As world leaders have been gathering in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly, the memory of the late Kofi Annan looms large in our minds. Despite Annan’s achievement in breaking the glass ceiling for black Africans and becoming the first black African to become the secretary general of the United Nations, more than a billion of us in sub-Saharan Africa are still struggling to get our voices heard internationally.
The United Nations was designed for a different world, born as it was in the aftermath of World War II when colonial empires still dominated much of the globe. Sadly, although the world has moved on, the United Nations’ governance has not. It is time that changed.
African nations have frequently been treated as problems to be solved rather than as global partners, with some seemingly viewing us only through a prism of war, poverty and famine. That view is as outdated as it is misconceived. While few would deny the malaise that gripped much of the continent through the 1970s to the 1990s, Africa was never the simplistic caricature so often portrayed. In any case, today Africa is changing beyond recognition; the past decade and a half has seen democracy and economic progress spread across the continent, and it seems that the world has started to notice.
Six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa. Between 2001 and 2017, sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP per capita tripled from $496 to $1,554. Africa’s middle class doubled in size from about 150 million people in 1990 to nearly 350 million in 2010. Of course, Africa’s progress has been uneven, and we still have more than our fair share of problems, just as you would expect of a diverse and dynamic continent of 54 countries. Indeed, my own country of Sierra Leone has struggled to recover from war and was then hit by Ebola, but we refuse to be governed by the ghosts of our past.
Whether it is entrenching democracy in Gambia, or rebuilding creaking infrastructure in Kenya, a new generation of African leaders is helping to transform the lives of ordinary people. I can attest to the impact these changes are making as a newly elected president fulfilling my own promise to introduce free education in Sierra Leone, a country with an adult literacy rate at less than 50 percent.
Despite the ever-quickening pace of domestic change, Africa’s voice remains muffled on the world stage where we are still treated more as dependents than as equals. However, a newly confident Africa is increasingly speaking for itself, both at home and abroad, and the United Nations must recognize this if it is to reflect the true face of the world it seeks to serve. As Africans, we are not only setting our own house in order, we are also now demanding that the global community finally treats us as equal partners. It has been more than a decade since we first came together to demand a permanent seat on an expanded Security Council. Yet these calls have so far been ignored, while our colleagues from the Global North have retained four of the five veto-wielding seats. As I mentioned in my speech last week to the U.N. General Assembly, Africa is the only region that does not have adequate representation on the council, despite the fact that many of the decisions made at the U.N. Security Council ultimately affect more than 1.2 billion Africans. This is a long-standing injustice.
As coordinator of the African Union’s C-10, the committee leading our reform campaign, I can speak on behalf of all African governments in saying we can no longer accept being excluded from the inner sanctum of global diplomacy. As I reiterated to the U.N. General Assembly last week, our demand is for two permanent seats with the same rights as the current members, including the right to veto. We also request the addition of two additional non-permanent seats. Correcting this imbalance will give Africans a proper say in decisions that affect the African continent.
From the Blue Helmets to UNICEF, the United Nations can be an enormous power for good. Its genius has been its universality, with virtually every nation in the world accepting its rules-based order. But its credibility is now in danger of being undermined. It is no coincidence that new institutions such as the New Development Bank are emerging alongside the traditional global bodies. These should complement the postwar settlement, but unless the United Nations starts to better reflect its own full membership, these new institutions could end up replacing it. It would be a tragedy if global governance collapsed to competing regional blocs because the Global North failed to listen to the voice of the at least three-quarters of the world that live outside it.
In two years, when the United Nations will celebrate its 75th anniversary, let us all hope the occasion marks the start of the organization’s rebirth and not its demise. And Africa’s demand for two permanent seats and two additional non-permanent seats must be part of that rebirth. It is time for Africa to take a leading role in world affairs.
Julius Maada Bio is president of Sierra Leone.