Africa’s International Relations and the Legend of ‘Common Positions’

In: African and Asian Studies
Odilile Ayodele Senior Researcher, Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg Johannesburg South Africa

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IR scholars and analysts often view the African Union’s apparent deference to common positions with a collectivist lens. However, in this article, I argue that the legend of common African positions (CAPs) has not yet been animated, as African leaders do not always work collectively for structural and political reasons. Two significant factors complicate analysing Africa’s IR in Africa: first, Africa is not a monolith. With fifty-five states and numerous linguistic, cultural, and historical paths, there is more that is different than is the same. Second, conventional IR theories are rooted in Global North worldviews and are, therefore, not the most appropriate tool to study African countries’ collective decision-making. I focus on the United Nations as the site where the Africa Group’s successes and failures are saliently illustrated, specifically the Ezulwini Consensus. The Africa Group’s contestation within the various UN bodies, particularly with the UN Peace and Security Council, where they have long lobbied for representation, underscores the strength and structural obstacles to Africa’s collective action. Taking an interpretative approach and analysing from an epistemological and normative level, I offer an alternative lens through which to view the CAPs. Leaning on the philosophies of Ubuntu and Ujamaa, I propose a framework to explore the African Union’s process of developing common positions.


IR scholars and analysts often view the African Union’s apparent deference to common positions with a collectivist lens. However, in this article, I argue that the legend of common African positions (CAPs) has not yet been animated, as African leaders do not always work collectively for structural and political reasons. Two significant factors complicate analysing Africa’s IR in Africa: first, Africa is not a monolith. With fifty-five states and numerous linguistic, cultural, and historical paths, there is more that is different than is the same. Second, conventional IR theories are rooted in Global North worldviews and are, therefore, not the most appropriate tool to study African countries’ collective decision-making. I focus on the United Nations as the site where the Africa Group’s successes and failures are saliently illustrated, specifically the Ezulwini Consensus. The Africa Group’s contestation within the various UN bodies, particularly with the UN Peace and Security Council, where they have long lobbied for representation, underscores the strength and structural obstacles to Africa’s collective action. Taking an interpretative approach and analysing from an epistemological and normative level, I offer an alternative lens through which to view the CAPs. Leaning on the philosophies of Ubuntu and Ujamaa, I propose a framework to explore the African Union’s process of developing common positions.

1 Introduction

Africa’s place in the global world order has long been on the periphery, arguably a function of history and structure. Colonialism and the post-World War II international system did not bring Africa out of the cold in a meaningful way economically, politically … or theoretically. Nowhere is this as obvious as in studying Africa’s International Relations (IR). Even though there is growing substantive scholarship, there are still not enough attempts to understand how Africa’s IR functions. The African continent is diverse regarding geography, history and reigning political ideologies. However, a common cultural thread across the continent, which separates it from Western cultures, is communitarian cultural ideologies (Tieku, 2012), and this is a missing link in attempts to understand Africa’s communitarian behaviour in its relations with the world and within the continent.1

I do not argue that there is a monolithic African view of the world. Instead, I look to the journey that African countries, via the African Union, take towards developing Common African Positions (CAPs), which is the basis of its collective negotiating positions. Long-established understandings and assumptions of how CAPs are articulated and the norms and values that drive their creation are trapped in the intellectual prison of Western theories and interpretations of organisational politics. The work of Odoom and Andrews (2016) and Tieku (2004; 2013; 2021; 2022) point to the fact that African IR, especially as it relates to the African Union, are missing a more context-driven understanding of how Africa’s IR has come to be.

In this article, I locate the African Union as the site of Africa’s collective IR and, therefore, the most appropriate for understanding the nature, function, and limitations of Africa’s IR practically and theoretically. Africa, and by extension, the African Union, is not viewed as a fully independent agent. This is not without cause, owing to the financial weakness of the African Union and its political weakness, including the continued involvement of stronger external powers, many of whom were former colonial powers. Nevertheless, the African Union has agency in its IR, which can be particularly seen in how it exercises its joint interests in the form of the CAPs.

Although African states have had a history of advocating for their shared interests before the 1960s, the road towards standing as a united bloc on major global issues such as climate change and United Nations (UN) reform, for instance, has been littered with potholes and detours. There has been some success in achieving common positions, but endemic and exogenous pressures on individual states make it complex to work collectively. However, the joint action by the Africa Group within the UN underscores the success of collective power and is evidence of agency in Africa’s IR.

