(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.
"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 Kigali's 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.
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.
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.