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Africa Week 2024 concept note

For several years, questions have risen about Africa’s agency in various spheres - from climate change to the pandemic - including seeking evidence of this agency and how Africa projects this. During Africa Week 2024, keynote addresses and panels will explore how Africans are exercising agency in global affairs, what the effects are, and where it might lead.

The last five years have seen the world in a state of transition, with Africa itself having to navigate multiple changes. In the midst of these transitions, Africa has demonstrated its agency across many issues including peace and security, climate change, health, technology among others.

In moments of uncertainty for instance, we have seen an elevated African voice in the global space around key issues such as the frontloading of ‘justice’ by Kenya in climate change discourses, the vigorous engagement by South Africa for TRIPS waivers for covid vaccines, and the insistence of Nigeria and Ghana for a return to democratic governance in Niger after the coup that toppled the Nigerien government.

An imperative question that should thus concern scholars and policy makers is: How are Africans exercising agency in global affairs, what are the effects, and where might this lead?

In recent years, there has been an evident shift in the global geopolitical order which has seen a decline in ‘western’ dominance and influence with Global south actors including China, India, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia challenging this unipolarity.

This shift is having implications on the African continent. Vines et al (2022) argue “for African countries wary of years of western paternalism, a rising China and a resurgent Russia creates the possibility of a multipolarity that could create geopolitical opportunities for Africa”.

These shifts have opened up the space for Africa to navigate the nature and range of its partnerships, including in some instances taking their own (or unified) positions around specific issues or adopting a non-aligned stance. On this, Fayemi (2023 lecture) argues for negotiating this emerging landscape to move beyond non-alignment to stake a position that is in the continent’s collective interest.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict, highlights to an extent a shift in previous alignment patterns. Looking at the United Nations members’ voting patterns on the issue of the conflict for instance, where the expectation was that most countries would align with the US and Europe, up to 26 African countries instead abstained on the UN resolution condemning Russian action in Ukraine. African countries also attended the Russian-Africa summit in St Petersburg despite western sanctions against Russia, and South Africa refused to agree to any possibility of arresting Putin if he chose to attend the BRICS summit.

Development financing is also shaped by the shifting global order. As a newer party on the scene, China has since become an alternative and major creditor of debt and investment across the continent. Chinese lending currently accounts for 12% of Africa’s external debt. China also appears to be a more flexible lender, looking for instance at its efforts to restructure Ethiopia and Ghana’s debt and the 23 loans forgiven in 2022.1

Evidence of high debt profiles across the continent and complex repayment options, the example of Zambia for instance, highlight why Africa needs to own its agency in development financing. There is already evidence of such efforts from the proposal of the Lusaka Club, which is to operate similarly to the Paris club; and at the level of the African Union-through the Africa Peer review Mechanism- to establish an African credit rating which would provide alternative and complementary rating opinions for the continent.2

There is an increased recognition of Africa’s role and voice in addressing global issues ‘with growing choice of eager allies…African leaders are spurning the image of victim and demanding bigger say’. 3 There have been two momentous moments for the continent. First, in September 2023, the African Union (which represents 55 member states on the continent) was made a permanent member of the G20. In a similar vein, the BRICS expanded membership in 2023 to include Ethiopia and Egypt (joining in 2024). Africa’s presence in these arrangements potentially increases the opportunities for the continent to play a more active role in shaping the international agenda.

Commenting on the AU membership in the G20, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary General pointed out during the meeting in Delhi in September 2023 that ‘[t]his is a reflection of Africa’s growing influence and importance on the global stage… when much of the existing international multilateral architecture was built, most of Africa was still colonized and did not have an opportunity to have their voices heard’.4 This is another step towards correcting that imbalance”. Some may however argue that this has come a little too late.

Another significant area in which Africa is projecting its voice is on the debates around climate change and climate justice. While much of the narrative is on how to cut global emissions alongside navigating the effects of climate change, there is an increasing call to understand the limited role Africa in particular, has played in contributing to these negative effects yet bearing much of the consequences.

At the heart of the debates is how climate change is affecting the most marginalised communities across the continent, looking for instance at the drought and flooding in the Horn of Africa, including in Somalia and Ethiopia and the cyclones in Mozambique and Malawi and so on. According to the Africa director for Oxfam, ‘Africa bears the unfair burden of the impact of climate change’.5

In response, in September 2023, the first ever Africa Climate change Summit was hosted in Kenya. The intention was to convene efforts to articulate a unified voice on some of the pressing climate change debates ahead of COP28. One such output was the proposal of a global carbon tax to be tabled at the meeting in Dubai. Additionally, there are calls for debt restructuring and relief for African countries. Moreover, an energy transition programme has been established which will accelerate African energy transition and transformation needed ‘for jointly inclusive economic growth, wealth creation, poverty eradication and inequality reduction in a sustainable climate compatible manner’ this is driven by AU agenda 2063, the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) and the Paris Agreement.6

Technology continues to expand and evolve globally, reaching new heights including through the creation of artificial intelligence (AI) which stands to solve a lot of the world’s pressing issues. It has been noted that ‘AI systems are rapidly becoming a new layer of infrastructure with transformative potential’.7 On the continent, there have been positive moves towards harnessing these technologies.

According to Bawumia (2023), Africa and the Middle East are set to see the fastest growth in AI spending globally. The benefits of this technology are already being seen across parts of the continent, for example, since the Google AI research centre was opened in Ghana, there have been yields in agriculture, healthcare and education. In South Africa, drones are being employed to monitor weeds while in Nairobi surveillance systems ‘impose a modicum of order on the chaotic traffic’ and in Mauritius, computers are being used to crunch health data.

With the growing youth population and investments in AI, Africa is set to benefit tremendously as Buwamia notes ‘Africans have a goldmine at our fingertips’.8 What may set us back is lack of sustainable investments to drive this technology boost, and as questions about who owns and is leading these technological interventions need to be addressed in the context of longer-term benefits for Africa.

There is a continued dependence on pharmaceutical imports from Asia, North America and Europe that challenges health sovereignty. This is coupled with the perennial challenge of outward medical tourism that costs large economies like Nigeria ($1.6 billion per annum) 9 as well as the outflow of health professionals to North America, Europe and the Middle East.

Yet, COVID drew attention to Africa’s capacities for addressing its health needs in the absence of alternatives. This led to a partnership between African Union/Africa Centre for Disease Control, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Africa Export Import Bank to create suitable interventions for African populations, including the Africa Medical Supplies Hub. We have also seen efforts to support the eradication of malaria through state and private sector collaboration in national malaria control programmes. To what extent are collective efforts supporting/moving Africa in the direction of much needed health sovereignty?

Bearing all this in mind, Africa Week asks, In this context of shifting global dynamics and rise in multipolarity, how can Africa articulate movement and direction towards a Call to Action?

Throughout Africa week, we will critically interrogate where next for Africa across different thematic areas, drawing on research from King’s scholars and research partners across Africa to examine how the changes in Africa may reposition its role on the global platform.

Africa Week

Africa Week is an annual celebration of research, education and outreach activities on Africa. It brings together academics, researchers and students from across King's – and offers the…

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