With global governing and financial institutions established more than two decades ago, it’s time for the global system to modernize—and for Africa’s voice to be heard.
When we decided to embark on this special Africa-focused issue of the Wilson Quarterly, we knew that it would be important to explore the topic of governance—both to assess where Africa has been, and where it is going. Who better to turn to than Sudanese-born billionaire philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, who established the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in 2006 to strengthen governance across the continent? Among other vital initiatives, every two years the foundation produces an Ibrahim Index of African Governance, or IIAG, which assesses the level and trends of public governance across all 54 African countries. The Wilson Center's Africa Program Director Oge Onubogu, whose experience studying governance and democracy in Africa spans nearly two decades, interviewed Ibrahim. Their conversation focuses on the expansion of Africa’s role as a powerful player on the global stage.
Oge Onubogu, director of the Wilson Center’s Africa Program:
This year at the 2023 Ibrahim Governance Weekend, you said that we should no longer underestimate Africa or take Africa for granted. Can you expand upon that for our readers?
Mo Ibrahim, founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation:
We are talking about a whole continent where potential is huge, even if still too often untapped.
Africa’s population first: it is the youngest and fastest growing in the world. Then, with a potential market of more than 1.4 billion people, the African Continental Free Trade Area, or AfCFTA, surpasses the European Union single market, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and the Southern Common Market combined.
Last, but not least, Africa’s natural assets are crucial for any global green transition. Africa now hosts the world’s main primary tropical carbon sink, with the net carbon sequestration in the Congo Basin rainforests outpacing the Amazon and Southeast Asia combined. Africa's renewable energy potential—be it solar, thermal, or wind—is huge and rather well-spread. On top of that, the continent holds 30% of the world’s mineral reserves, many of which are critical to renewable and low-carbon technologies such as electric vehicles, battery storage, solar, green hydrogen, and geothermal.
Africa is often viewed through the lens of the US competition with China—and increasingly with Russia—given their investments on the continent. What would you say to policymakers in the US and around the world to help them see Africa’s value on its own terms?
This goes much further than a US/Russia/China competition. You can also name India, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran, the Gulf states, etc. We are looking at multiple, diverse, varying partnerships, depending on the potential deal on the table. Indeed, adequately assessing Africa’s potential is key to understanding the growing competition between historic, new, and potential partners; they are not there on behalf of history, friendship, or moral duty—they are there out of interest, be it economic or geostrategic. So yes, the competition is growing, and African countries are looking at multiple partnerships.
We had a lot of challenging discussions about this at our 2023 Ibrahim Governance Weekend. One of our main takeaways was that “partnership” be meaningful if it is a relationship of equals, based on shared interests and win-win deals. Do not confuse partnership with alliance and limit it to a “friend or foe” approach: Africa cannot and will not be a battleground for any new cold war. We have entered a world of varying coalitions, depending on the issues and interests at stake.
A lot of the work of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has been focused on governance within and between African countries, but I’ve noticed an increasing focus on Africa’s position within the global governance structure. Why is that important, especially now?
Built in the wake of World War II two generations ago, the current multilateral system has become obsolete. It needs modernizing and democratizing if it intends to reflect and serve the world today. It must be responsive to everyone’s needs—not just a handful of people's interests and values. Most of all, it must be representative of the current world. We all know that legitimacy and democracy are only grounded and sustainable in fair representation.
The world is changing deeply and quickly, if not smoothly, around us. All previous assumptions—and let us face it, the previous global order, too are being trampled on. Climate change, pandemics, and terrorism know of no borders. We must call for shared solutions. Different powers arise and geostrategic balances are deeply shifting. While Africa‘s assets will be needed by the whole world to find solutions to a variety of crises, especially climate change, the current multilateral decision-making system needs a full reset—if only because participation in decision-making processes entails ownership, and hence responsibility and accountability. I really hope that the momentum currently building behind the case for a reform of the multilateral financial system will foster a real transformation. For this reason, I want to commend the recent invitation for the African Union to join the G20 grouping as a full, permanent member, granting the continent with the same status as the European Union, which is its only close international counterpart. However, this should only be seen as a first step – reform is fundamental across all multilateral financial institutions. If we miss this window of opportunity between now and the end of the year, we will have lost a huge opportunity.
You’ve often said that shifts in global power balance are not represented in current multilateral institutions. Can you elaborate on that and explain why it’s important for Africa’s progress?
More than two generations ago, the establishment of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions set the diplomatic arena and economic order of today’s global system. Still mostly colonized at that time, Africa had no say in the establishment of this system. This means that today, a sovereign Africa remains devoid of its relevant voice in the current multilateral architecture. The continent’s weight and assets are not translated into adequate representation in the global decision-making system. Just consider the following: In 2023, Africa’s share of global population is 18%—almost double that of the G7 group. With 54 members and 28% of votes at the UN General Assembly, Africa still has no permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, both the UK and France, each with less than 1% of the world population, and smaller populations and smaller economies than Japan or Germany, occupy over one third of the UN Security Council permanent seats.
Both the IMF and the World Bank lack any meaningful representation from the Global South. The boards of both institutions share some unique and astonishing features: no independent directors and board members are residing in-house full-time, at great cost for both institutions and unnecessary interference.
Africa’s place in the world is rapidly shifting—politically, socially, culturally, and economically. How can African voices, governments, and institutions leverage this changing landscape to build partnerships that drive local and global progress?
