ABUJA, Nigeria — If you listen to the African leaders addressing the U.N. General Assembly this year, the message is emphatic and unanimous: The continent is done being a victim of a post-World War II order. It is a global power in itself and must be partnered with — not sidelined.
Most of Africa has logged a lifetime of independence — roughly 60 years — and the continent of more than 1.3 billion people is more conscious of the challenges stifling its development. There’s also a new boldness that comes with the African Union’s G20 seat.
“We as Africa have come to the world, not to ask for alms, charity or handouts, but to work with the rest of the global community and give every human being in this world a decent chance of security and prosperity,” Kenyan President William Ruto said.
In recent years, Africa has been clear about its capacity to become a global power, from efforts to tackle climate change at home — such as the existential threat of climate change upending lives and livelihoods in the region, despite Africa contributing by far the least to global warming — to helping to foster peace elsewhere, like in Russia and Ukraine.
In his address, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo blamed Africa’s present-day challenges on “historical injustices” and called for reparations for the slave trade. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said the continent is poised to “regain its position as a site of human progress” despite dealing with a “legacy of exploitation and subjugation.” Nigeria’s leader, Bola Tinubu, urged his peers to see the region not as “a problem to be avoided” but as “true friends and partners.”
“Africa is nothing less than the key to the world’s future,” said Tinubu, who leads a country that, by 2050, is forecast to become the third most populous in the world.
With the largest bloc of countries at the United Nations, it is understandable that African leaders increasingly demand a bigger voice in multilateral institutions, said Murithi Mutiga, program director for Africa at the Crisis Group. “Those calls will grow especially at a time when the continent is being courted by big powers amid growing geopolitical competition.”
On the U.N.’s sidelines, the African Development Bank mobilized some political and business leaders at an event tagged “Unstoppable Africa,” a phrase seen as reflective of the continent’s aspirations just days after the first-ever Africa Climate Summit called richer countries to keep their climate promises — and invest.
But with a young population set to double by 2050, Africa is the only rapidly growing region where its people are getting poorer and where some are celebrating the rampant takeover of their democratically elected governments by militaries.
“Africa is a paradox,” said Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa/Gulf chief analyst at the Nairobi-based Sahan Research think tank. “It is not just a continent of dwindling hope, there are parts of Africa where we are seeing innovation, progressive thinking and very smart solutions.”
Abdi said the world is becoming more interested in Africa and how it contributes to current global challenges.
“There is definitely potential for Africa to be more assertive and to drive progressive and fairer change in the global system,” he said.
For Ghana’s Akufo-Addo, correcting an “unfair” world order must begin with the payment of reparations from the era during which an approximated 12.5 million people were enslaved, according to the often-referenced Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.
“It is time to acknowledge openly that much of Europe and the United States have been built from the vast wealth harvested from the sweat, tears, blood and horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the centuries of colonial exploitation,” Akufo-Addo said.
The continent relies heavily on foreign aid for its development needs, receiving the largest share of total global aid, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Still, it continues to suffer from a global financial system that forces its countries to pay eight times more than the wealthiest European nations, resulting in surging debt that eats up what is left of dwindling government revenues.
In 2022, Africa’s total public debt reached $1.8 trillion, 40 times more than the 2022 budget of the continent’s largest country Nigeria, according to the U.N.’s agency for trade and development.
“Africa has no need for partnerships based on official development aid that is politically oriented and tantamount to organized charity,” President Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo said. “Trickling subsidies filtered by the selfish interests of donors will certainly not allow for a real and effective rise of our continent.”
Tshisekedi’s country has the world’s largest reserves of cobalt and is also one of the largest producers of copper, both critical for clean energy transition.
What Africa needs instead, according to Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, is a more inclusive global financial system. In such a system, Nyusi said, Africans can participate as “a partner that has (a) lot to offer to the world and not only a warehouse that supplies cheap commodities to countries or international multinational corporations.”
The coronavirus pandemic laid bare how the challenges could be life-threatening: Officials were forced to confront that barely any drugs or vaccines were made on the continent, and that more solutions need to start at home.
Africa’s capacity is not only in its population but also its rich natural resources. However, speaking with a collective voice is stymied by national-focused, rather than regional, policies , said Ibrahim Mayaki, the African Union’s special envoy for food systems.
“The main obstacle to Africa’s development is its fragmentation in 50-plus countries,” said Mayaki at a New York event organized by the Africa Center think tank.
As African leaders spoke glowingly about the continent as a force on the global stage, some at home said the leaders must begin by delivering the dividends of democracy to their people.
In this richly endowed region, at least half of its 54 countries are among the 30 least developed in the world, according to the latest U.N. Human Development Index.
“People will respect you naturally if you’re doing well as a leader and they see your people are not suffering,” said Grace Agbu, a resident of Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja. “You don’t beg people to respect or partner with you.”
In Nigeria, chronic corruption and bad governance have robbed millions of the benefits of being Africa’s largest economy.
And on the day Ghana’s Akufo-Addo demanded equal rights and justice for Africa in his address, police officers in his country were arresting dozens protesting the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.
“If Africa wants to be taken seriously, its leaders need to address the serious challenges the continent confronts including preventable ones such as acute conflict in several parts of Africa and a wave of coups, some driven by despair among the population about a failure to deliver security and basic governance,” said the Crisis Group’s Mutiga.
Guinea’s military leader told the General Assembly the continent’s challenges sometimes have to be addressed by soldiers like him when elected presidents fail to do so. He took power after a 2021 coup.
“The era of the old Africa is over,” Col. Mamadi Doumbouya said. “This is the end of an unbalanced and unjust era where we had no say. It is time to take our proper place.”