The African Union and the Multipolar World Challenges and Opportunities in a Changing World

The global rise of China in the post-2000 era and the strengthening of other regional hegemons has seen Africa being courted by various powers for alignment and realignment. Since the birth of the continental body, the African Union has struggled to develop into a formidable union in the form of the European Union or a strong sub-continent economy like India and China.

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Pan-African Dreams. Buy the issue here.

Recent developments in global great power politics have come with complex challenges and opportunities for the African continent. The unipolar era of 1991-post 2014 saw Africa being taken as an object of global politics that only waited to be tutored by the global West. The unipolar world refers to the global geopolitical order that dominated the world since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, leaving the US as the single dominant superpower. Previously, from the end of the Second World War to the fall of the Soviet Union, the US and the Soviet Union rivalled each other as the two dominant superpowers in a bi-polar order. The fall of the bi-polar world saw Africa only looking to the West, hence, even the modelling and transformation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to the African Union (AU) followed and in some cases attempted to mimic the European Union (EU) model. Political and economic leaders in Africa only thought that salvation would come from following in the footsteps of the West. The West, however, abused its influence against long-term African interests of sustainable development and peace as shown by supporting destabilizations against leaders seen as unfriendly to the West as was the case with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invasion of Libya, sanctions on Zimbabwe and proxy war against the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia. Africa, therefore, became a perpetual land of poverty and strife.  

In 1994, Ghanaian economist, George Ayittey, coined the term ‘African solutions to African problems’ on the wisdom that Africa would have every incentive to push for the success of internally created plans and policies. The concept was popularized in the early 2000s by African leaders like former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who sought to limit external (read as Western) interference in African affairs and give African continental institutions a greater say on internal issues. The concept could be seen as a direct challenge to the US-led Western world influence in Africa that had maintained a stranglehold on Africa since the end of colonialism and the rise of the unipolar global order in the 1990s. The unipolar world presented a weakened era for the AU as a continental body. The AU had morphed from the OAU so as to deepen integration and hasten towards a single (federal) continental government. However, divisions remained as did Western influence that sought to keep Africa divided and the AU weak for the West to remain dominant as a benefactor of the AU through aid and intervention (as seen in the various intervention by the West in West Africa and the Horn of Africa). However, the ushering in of the multipolar world, incubated by both the rise of China and some global blunders by the US, offers the AU a lifeline to work for a deeper union in Africa and to acquire more agency in global affairs.


Scholars have now agreed that the global order has entered a multipolar world. The current multipolar world is characterized by the economic and political rise of China, which has become more assertive and openly challenging to the dominance of the US. We have also seen the resurgence of Russia, which, according to its president, Vladimir Putin, undertook a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine to stop the encroachment of the US and NATO into its vicinity. This multipolar world is also characterized by the rise of regional hegemonies like Iran, which are challenging the US and Western-driven global order, as well as the fall of the influence of the Western model of democracy after the success of the Chinese model.  

Some scholars may argue that the concept of a multipolar world is a façade (or that at best the world would move into a bipolar world between the US and China). Such scholars would only be deliberately ignoring the rise of Iran, whose influence is felt across the Middle East. They would also be ignoring the resurgence of Russia, which for almost 17 months has checkmated the NATO machinery in Ukraine, and ignoring the desired global outlook by France and Germany’s leadership that has sought to diffuse US influence and move into multi-polarity 

These developments have seen a changed positioning of Africa in global relations, and this has the potential to give Africa influential agency in the multipolar order. Africa has been courted by almost every country or regional bloc that seeks global influence. In 2000, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was established, and in the years since, has grown into a multilateral forum for Africa-China cooperation on all facets of development without the Western-driven unipolar world democracy and human rights conditionalities. The year 2000 also witnessed the establishment of the Africa-EU Partnership. In 2008, the India-Africa Forum Summit was established. Russia established the Russia-Africa Summit in 2019, where Russia sought to rekindle deeper relations with Africa.  

