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?

“If you allow extra positions to have a veto, you could paralyze the organization even more. It can’t make decisions on Syria because two veto-holding members are holding the council hostage,” Wheeler said. “On the other hand you add another potential roadblock; for instance, in the case of Libya, had there been a permanent member from Africa who vetoed that resolution, nothing would have happened. It’s arguable whether that’s a good or a bad thing.”

And then, he said, it is unlikely African nations would agree on who should represent them. Consider what happened when South Africa tried to seat their diplomat — who happens to also be Zuma’s ex-wife — at the helm of the African Union last year. And it took three rounds of voting to oust Gabon’s Jean Ping from his job as AU commission chair and get Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma into the post. At one point, South Africa was criticized for going for the position, which violates a longstanding AU tradition of letting smaller nations take the helm over continental powerhouses.

Now imagine that fight on an international playground, with an African country squaring up against Brazil or India. But all of these aspiring nations have a point: The current Security Council is a relic of a world order that may no longer exist. When the body was established in 1946, U.S. diplomat George Kennan had warned the West that the single greatest threat to the world was the Soviet Union. Parts of Africa were still colonial territory. The idea of India and Brazil being thought of as superpowers was laughable.

The Security Council has long been accused of protecting strategic nations — like Kuwait in 1991 — while ignoring problems in Africa. African nations do tend to vote in favor of Africa-related resolutions when on the Security Council. South Africa, in its current tenure on the council, has voted with the majority every single time — even despite their own reservations on that controversial Libya resolution. The other African nation on the council, Togo, has done the same.

In 2009 I accompanied ambassadors on a Security Council trip through Ethiopia, Congo and Rwanda, and it provided an interesting view of how the council faces numerous challenges in Africa. On a memorable occasion in Rwanda’s capital, the ambassadors stood uncomfortably during a government-mandated field trip to Kigalis genocide memorial, where they were lectured sternly by a 20-something guide about how the Western powers on the Security Council had failed dying Rwandans again and again

In Eastern Congo, military officials told the Security Council that the rebels they tried to integrate into the army were now looting and raping the very people they were supposed to be protecting.

Both Burundi and Uganda were on the council then. Both of those nations have deep, vested interests in those regions — both have AU peacekeepers in Somalia, both border the Congo. And while they voted in favor of every U.N. resolution during their tenure, both also had a hand in the bloody civil wars that have torn apart Rwanda and Eastern Congo and necessitated such international measures. Uganda invaded and occupied Congo in the 1990s during a bloody civil war there. Burundi threatened Congo with war in 2004 after the killing of 160 Tutsis. Ugandan rebels are wreaking havoc in Congo, raising the specter of Ugandan intervention there again.

Zuma, in his argument, made peace sound like a simple goal. “Peace is a choice,” he said. “We can either choose peace as member states or choose the path of conflict.”

But sadly, many African nations have chosen the latter.

Anita Powell is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for five years and Iraq and Afghanistan previously. Follow her on Twitter.

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said there were two rounds of voting before Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was named AU commission chair. There were three rounds of voting. We regret the error.