That was a main discussion point during the 2023 Ibrahim Governance Weekend. Africa’s potential needs to be leveraged: youth through education and training; natural resources through local value transformation; entrepreneurship through local venture capital and incubating systems; soft power (sport, creative industries, etc.) through public support, infrastructure and relevant credit; and African domestic financial resources through improving taxation capacity, tackling illicit financial flows, and leveraging sovereign wealth and pension funds. Then, Africa’s voice in the international arena needs to be articulated in a united and coherent way: common positions could be outlined in pan-African summits and meetings prior to global events, as was brilliantly done by the first African Climate Summit hosted in Nairobi by Kenyan President William Ruto prior to COP28.
But Africa also needs to put its house in order. If we want to act and interact as a continent on par with others, we need to empower the African Union; more sovereign power, more financial resources. The continental trade agreement needs to develop quickly into a functioning common market, and we need to stop the meddling of military in governance. The ongoing destabilization in the Sahel region must be tackled. Nothing can justify the overthrowing of democratically elected governments by military [forces] that should rather turn their weapons against the spreading terrorist threat.
Let’s talk a bit about BRICS, which stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, and is an increasingly influential coalition of emerging economies. We’ve seen a record number of countries apply to join BRICS—and not just emerging economies. What are your thoughts about the future of BRICS and this growing interest?
As the current multilateral system is more and more challenged, the attraction and relevance of the BRICS grouping cannot be underestimated, as an organization more representative of the current world balances, as well as more tuned to the needs and expectations of the Global South. As of July 2023, more than 40 countries expressed interest in joining the BRICS group, according to South Africa’s top diplomat in charge of relations with the bloc. In the 15th BRICS Summit, which took place in Johannesburg in August this year, an initial six new countries were invited to join the BRICS group: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. With these six new members, the group now accounts for 29% of the global GDP, and 46% of the global population. It also covers more than 44% of global oil production, and more than one third of natural gas production.
As many as 23 countries in the Global South, and at least seven in Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe), have expressed interest in joining the BRICS. If all were to be admitted, the BRICS bloc could represent more than one third of global GDP, and over 60% of the global population.
It is too early, of course, to see how such a large group would function, or what it would look like. But it has already begun to set up a variety of tools that, even if unlikely to materialize soon, are signs to consider. Established almost 10 years ago in 2015, the New Development Bank, headquartered in China, was launched with $50 billion in capital and a $100 billion reserve currency pool. The BRICS has also engaged [in] discussions about the creation of an alternative reserve currency to counter dollar dominance in trade and finance, and is working on an integrated BRICS payment system.
What makes you most optimistic about Africa’s future?
Africa’s youth. This means drive for change, innovation capacities, vitality, and dynamism. Provided relevant prospects and adequate environment are available. Otherwise…
Africa is already, by far, the youngest continent: at 18.8, Africa’s median age is by far the youngest in the world—12.2 years younger than Latin America and the Caribbean, the region with the second lowest median age. By 2100, Africa’s youth will represent almost half of the world’s youth, and more than 40% of the global working age population.
One of the goals of this special Wilson Quarterly issue is to show a different side of Africa that isn’t always portrayed in mainstream media. Is there something you’d most like our readers to know about Africa?
Since its inception in 2006, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation aims to provide a frank, factual analysis of Africa’s situation and challenges, to feed an adequate narrative, and hence lead to relevant decision and policymaking about the African continent.
We need to move away from a mainstream narrative that depicts Africa as a basket case to be sorted out and highlight the continent’s assets and potential without, of course, masking its challenges and responsibilities. Current crises, from climate change to pandemics, terrorism and civil wars, are global and shared. They call for global solutions. Africa is necessary to craft and implement these solutions. Provided we put an end to the historic model by which Africa’s natural resources are extracted in raw form and exported to countries where the manufacturing dramatically increases their value without Africa’s people seeing a return.
We need to break the cycle that repeatedly sees African countries and businesses borrowing at exorbitant rates, leading to default and crippling IMF programs. The biggest impediment to development in Africa is the excessive cost of capital. Much of it is also linked to the inadequate assessment of African risk.
We need to leverage Africa’s domestic financial resources to put an end to illicit financial flows out of the continent, close to $100 billion per year, according to UN and US academic research. Mispricing and profit-shifting are costing Africa too much, and we need the cooperation of our international partners to stop this bleeding.
Last but not least, we need to stop reducing a country to its president. Relationships with Africa cannot be limited to presidential summits followed by rosy final declarations [that are] never implemented. We need to liaise and work with civil societies, local governments and communities, the private sector, and—above all—youth, who are the growing bulk of the continent.
Oge Onubogu is director of the Wilson Center’s Africa Program. Ms. Oge Onubogu is a governance and democracy professional with nearly two decades of experience on Africa and US-Africa relations, including working with African governments, international partners, civil society, academia, and the private sector.
Dr. Mo Ibrahim, PhD is the founder and chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which he established in 2006 to support good governance and exceptional leadership on the African continent. Ibrahim is a widely recognized entrepreneur. In 1989, he founded Mobile Systems International, a global cellular consulting and software provider, and in 1998, he established Celtel International, one of Africa’s leading mobile telephone companies, which pioneered mobile services in Africa.
Cover photo: Participants of the Ibrahim Governance Weekend at the Kenyatta International Convention Center in Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, April 28, 2023. Photo courtesy Mo Ibrahim Foundation.