The various cooperation summits and forums have shown that various powers that seek global power now look to Africa for cooperation. There have been contradictory engagements where at some points these powers would seek tailor-made cooperation with individual African countries while at the same time engaging all African countries as a bloc. It is such contradictions that should be corrected by the AU as the continental body, with its vast sixty years of experience. These contradictions prove the desperation of the global hegemons and the rising powers to bring Africa within their ambits. In the current era, various European governments including the EU, have changed their tone from one of superiority to that of equal partner cooperation. For instance, in March 2023, French President, Emmanuel Macron, stated, ‘We want to be long-term partners (with Africa),’ and also acknowledged that, ‘Africa is a theatre of competition. It has to be done in a fair user framework.’ Various US leaders since the presidency of Barack Obama, like Hilary Clinton, Rex Tillerson, Antony Blinken and Janet Yellen, have also tried to pacify Africa and talk of mutually beneficial partnerships. In some cases, they have also warned Africa against being colonized by China. To counter Western manoeuvres, the Eastern bloc dominated by China and Russia has saddled on the history of Africa, reminding the world that it was the West that colonized, dehumanized and underdeveloped Africa; arguing that the East did not colonize but actually supported Africa against Western colonialism to the realization of independence.  


The rise of the multipolar global order has come with both challenges and opportunities for the AU. On challenges, one can look at the issue of alignment for the continental body. Being a body built by states with heterogeneous allegiances, it would be hard for the body to take a definitive standpoint on alignment. The question of the Russia-Ukraine war at the UN General Assembly showed that Africa was still divided among itself and still handled external affairs along individualistic lines: in the non-binding UN General Assembly vote on the Resolution on Condemning Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine on 2 March 2022, 28 African countries voted in favour, 17 abstained, eight were absent and one was against the resolution. The voting patterns proved that Africa had not matured to a union where interests in relation to external policy are harmonized in a way that proves that the continent is ready for deeper union.  

Another major challenge that the continent faces is the racial divide between the Arab north and the predominantly Black remainder of the continent. Past events have shown that no matter how much the continent may try to play united, the racial divide is real and needs to be confronted frankly at the AU level. The debate on who should celebrate the Moroccan successes at the FIFA 2022 football World Cup hosted by Qatar, where the successes were celebrated by one of the Moroccan players as wins for Arabs and Muslims and not mentioning Africa was a major case. There were also the racist and xenophobic rants of the Tunisian President, Kais Saied, in February 2023. Saied informed the meeting of the Tunisian National Security Council that the wave of Black migrants into Tunisia was a deliberate move to dilute the Arab-ness of the Tunisians and make the country more racially Black. The internal racial divide North Africa and the rest of Africa also calls for action by the AU to harmonize African cultures and created celebrated diversities. The situation is mostly exacerbated by Western media and academia and in some cases global institutions like the World Bank that bunch North Africa with the predominantly Arab Middle East, giving rise to the term ‘Middle East and North Africa’ region.  

However, on the back of these challenges stand greater opportunities for the AU. The current global transformations should allow the AU to create a union that brings the continent to a deeper union. Africa needs its continental leadership to transfer some of their internal sovereign powers on foreign policy and security and monetary policy to the continental union. The financial hybrid war on Russia, where the Western global financial systems were turned into war systems to crush out the Russian economy into military defeat, showed how folly it had been for the non-Western world to rely on financial systems they do not control. Financial hybrid warfare refers to a part of the bigger hybrid warfare strategy of the current age. It is a subtle attack on the financial systems of a country in a way that does not only damage the financial sector but also has socio-economic ripple effects on the entire target country. Its tactics include blockades from global banking systems, financial sanctions and currency attacks. The lessons drawn from Russia’s experience have led the group of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to contemplate a BRICS currency. Africa should not wait to want to join another currency or financial institution created for other global hegemons. Instead, Africa needs to start working on a single African currency, (the dream often ascribed to the controversial late Libyan leader, Muammar Ghaddafi). Several African countries have been subjected to the Western-dominated financial hybrid warfare since the end of colonialism. Zimbabwe, for instance, has taken the brunt of the financial warfare since 2000 packaged in glossy terms of democracy, human rights and economic reforms. The leading of these tactics has been the US’s Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 

After 60 years, it cannot be utopian to argue that the AU should drive for the introduction of a single African currency for internal trade. While most of the discussions on de-dollarization have centred on the replacement of the US dollar with either the Chinese Yuan or the proposed BRICS currency, or the use of strong regional economies’ currencies like the Indian Rupee, such a move will be simply a perpetuation of African financial and economic domination by other hegemonies. Africa can only profit from this crisis not by propping any of the global rivalries, but by standing on its own and giving life to the first post-colonial Ghanaian leader, Kwame Nkrumah’s statement that ‘we face neither East nor West, we face forward’.  

