regular-article-logo Monday, 04 December 2023

The new teacher

Information technology and the knowledge revolution through the internet should no longer pass Africa by. The G21 must help end Africa’s isolation from the world’s advance

Gopalkrishna Gandhi Published 24.09.23, 06:08 AM
The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, hugs the chairperson of the African Union, Azali Assoumani, at the G20 Summit in New Delhi

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, hugs the chairperson of the African Union, Azali Assoumani, at the G20 Summit in New Delhi Sourced by The Telegraph

It is about twenty-one now, not twenty.

Our prime minister’s announcement at the New Delhi G20 Summit that the African Union is now in the grouping has got far less attention than it deserves. The European Union is the only other ‘group’ member. But Europe with 50 countries is not in its entirety in the EU, which has 27 members. Whereas the whole of Africa with all its fully sovereign 54 countries or 55 counting is in the African Union. And so all of Africa has now entered the G20, morphing it into the G21. The host-leader deserves congratulations for enabling this tectonic shift in the grouping’s composition and character. I call it by that seismic name for it is nothing less than that, a metaphoric movement of the African Plate into the G20 crust.


By that one stroke, the whole of Africa can now join and shape G21 deliberations on matters affecting life on earth, like climate change mitigation, sustainable development, and the global economy. This is only right. But what is only right does not always happen as it should. It happens when, to use Victor Hugo’s immortal phrase, its time has come.

Its GDP (PPP) of $8.05 trillion (2022 est) is less than India’s $13.033 trillion (PPP; 2023 est). Africa is, according to Wikipedia, “the least wealthy continent per capita and second-least wealthy by total wealth...” Africa’s entire population (1.39 billion) is less than India’s. Among continents, Africa has the lowest teledensity and the smallest number of computers in the world. And it has, over the centuries right up to our times, been riven by inter-se conflicts, secessionist and separatist battles, civil wars, riots, massacres, belying the image conjured by the Organisation of African Unity and the African Union, of a united continent at peace with itself.

And, yet, as the site where the human species originated and where, ironically, the world’s population today is the youngest (the median age in Africa in 2012 was 19.7 as against the worldwide median age of 30.4), Africa as a whole, a single entity, deserves the title of ‘the earth’s human cradle’.

If I may be permitted a personal note here. Way back in 1996-97, I was working in Pretoria and when I first heard the new South Africa’s national anthem beginning with Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, which means ‘God save Africa’, I was astonished. God was being asked in South Africa’s national anthem to save Africa, not South Africa. No country’s commemorative song in Asia or Europe would seek divine blessings for the continent on which it is situated.

It would be necessary to take the inclusion of the AU in the G21 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a recognition of the pan-African entity and identity and thereby facilitate funding by the wealthier members of the G21 to build human capital, infrastructure and sound health regimes. This will also mean the G21 doing its best to address Africa’s crippling external debt, trade imbalance, and low capital inflows. Information technology and the knowledge revolution through the internet should no longer pass Africa by. The G21 must help end Africa’s isolation from the world’s advance.

All this will not be a favour done to the AU but a step taken by humanity for 20% of the world’s land area and 18% of the world’s population. And if that happens, India and Modi in G20/21 2023 can derive some satisfaction over the AU joining G20 during India’s helming of the group.

But aside from what Africa must gain by the AU joining the G20, certain distinct gains can accrue to the new G21 and, thereby, to the world, as a result of the African augmentation of the powerful grouping.

The first of these is through the AU’s experience in inter-country conflict resolution in Africa and its peace-keeping operations conducted sometimes with and sometimes independently of UN peacekeeping as part of the G21’s mandate for sustainable development, which can only happen in a conflict-free environment. I am not suggesting here that these AU exercises have been a success story. They have sometimes been that, oftentimes not. The idea is that Africa’s failures as much as its successes through the AU-led interventions for peace should be turned to for similar initiatives elsewhere in the world.

The second and, in my view, the most important gain for the G21 by the AU joining it will come in the form of a recalling of the 1996 Treaty of Pelindaba. This is one of the most underestimated treaties of modern times. Pelindaba, in uranium-rich South Africa, was the venue of apartheid South Africa’s partially-constructed atomic bombs. And Pelindaba is where, after President Nelson Mandela decided to ‘roll back’ that programme emphatically and irreversibly, he chose to convene a pan-Africa summit to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone on the African continent. The conference agreed, with 43 signatories, through the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, as the Pelindaba Treaty is called, to “prohibit the research, development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition, testing, possession, control or stationing of nuclear weapons, as well as the dumping of radioactive wastes.” This was historic. With the Pelindaba Treaty, after outer space, Antarctica and the sea-bed, Africa became a rare nuclear-free zone in and around the earth. Significant for the G21 is the Pelindaba decision to “promote individually and collectively the use of nuclear science and technology for economic and social development” and, to this end, “undertake to establish and strengthen mechanisms for cooperation at the bilateral, sub regional and regional levels.”

Nuclear disarmament is not on the G21 agenda. But in any initiative for sustainable development, it cannot shut its eyes to the existential hazard posed by the nuclear arsenals of the world’s nine nuclear weapon states. Pelindaba tells us how Africa has faced the challenge of those hazards in its immediate environment — the continent of Africa. But now has come the chance for the G21 and through it for the world to see, within the G21 mandate, a living African example and to enlarge that example.

South Africa’s veteran diplomat, Abdul S. Minty, said in the Conference of Disarmament on September 1, 2011: “While the threat to humanity posed by chemical and biological weapons has long been recognised, which led to the banning of these weapons of mass destruction through negotiations in this very body, the achievement of a world free from nuclear weapons remains an unfulfilled promise and elusive goal.

“If the indiscriminate destruction and vast humanitarian consequences posed by weapons of mass destruction is unacceptable, then the continued retention of the nuclear weapons option surely cannot be justified or maintained. It is also clear that the only absolute guarantee against the use of such weapons is their complete elimination and the assurance that they will never be produced again.

“We are convinced that neither the possession of nuclear weapons nor the pursuit of these weapons can enhance international peace and security. The primary responsibility for undertaking the necessary steps for the elimination of nuclear weapons lies with those states that continue to regard nuclear-weapons as central to their security.”

The G21, in which the leading nuclear weapon states sit, should know that with the induction of the AU the Pelinda Treaty leaps beyond the continent of Africa to tell the world, to quote Ambassador Minty at the CD again: “… global security is not achievable when enormous financial and other resources are still being diverted towards the acquisition of more and more destructive capabilities...”

And very significantly, he said then: “We believe that common threats can only be effectively addressed through enhanced international co-operation and strong international institutions that can respond to our collective security concerns. Our approach in this forum should therefore be one that addresses common security concerns rather than that of certain blocks, regions or security alliances.”

The G21 must ponder these words. It will not be easy for it, with its nuclear load, to do so. But now that the AU is in its midst, can it avoid doing so? And can the AU avoid saying so to its new colleagues?

Africa is entering the G20 to make it the G21 not as a late admittee but as a new teacher. If the G21 hears and learns from the collective wisdom of Africa, a new anthem could well be heard — ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iG-21’.

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