African heads of state gather for a group photograph at the 35th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Assembly in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Feb. 5, 2022 Source: AP Photo, File

The African Union is Joining the G20, a Powerful Acknowledgement of a Continent of 1 Billion People

Cara Anna READ TIME: 3 MIN.

The group of the world's 20 leading economies is welcoming the African Union as a permanent member, a powerful acknowledgement of Africa as its more than 50 countries seek a more important role on the global stage.

U.S. President Joe Biden called last year for the AU's permanent membership in the G20, saying it's been "a long time in coming." Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said the bloc was invited to join during the G20 summit his country is hosting this week.

The African Union has advocated for full membership for seven years, spokesperson Ebba Kalondo said. Until now, South Africa was the bloc's only G20 member.

Here's a look at the AU and what its membership represents in a world where Africa is central to discussions about climate change, food security, migration and other issues.

Permanent G20 membership signals the rise of a continent whose young population of 1.3 billion is set to double by 2050 and make up a quarter of the planet's people.

The AU's 55 member states, which include the disputed Western Sahara, have pressed for meaningful roles in the global bodies that long represented a now faded post-World War II order, including the United Nations Security Council. They also want reforms to a global financial system - including the World Bank and other entities - that forces African countries to pay more than others to borrow money, deepening their debt.

Africa is increasingly courting investment and political interest from a new generation of global powers beyond the U.S. and the continent's former European colonizers. China is Africa's largest trading partner and one of its largest lenders. Russia is its leading arms provider. Gulf nations have become some of the continent's biggest investors. Turkey 's largest overseas military base and embassy are in Somalia. Israel and Iran are increasing their outreach in search of partners.

African leaders have impatiently challenged the framing of the continent as a passive victim of war, extremism, hunger and disaster that's pressured to take one side or another among global powers. Some would prefer to be brokers, as shown by African peace efforts following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Granting the African Union membership in the G20 is a step that recognizes the continent as a global power in itself.

With full G20 membership, the AU can represent a continent that's home to the world's largest free trade area. It's also enormously rich in the resources the world needs to combat climate change, which Africa contributes to the least but is affected by the most.

The African continent has 60% of the world's renewable energy assets and more than 30% of the minerals key to renewable and low-carbon technologies. Congo alone has almost half of the world's cobalt, a metal essential for lithium-ion batteries, according to a United Nations report on Africa's economic development released last month.

African leaders are tired of watching outsiders take the continent's resources for processing and profits elsewhere and want more industrial development closer to home to benefit their economies.

Take Africa's natural assets into account and the continent is immensely wealthy, Kenyan President William Ruto said at the first Africa Climate Summit this week. The gathering in Nairobi ended with a call for fairer treatment by financial institutions, the delivery of rich countries' long-promised $100 billion a year in climate financing for developing nations and a global tax on fossil fuels.

Finding a common position among the AU's member states, from the economic powers of Nigeria and Ethiopia to some of the world's poorest nations, can be a challenge. And the AU itself has long been urged by some Africans to be more forceful in its responses to coups and other crises.

The body's rotating chairmanship, which changes annually, also gets in the way of consistency, but Africa "will need to speak with one voice if it hopes to influence G20 decision-making," Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, a former prime minister of Niger, and Daouda Sembene, a former executive director of the International Monetary Fund, wrote in Project Syndicate this year.

African leaders have shown their willingness to take such collective action. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they united in loudly criticizing the hoarding of vaccines by rich countries and teamed up to pursue bulk purchases of supplies for the continent.

Now, as a high-profile G20 member, Africa's demands will be harder to ignore.

by Cara Anna

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