Africa Wants Entry to UN Halls of Power

South Africa's Jacob Zuma fancies a bigger role for the continent on the Security Council. Will he get his wish?

(The Root) — South African President Jacob Zuma made a rousing speech last week at the United Nations, invoking Nelson Mandela and praising the virtues of inclusion, democracy and equal representation.

He argued for Africa to be admitted to the United Nations’ most powerful body, the U.N. Security Council. In an argument that not so subtly referenced the evils of apartheid — he led by thanking the U.N. for condemning apartheid and quoting the country’s iconic freedom fighter — he called for four new seats for African nations.

That includes two permanent seats, letting continental states into the elite five-member club occupied by the traditional post-World War II powers: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., all of which have veto power. He also called for Africa to be given five nonpermanent seats, up from its current three. Zuma also seemed to imply that if Africa had a seat on the council, it would be better attuned to Africa’s issues and interests.

“Given its mandate, the council has to be legitimate, democratic and transparent,” he told the assembled heads of state, who included U.S. President Obama. “Its current composition has a propensity for deadlock and paralysis even in the face of crisis. It remains unrepresentative and undemocratic in both its composition and decision making.”

Zuma has claimed he has numbers on his side. He said some 70 percent of the council’s agenda deals with the African continent. While that figure is debatable, it is clear that much of the Security Council’s work is in the African continent, including many of the past and present U.N. peacekeeping operations.

African nations also contribute fairly generously to the peacekeeping corps, with countries — including Egypt — holding five of the top 10 peacekeeping spots (pdf). Ethiopia has sent nearly 6,300 soldiers, and South Africa has sent some 2,100; the U.S. and Canada together sent fewer than 65 troops.

Zuma may have figures and the moral high ground, but Johannesburg-based analyst Tom Wheeler says he has little chance of getting his way. Wheeler, a research associate with the South African Institute of International Affairs, says he supports Zuma’s argument.

“I don’t disagree at all,” he told The Root, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen. The reality is, irrespective of merit arguments in favor of, that it’s not going to be something that’s ever going to happen.”

Wheeler’s argument is mainly practical: There is a long queue for Security Council membership, and it includes strong contenders like Brazil, Germany, India and Japan. Also, he said, the addition of two African nations — which historically rely on consensus to make decisions, as they do at the African Union — could slow the works. Wheeler noted the case of Libya — South Africa voted in favor of a U.N. resolution that set the stage for foreign involvement, despite voicing its view that Libya was best handled by the AU.