Some of the possible venues of cooperation in this respect have already been explored in the academic circles and largely centered on connectivity projects (see A BRICS+ framework for Africa: targeting regional connectivity, Valdai club, 2018). The exact mechanics of how the BRICS-AU partnership is going to be forged is still very much an open question, and there may be several possible scenarios for this to unfold.
One possibility is for the African Union to occasionally become a participant in the annual summits of BRICS – much like the AU is taking part in the annual happenings of the G20 without being a full-fledged member. Another possibility is for the African Union together with a number of country candidates to become a permanent member of a circle that participates in the BRICS summits alongside the BRICS core. Finally, another modality is for the African Union to become part of a platform of regional blocks and associations under the banner of BRICS+.
The problem with the first scenario is that it does not really address Africa’s greater involvement in BRICS decision-making and does not go farther than the current unsatisfactory state of play between the AU and the G20. The question with respect to the second scenario is: if the AU is part of the “inner circle” than why would other key regional groupings formed by BRICS countries not have the same capability? The latter issue is essentially resolved in the third scenario, whereby the AU could lead the formation of a platform for regional integration arrangements of the respective BRICS economies.
A possible format for such a common platform for the regional organizations of BRICS countries could be the BEAMS formation that brings together BIMSTEC (India), Eurasian Economic Union (Russia), African Union (South Africa), MERCOSUR (Brazil), SCO (China). Such an undertaking is facilitated by the fact that the African Union already has a number of partnerships built with these regional groupings, including a Memorandum of Understanding with the Eurasian Economic Union and the initiation of trade and cooperation talks between MERCOSUR and the AU in 2021. In this respect, it is important to note that the African Union and Africa as a continent have been among the leaders in the Global South in coordinating cooperation among the numerous regional organizations and regional integration blocks.
Creating a regional platform within the BRICS+ circle would strengthen the AU’s position in leading a similar effort within the G20 when its chairmanship in the grouping starts in 2025. In particular, the AU could lead the creation of a separate engagement group (Regional 20 (R20)) that could bring together the regional organizations, regional integration blocks and regional development institutions led by the respective G20 members. A regional platform within the G20 would significantly expand the outreach of the G20 to virtually all economies of the world community. In this way through the introduction of R20 the roles played by the African Union in the BRICS and in the G20 would not be contradictory, but would rather be mutually reinforcing.
Some of the studies, however, are attempting to position the choices that are to be made by the AU on the international arena as a mutually exclusive scenario, with some advocating the prioritization of the G20 route vs. BRICS. Rather than a tug-of-war between the BRICS and the G7/G20 over the African Union, a far better outcome is the African Union leading the formation of platforms of regional cooperation in the Global South (within the BEAMS/BRICS+ format) as well as globally (within the G20 framework). This would be a palpable contribution of Africa and the Global South more broadly to a material transformation of global governance in the direction of inclusivity and openness to the developing world. It would also position the AU at the center of the re-assembly of global governance via expanding the possibilities for international diplomacy through communication lines being established between regional organizations, integration blocks and their development institutions – thus far globally there is no such platform for dialogue among regional organizations.
Within such a scenario of the AU serving as a unifying point for regionalism in the world economy, it may be possible to entertain the integration of the African Union into a reformed UN system of governance, where seats in the Security Council can be allocated not just to country heavy-weights, but also to regional associations and blocks. The resulting global governance construct would be rendered less polarized and antagonistic with a layer of pragmatism and non-alignment/neutrality represented by regional blocks/organizations such as the AU. No doubt, against the grim backdrop of today’s international relations such an Africa-led breakthrough may appear utopian to most pundits and observers. But as Nelson Mandela used to say, “it always seems impossible, until it is done” and “a good head and good heart are always a formidable combination”.