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AfricaSource September 24, 2021

Make way for Wakanda: The UN Security Council needs an African seat

By Rama Yade

Pouring new wine into old wineskins will simply lead them to burst, goes the Bible verse. When it comes to the United Nations Security Council, the wineskins are seats: five permanent ones and ten rotating seats. For a rising generation of African leaders, the idea of serving a two-year term and rotating off does not square with their demand for fair and equal opportunities. What these creators and innovators aim to do is rewrite the African narrative in a manner that correctly represents their continent.

In this seventy-sixth session of the United Nations General Assembly, Africans represent the largest group, with 28 percent of the votes, ahead of Asia with 27 percent, and well above the Americas at 17 percent, and Western Europe at 15 percent. Yet everyone knows that Africa does not decide anything. The real decision-making body is the Security Council, and its five permanent members are China, Russia, France, Great Britain, and the United States.

The founding of this prestigious council was based on the results of World War II, where global superpowers were defined based on hard power. What about the African people? Weren’t they involved in the victory over Hitler’s Germany? The French launched the Resistance from Brazzaville, and numerous African countries served in the war. They deserve their seat at the victory banquet. 

Besides, the United Nations Security Council still functions on a conventional framework, which was written back in 1945, before the majority of African countries had gained independence from their colonizers—which is another fault to correct.

This gap is all the less bearable because the African continent has dealt with issues threatening peace and security for centuries. Africa even was home to one of the world’s first human-rights charters: the Manden Charter, launched by the great Sundiata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire, long before the English Bill of Rights (1689) and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), and perhaps even before the Magna Carta (1215).

Capitalizing on culture

The composition of the UN Security Council—let’s call it aristocratic for this argument—does not reflect the current world at all. Today, the notion of power has evolved from hard power, which is forceful and coercive, to a subtle but more influential power. Soft power enables a nation to lead other countries through influence, which allows those countries to lead their own development without coercive interference, which is what the Security Council should note. Afghanistan and the Sahel are proof of the limits of hard power—and Black Panther, the 2018 movie based on a Marvel comic, is the consecration of soft power. That’s right, it’s Wakanda time.

Africa and its powerful creative industries—driven by connected youth amid the biggest digital revolution of the past two decades—shine beyond the borders of Nollywood to influence Hollywood. This growing market expands its influence everywhere: Nigeria’s entertainment and media market doubled from 2014 to 2019 to become the fastest-growing in the world, according to the audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). When Nigeria incorporated Nollywood in its gross domestic product in 2013 (in a rebasing of data), it became the largest economy in Africa. From Dior to Louis Vuitton, luxury fashion has been renewed with African inspirations. Ready-to-wear brands such as Sweden’s H&M and Spain’s Zara have joined in as well. African Fashion Weeks from Johannesburg to Lagos have inspired international celebrity entertainers like Beyoncé and Rihanna, who is a fashion designer herself.

Beyoncé’s Disney-produced musical, Black Is King, is a celebration of Africa, dreamed up in line with the global success of Black Panther, which featured award-winning African actors in Hollywood such as Lupita Nyong’o and Daniel Kaluuya. Moreover, Netflix has greatly enriched its platform of African series, targeting African audiences and not just English speakers. In the music industry, Nigerian artists such as Burna Boy, Davido, and Wizkid have signed with major US labels such as Sony and regularly win Grammy awards. Burna Boy’s songs were included on the playlist for US President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Jay-Z, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith backed a Broadway musical, Fela!, about a Nigerian singer that won three Tony Awards in 2010. Not so long ago, Nigerians were paying dearly for collaborations with American and European stars, but now the opposite is true. Soft power is now the predominant power.

At United Nations Plaza, these changes have not been taken into consideration. It is quite alarming that the ruling procedures for the security council have not been amended since 1982. The Security Council was built on the principle of sovereignty and equality of all nations; therefore, democratization and reformation of this organization are overdue and a reassessment must ensure fairness and justice for the African continent. Fairness should start with demography. Africa is predicted to become the largest population of the world in the next twenty years, and it already is the youngest: Almost one in four world inhabitants will be a sub-Saharan African in 2050.

