© Ludovic Marin / AFP

What kind of influence can Africa wield at the G20?

Decisions from the recent African Union summit suggest that gains can be made, despite many hurdles.

The African Union’s (AU) recent inclusion in the G20 has raised questions about its readiness to represent Africa’s interests and influence global policy on climate change, energy and reform of multilateral bodies.

While there’s agreement on the need for a robust African voice in global economic and political governance, experts question the AU’s ability to reach consensus on the continent’s priorities given the divisions among its member states.

Who should represent Africa at the G20? Would AU members cede power to the AU Commission to act on their behalf? Could African countries present unified positions at the forum? And what kind of influence can the AU wield there?

The just-concluded 37th AU summit provided cause for optimism that the organisation can advance Africa’s interests on the international stage, while helping to resolve global problems. The summit outlined its G20 priorities, set the modalities for who would attend and clarified how the AU’s participation would be financed.

The AU summit outlined G20 priorities, who would attend and how AU participation would be financed

The AU’s six priorities at the G20 over the next three years are: fast-tracking Agenda 2063, advocating for reform of international financial institutions, enhancing agricultural output, achieving a just energy transition, more trade and investment for the African Continental Free Trade Area’s rollout, and improving Africa’s credit rating to boost investment in vaccine manufacturing and pandemic response.

Member states will finance the AU’s participation through the regular AU budget and grants from African financial institutions like the African Development Bank and African Export-Import Bank. For internal preparatory activities, development partners' funds would also be used.

The summit confirmed that member states – represented by the rotating AU Assembly chair – would lead the AU delegation at the G20, with assistance from the AU Commission. That means Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani (the 2024 AU Chair) and Moussa Faki Mahamat (AU Commission chair) will head Africa’s delegation to the December 2024 G20 in Rio de Janeiro.

This decision reflects the continued reluctance by AU countries to allow the AU Commission to represent Africa globally. Nevertheless, it presents opportunities for collaboration between the commission and member states, particularly through the G20 Sherpa, who the AU Commission will appoint.

The choice of the Sherpa and Sous-Sherpa has been contentious. These are two crucial appointments for the G20’s diplomatic machinery, but how they will be selected is unclear. This validates concerns about the AU’s ability to build consensus due to member states’ lack of resources, weak processes and insufficient political will.

AU member states are reluctant to allow the AU Commission to represent Africa globally

The AU’s G20 membership demands swift, clear positions on issues beyond Africa’s borders. Decision making in the AU has often been hampered by a lack of agreement on key matters, owing partly to the large number of countries (55) involved. However this doesn’t diminish the AU’s potential influence.

Including the AU in the G20 breaks with the club’s central principle – that members represent the world’s largest economies. Given that Africa accounts for barely 4% of global GDP, will G20 members take its views seriously?

Off-the-record discussions with European analysts suggest the AU could end up legitimising the global north’s dominance in economic and financial governance without actually shaping G20 outcomes. To prevent this, the AU must frame its advocacy around Africa’s global interconnectedness. The continent’s development is too consequential for global north economies not to take the AU seriously. The fear of alternatives to the West looms loudly in the minds of global north leaders.

It is also worthwhile asking what ‘influence at the G20’ means. Many African leaders underline the importance of representation and visibility at the forum, rather than influence. But visibility should be a means to an end – not a goal in itself. Experts told ISS Today they believed agenda setting was possible for the AU.

South Africa’s experience as the only African country on the G20 will be crucial for the AU

African influence can be boosted by carrying into the G20 the global south’s positions on overcoming exclusionary growth, debt vulnerabilities, climate change adversities and more equitable multilateral bodies. In this way, the AU’s sway would be gradual and pragmatic. This approach won’t necessarily translate into reform of the World Trade Organization, World Bank or International Monetary Fund. For that, the AU would need to seek more accountability for compliance with the G20’s non-binding decisions.

The AU’s G20 membership could also improve African states and stakeholders’ internal cohesion on global economic and financial governance. With the next two summits in Brazil (December 2024) and South Africa (December 2025), south-south cooperation will probably drive both agendas. Swift action is needed by the AU to prepare for effective participation, such as finalising decisions on Sherpas and Sous-Sherpas, holding pre-summit negotiations, and guaranteeing continuity.

Partners like the AU Development Agency-New Partnership for Africa’s Development, African Peer Review Mechanism, and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa are useful partners to help develop common African positions. South Africa’s experience as the only African country in the G20 will also be crucial. Conversations are already underway to share experiences and lessons with the AU.

Despite the G20’s informal format, African states must enable the AU to punch above its (economic) weight at the global forum. This will require committed negotiations to reach agreement on African positions that can be consistently defended by an empowered AU Commission.

Exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles have been given to Daily Maverick in South Africa and Premium Times in Nigeria. For media based outside South Africa and Nigeria that want to re-publish articles, or for queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Development partners
The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
Related content