Africa in global affairs: Impacts, challenges and prospects

Ambassador (Dr.) Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi NEWS & ANALYSIS Policy & Development

Although Africa, as a continent of peoples and nations, has existed for a long time, indeed for centuries and millennia, in the context of this paper the term is used specifically to refer to African states from the time of their attainment of independence from colonial rule in the 1960s to the present. The term ‘Global Affairs’, on the other hand, is used to refer to the world of international affairs in which African States interacted after their attainment of independence. Significantly, that world was very much one that was structured, governed and regulated by institutions created without Africa’s participation and involvement and at a time when they were all ‒ with the exception of Sudan and Egypt ‒ under colonial bondage, with all the adverse and limiting consequences that that entailed.

Still, in the context of the time, the global affairs in which Africa had to deal were dominated by two principal global political and economic institutions: the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, whose membership they attained at their independence. To these may be added other key multilateral global cum regional institutions including the Commonwealth, the European Union and La Francophone.

As the African countries did not participate at the series of meetings and deliberations in San Francisco that produced the UN Charter in 1945, nor in the processes that led to the creation of the Bretton Woods institutions, it was clearly a given that their interests were not taken into account in the policies and programmes that were evolved by these bodies. Similarly, neither were African countries’ perspectives and views reflected in such international legal and human rights instruments as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights adopted in 1948 by which the entire international community, including African States, are today assessed and measured.

In spite of these constraints, Africa has participated and made major contributions in global affairs in several areas. This paper focusses on some areas that are and were of critical importance to the African States over time.


Advancement of Africa’s freedom and total liberation from colonial rule

A major area in which independent Africa made its mark from the early 1960s was in the advancement of political freedom and commitment to the entire liberation of the continent from imperial and colonial domination. The few countries in Africa that were first to get their freedom from centuries of colonial rule and domination resolved that they would not consider their freedom complete until the entire continent was rid of all traces of colonialism, racism and apartheid. From that moment, their political and diplomatic efforts were directed towards the struggle for the liberation of the rest of the continent, including southern Africa in particular where the problem was most acute. It was mainly although not exclusively to achieve this end that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was created in May 1963. It was also for this reason that the Liberation Committee of the Organization took the chunk of the interest, attention and resources of the continent.

Aside from exposing the iniquities of colonialism, racial discrimination and apartheid on the global stage, African States rallied global support in the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the Non Aligned Movement to defeat the scourge of colonial domination, racism and oppression. It is worth mentioning here that African countries were not generally supported, except by those from other parts of the world such as Asia and the Middle East, that shared the same history of oppression, colonialism and racism. The capitulation of the apartheid regime of South Africa in 1994 and the birth of a non-racist and democratic administration with Nelson Mandela as President was in every respect the climax of Africa’s success in the struggle for liberation and a defining moment in its involvement in global affairs.

Global peace and security through peacekeeping

An emergent and independent Africa made its contributions to global peace and security in at least two concrete ways. Firstly, and through the platform of the OAU, African countries resolved, in their interactions with the global community, to pursue a policy of nonalignment; that is to say, to take no sides in the ideological Cold War battle which raged at the time between the Soviet Union and Western World. Secondly, they assiduously contributed to global efforts to promote, restore and sustain peace in conflict ridden areas of the world. They discharged these tasks either through their continental or sub-regional organizations or through the mechanism of the United Nations. Indeed, the first UN peacekeeping operation in Africa took place in the Congo, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with Nigeria providing the leadership and the bulk of UN operation in the territory. From the Congo, the UN was instrumental in Tanganyika in 1964, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Southern Sudan, Darfur and Somalia, to name but a few.

It cannot escape mention that as this paper is being written, the Africa Union’s sponsored mediation and conflict resolution mechanism, under the leadership of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is ensconced in Addis Ababa with the factions in conflict in Southern Sudan to broker peace and end the bloodshed in Africa’s youngest State. Significantly, the involvement of Africa in UN peacekeeping was not limited only to Africa: African countries were also actively involved in global peacekeeping operations in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, East Timor and other conflict areas. This strategic role and involvement in the maintenance of global peace and security was emphasized more under the African Union (AU) Constitutive Act than under the OAU. Unlike the OAU, the AU’s overarching mission was the maintenance of peace, security and stability in the continent. To actualize this goal, it set up three instruments, namely, the Peace and Security Council; a mechanism which replicated the United Nations Security Council in every way, except that there were no veto wielding members; and an Early Warning System which would address conflicts as and when necessary, including through the intervention of a peacekeeping force or by mediation, reconciliation and arbitration.