Three options for the Security Council

Several African candidates merit consideration for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. First, Nigeria is the continent’s most populous nation, at more than 210 million people. In 1963, after its independence in 1960, Nigeria was one of the founding members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now known as the African Union. From 1960 to 1995, Nigeria provided $61 billion in funding for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. This country also assisted prominent leaders of liberation movements in decision-making against the military government regimes of the time throughout the continent. Nigeria founded the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975, when it utilized its soft power to address a civil war in Angola through OAU policy. By nationalizing Barclays Bank and British Petroleum in the late 1970s, Nigeria was able to pressure the British and contribute to Zimbabwe’s independence.

Another contender for a permanent seat is South Africa. Despite recent concerns about xenophobic violence against African migrants, South Africa has a universal audience because of its powerful story of transformation. The iconic struggle and leadership of the late Nelson Mandela, who went from jail to the presidency, is known the world over. After holding its first democratic elections in 1994, one of the most multiracial countries in Africa went on to have one of the most remarkable constitutions in the world through the Convention for a Democratic South Africa talks, where the current president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, was chief negotiator for Mandela’s African National Congress party. Since then, South Africa has diversified its industry and now plays a role in the Southern African Development Community, is a member of the Group of Twenty (G20) nations, and is regarded as one of the “BRICS”—five major emerging economies, alongside Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

Sports has played a role in South Africa’s appealing story. Shortly after its first free elections, South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Bafana Bafana, the South African soccer team, was allowed to play international soccer again, after being banned due to nation’s apartheid policy, and went on to win the 1996 African Cup of Nations. These achievements through sports showed that diversity is far more powerful than segregation, and provided a stepping-stone for the country’s influence in Africa and around the globe. In 2010, South Africa was the first African country to host the FIFA World Cup. This year, South Africa assumed the presidency of the Confederation of African Football, the leading voice on sports on the continent and a hub for creative industries.

“Oho! Congo, couched in your forest bed, queen over subdued Africa,

Let the phalli of the mountains bear your pavilion high…”

Right in the middle of Africa’s heart lies the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), heralded above through the words of poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of Senegal. The DRC is not only a queen—it is mythical Wakanda. It has always been and was so much so that, in a crazy move, the bloodthirsty Belgian King Leopold II decreed Congo as his personal possession. The richness of the resources surfaced in US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s recent remarks at the Atlantic Council. Speaking about Congolese minerals including cobalt, copper, zinc, silver, gold, platinum, and other resources that contribute to the world electronics industry, she said: “Every time I see the movie Wakanda, I think this is DRC. And I know it was an imaginary story, but imagine a DRC where the resources that are available there are being used to build the country, are being used to educate the people, are being used to provide health care and services for the people of DRC, and we would have a Wakanda in the making.” 

Not only is this country rich in terms of its soil, but also in history and culture. With two hundred ethnic groups and two hundred different languages, the DRC is the largest French-speaking country in the world, with more students in school than residents of France. Kinshasa, with its seventeen million inhabitants, is the largest French-speaking city in the world, before Paris. At the UN Security Council, Congo would know how to speak to the three hundred million French-speaking people in the world and the thirty million Lingala-speakers of Africa.

But the most important reason why the DRC should be a permanent member of the Security Council lies less in its strengths than its weaknesses: thirty years of civil wars, political coups, the impotence of the six thousand UN peacekeepers in the eastern DRC (present for two decades), and the distress of 4.5 million displaced people. These are the reasons why the DRC is never quoted among the pretendants to a UN permanent seat. Its tragedy does not even seem to upset the international community, even though a collapse of the DRC, under the pressure of dark forces, would have a tragic, deep, large, and long-term effect on the African continent and beyond.

The reasons why the DRC should join the Security Council are to gain a powerful lever to stop myriad manipulations by its neighbors and the international community, and to help this country’s voice to be heard. The DRC would bring to the Security Council something referred to as “weakness politics”: the effects of fragility causing processes that lead to achievements and the shaping of events. Such a change would be the best and most innovative way to reform and democratize this body. Bring out the new wineskins!

Rama Yade is senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and a senior fellow at the Europe Center. 

Further reading

Image: President Muhammadu Buhari, Federal Republic of Nigeria, speaks at the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate in UN General Assembly Hall at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City on September 24, 2021. Photo by John Angelillo/Pool via Reuters.