African countries’ security and foreign policies are very heterogeneous and influenced by the specific needs of each country. The expulsion of French and German forces from Mali and Burkina Faso in 2022 and 2023 respectively, and the increasing unpopularity of Western forces on the continent, gives Africa a great opportunity to forge internal security mechanisms that are tailor-made for African security and not the Western models that are designed to secure Western interests. Western armies have been in Africa since the dawn of independence and did not meet even the minimum of stabilizing the continent and bringing peace (as they purported to be the reasons for establishing a military presence on the continent). Africa is home to more than 45 external military missions with Djibouti housing the missions of seven countries. In the Sahel, the missions were dominated by France and grew especially after the 2012 Tuareg separatist war and the rise of Jihadists to help stop terrorism. However, these missions only saw terrorism increase as the ‘terrorist’ groups used the need to push out Western invasion to attract new members. This is exemplified by the morphing of the groups and their endurance from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.  

In Somalia, the US chose to follow its interests for the control of the Gulf of Aden and to put the Horn of Africa in perpetual disarray against the long-term peace and self-determination of the Somalis. The US overstepped the mandate it received from the UN under the United Task Force to provide security to various aid missions. Instead, the US attempted to capture the warlord, Muhamad Farrah Aideed. When the mission failed, the US pulled out, but still destabilized Somalia by fighting the stabilizing governance of the Union of Islamic Courts and blaming them for harbouring terrorism. The US went on to sponsor a proxy war against the Union of Islamic Courts, which brought back peace and stabilized Somalia. Africa also learnt that inviting the Russian mercenary Wagner Group to fill the void Western armies left or to help crush the insurgency in Northern Mozambique was not the best long-term strategy. The Wagner Group’s mutiny against the Russian government on 23 June 2023 showed that mercenary groups remain avaricious and are never patriotic or honourable. Military partnerships with either the East or the West, for Africa, should be in the development of strong and deterrent military capabilities and not an invitation of military personnel for quasi-occupation of African territories.  

Equally related to security policy is foreign policy. A united continental foreign policy can strengthen Africa’s position both internally in Africa and externally in various global affairs. The battle for the UN Security Council (UNSC) permanent veto seats is a practical lesson for Africa and the AU. The bidding for a minimum of two seats has already seen various African countries attempting to outplay each other, with Nigeria and South Africa being the most outspoken. It has also created internal undercurrent fissures that can be exploited by external powers to perpetuate the domination of Africa. History has shown that veto power is used to protect the interests of the holder and not necessarily for regional interests. Under the current regime of fragmented security and foreign policies across Africa, it would be naïve to believe that any country accorded that power would use it for continental interests, which are equally non-defined and non-articulated. The 2011 Libyan case in relation to the UNSC Resolution of 1973 is a typical case in point.  

When the Libyan uprising in the context of the Arab Spring turned into a civil war in 2011, the AU came up with a proposal for dialogue and a peaceful resolution to the conflict. However, individual countries had contradictory views, which undermined the peace initiative of the AU in line with various protocols and the concept of ‘Africa solutions for African problems’. Some countries like Zimbabwe wanted Ghaddafi to remain in power; others like Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia wanted him to be deposed with Sudan actively supporting the rebels; while others like South Africa had ambiguous signals. The divisions were very much glaring at the UNSC voting for Resolution 1973 which passed with support from all three African countries, Gabon, Nigeria and South Africa, and was openly hostile to the AU initiatives. Ironically, South Africa was part of the six-member high-level AU Panel, which comprised presidents of South Africa, Uganda, Mali, Congo-Brazzaville, Mauritania and the then-AU Commission Chairperson, Jean Ping. It is, therefore, crucial for the AU to have harmonized foreign policy for its member states where either a foreign policy chief or a foreign policy committee is appointed and becomes that gateway for handling geopolitical interests. This would then translate to having the permanent UNSC seat allocated to the AU and not individual African countries. It would also mean having the UNSC seat used for the interests of the majority of the African continent and not a single country or a few political and business elites. 

The rise of the multipolar world order presents Africa with both challenges and opportunities. In global relations, risks are always at every entity’s door and can only be managed. However, opportunities are hard to come by. The AU should harness the current global developments to establish itself as a more dominant regulatory force in internal African politics. The AU also needs to take a hawkish approach to dealing with the outside world. The grand opportunity multipolarity affords the AU is that Africa can become a formidable exogenous force that prototypes both Eastern and Western wisdom while developing alternative paths to prosperity, peace and security imbued with values developed from its own internal needs

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