The struggle for a new world economic order

As products of colonial domination and exploitation, African States did not need any lessons to gain awareness of the constraints which the structure of domination imposed on the development capacity of newly free countries. They knew what it meant to exist in an international order where they literally had no status and therefore could exert no influence on the international economic system.

Consequently, African States ‒ along with newly independent states in Asia ‒ vigorously campaigned for a new and just economic order. Within the context of the African Union ‒ which, second only to the European Union, is one of the most important intercontinental integration organizations, African States were vociferous and unrelenting in expressing common positions on issues vis-à-vis the industrialized countries that would modify their extant colonial economic practice that undermined their economic performance.

However, while Africa’s participation in the area was active, the approach of advocacy and appeal was problematic because it ceded the power to change economic order to its chief beneficiaries. A typical illustration of this concession of power to change, historically speaking, was the so-called Washington Consensus or IMF “prescriptions” which turned out to be perhaps the greatest factor that undermined Africa’s takeoff in the early 1980s. In the Nigerian case, for example, the harshly iniquitous IMF conditionalities undermined industrialization projects, unrealistically devalued the national currency and halted growth. By the time the flaws and contradictions of the imposition became manifest in much of Africa, considerable damage had been done to their economies, setting back their growth and development by decades.

In contrast, in Asia, the more realistic advocates of the new and just world economic order embarked on radical economic self-transformation which has seen many of them, especially such countries as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Pakistan, move from poverty to relative prosperity, growth and development within a relatively short period of time. For these Asian States also, given the truism that the participation, effectiveness and success of every country or region in global affairs are partly a function of its economic power and capacity and military power, these new realities conferred a new status of dignity, power and influence in Asian and global affairs. African States did not follow this path of “self-actuated” development; their economic condition has remained their primary handicap.

The African challenges

The nature and scope of the challenges which Africa faces are multi-dimensional and complex. It will suffice here to focus on three key areas.

Firstly, Africa’s relatively weak economic condition. It bears repeating the point already made of the material deficiency of the African condition as the primary challenge, namely, that African States have not been able to establish self-activated and productive economic systems to generate prosperity and power. With the continent’s status as primary producer of raw materials and net importer of manufactured products still very much unaltered, intra-African trade has also largely remained marginal in the context of global trade. Although arguably “Africa’s lost Decade” of the 1980s, precipitated mainly by the failed IMF and World Bank-instigated policies, has been mildly assuaged by evident surge of economic growth statistics especially since the turn of the 21st century, at its core, the vulnerability due to weak industrial strength remains a major handicap to sufficiently leverage emerging global trade opportunities. What is perhaps worse, as one scholar graphically puts it, is that these institutions blackmail African countries to cheaply sell off their natural resources to European clients for the cheapest royalties or risk being tagged “resource nationalists” and being shunned by foreign investors: “The result is like an inverted auction, in which poor countries compete to sell the family silver at the lowest price.” Hence today, the bogey of a “new concert imperialism to recolonize Africa” is arguably not too far off the African horizon as Africa, still unable to develop and achieve prosperity and power, is therefore unable to project power, defend itself and advocate its own causes independently. Some scholars have, not alarmingly, dubbed what is currently going on in the continent as “the second scramble for Africa”.

Secondly, Africa lacks a strong voice in the key global institution of the United Nations, which still shapes and dominates world politics. At the United Nations, the most important globally representative institution ever created, Africa is still conspicuously marginalized by the absence of permanent representation in its Security Council ‒ the only continent in the hemisphere so deprived. Efforts made since the 1960s to expand and democratize its membership have yielded little result as the Permanent Members of the Council who wield veto powers want to hang on to their exclusive and absolute powers ad infinitum. The consequence of this marginalization manifests in many ways. A majority of the conflicts which engage the attention of the United Nations occur on the African continent and largely involve the attention of African countries to resolve them. However, without a strong representation and permanent membership in the UN Security Council, Africa’s efforts not only amount to a situation of “taxation without representation”, but more significantly, are fundamentally undermined by a lack of synergy and empathy critical for the resolution of conflicts in a definitive and sustainable manner.

Thirdly, Africa today is confronted with “terrorism”, a conflict of a new dimension that poses a new threat and a new challenge. Statistics indicate that since 1980, 28 out of the 54 countries that make up Africa have been embattled in wars of different kinds. But terrorist conflicts, unlike conventional wars, because of their asymmetric nature, have had more devastating effects in terms of disrupting social life, destabilizing politics and halting development. The number of human lives wasted through terrorist- and insurgency-driven conflicts is simply catastrophic and disproportionate compared to the conventional wars. Terrorism in northern Mali, Northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Kenya, whether it is called El Shabab, Aquim in the Maghreb, Boko Haram or whatever moniker they adopt, their modus operandi has been the same as has been their impacts and consequences on the affected countries and regions.

Regarding the challenge of terrorism in Africa, the stories not told and questions not answered are many: Who are those funding terrorism in Africa? What are the sources of the funding of the terrorist groups? Are the terrorist groups as faceless as they appear? Are they indeed non-state actors as their “faceless” backers would want us to believe? Within the context of the scramble for control of the resources of Africa, is it not possible that these “non-state actors” are actually disguised state actors, acting as surrogates for entities who have perpetually sought to exploit and dominate the continent and its treasure trove of mineral resources? These and many more questions boggle the mind.


It is clear that Africa’s participation in global affairs has been vigorous and successful in some areas like conflict resolution, peacekeeping and societal restoration, while it has been constrained by its underdeveloped economic capacity and the vigorous effort of old and new global powers to control and curtail its involvement in global institution and processes. However, given the objective reality that societal evolution and international affairs are inherently dynamic and constantly evolving, an overall picture that appears for Africa, notwithstanding the challenges, is one of bright prospects and a resurgent continent.

Over the past two decades, within the constraints of the global economic system, several African countries like Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana, Rwanda and Kenya are making major economic and social strides that should ultimately equip them to participate significantly in global affairs. This noticeable surge in national economies could have implications for continental situations.

Looking ahead, a major enabling factor further brightening the prospects for Africa is the integrating and uniting role that is increasingly being played by the African Union and the sub-regional economic organizations, such as ECOWAS, COMESA, IGAD and SADC. These institutions, aside from vigorously articulating common positions on global economic issues, are becoming more and more focused and united in defending political stability and resolving internal conflicts. There are ongoing efforts by IGAD countries to resolve the conflict in South Sudan as well as the recent establishment of a Multinational Joint Task Force to tackle the Boko Haram terrorist challenge in northeastern Nigeria by the Governments of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Benin. These efforts reflect a collective response to conflict resolution which bodes well not only for the countries concerned, but for the continent as a whole.

Finally, if Africa’s new socioeconomic strides are accompanied by serious ideological reprogramming into the pathway of self reliance and self respect, African states and people will then be able to play even more robust and respectable roles in global affairs. They have to work nationally and continentally to accomplish this reachable status and move from being observers to autonomous shapers of global affairs. To paraphrase President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, this would require a kind of leadership supported by a people that refuse to be second best and that stands up for Africa’s shared interests.

Written by

Ambassador (Dr.) Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi is the President of the Pan African Institute for Global Affairs and Strategy (PAIGAS). A scholar-diplomat, Dr. Uhomoibhi joined the Nigerian diplomatic service as Senior First Secretary in 1984, after a spell of teaching diplomatic history at the University of Ibadan. He served in various Nigerian Missions abroad, including New York, Atlanta, Belgrade and Addis Ababa. He has also served as President of the United Nations Human Right Council, President of the General Assembly of the World Intellectual Right Council, President of the General Assembly of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and Coordinator of the African Group of Ambassadors on Health Matters at the World Health Organisation. In 2010, he was appointed Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a position he held until November, 2014.