I contribute to the understanding of African IR by looking to African philosophy to help understand the process that leads to the development of the CAPs. I take an interpretative approach to my analysis of the African Union CAPs documents and secondary qualitative literature on Africa’s IR. I conduct my analysis from an epistemological and normative level.

There is a plethora of African philosophies to draw upon to understand African IR, with similar and dissimilar normative positioning; I put forward a potential framework based on Ubuntu and Ujamaa as a starting point. These philosophies selected were drawn upon because their normative core is not only similar but is in line with the articulated norms and values of the African Union. They provide an understanding of what informs the norms and values of African states and, possibly, how much more is needed to animate Africa’s collective positioning on the global stage.

The AU has not been shy about its attempts to draw on the benefits of collective bargaining in several strategic partnerships, including with the UN, the European Union (EU), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and individually powerful countries. I do not look at its collective bargaining position with individual countries, as formulated in the Banjul Formula, or within other multilateral fora. In alignment with the work of Edozie and Kisha (2022), I focus on the United Nations as the site where the Africa Group’s successes and failures are most saliently illustrated, specifically the ‘Ezulwini Consensus’.

The Africa Group’s contestation within the various UN bodies, particularly with the UN Peace and Security Council (UNSC), where they have long lobbied for representation, underscores the strength and structural obstacles to Africa’s collective action. One of the results of African activism at the UNSC has been the attempts at the closer alignment of the UNSC and the AU peace and security council (PSC). The relationship seems obvious, given that over 70 % of the discussions at the UNSC are dominated by discussions about Africa (de Carvalho & Fort, 2020).

However, the Africa Group’s influence has often been stymied by several factors, not limited to the increasing fractures between the veto-wielding permanent members of the UNSC; the US, the UK, France, China and Russia. The fractures have coalesced around the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine; the latter forcing a situation where African countries have almost been pushed into a Cold War-esque situation where they must choose a camp – the West or the rest (Ryder & Kebret, 2022; Fabricius, 2022). Africa’s influence, and collective power, are further stymied by its internal contestation. Tadesse Shiferaw points to Africa’s non-permanent members at the UNSC that have been unable to shape the body because of internal cleavages:

the difficult and highly political task of steering its members towards a continental position despite competing national interests; and the need to follow the lead of its member states which are all equal on paper, but some hold more sway in practice. The big, and/or influential member states which can wield financial or thought leadership, like the ‘swing states’ mentioned above, often seek to achieve national goals through the AU (Shiferaw, 2021, p. 6).

Understandings of Africa’s common decision-making processes are often based on a zero-sum game approach where one state’s gain results in losses for another, and realist approaches that view nation-states as the key actors in an anarchical international system. Realists posit that powers and capabilities affect the nature of relationships in the international system. Simply put, nation-states’ economic and military power affects their degree of assertiveness in their interactions with other states. However, as I illustrate in this article, African approaches are more nuanced as they are influenced by a global context, which forces certain kinds of action but that does not necessarily negate the influence of African communitarian ideologies.

The article lays out its claims in four steps: first, I offer a theoretical discussion on Africa’s internationalism and African IR. two, I review the literature on Africa’s common positions and discuss the import of collective bargaining on Africa’s IR. I briefly unpack the process of crafting the CAPs. Third, I present a framework overview based on the selected African philosophies. And I conclude with reflections for future research and development.

2 Africa’s IR and African IR Theory

Theorising African IR is complicated, not only by the question of what constitutes African IR, but also by what is not African IR. Amy Niang (2020) warns against the viewing the African polity ‘homogenously’, and ignoring the import of Africa’s encounter with the Western world, to development of IR theory and concomitant effect on African IR.

The idea of African states practicing IR, and possible contributions and innovations, is obscured by the fact that terms such as internationalism are conceptually hemmed in by a normative arc that does not include African contributions or histography in its construction. As Fred Halliday explains, internationalism ties together the ‘analytical’ and the ‘normative’; ‘how the world does work’ and ‘how it should work’ (Halliday, 1988, p. 198). But these analytical and normative framings are grounded on presuppositions that all states are independent and sovereign – ‘universal’ concepts in IR Theory. However, these are undergirded by a worldview or lens based on an apparent Westphalian conceptualisations of a state. The Peace of Westphalia (an output of the inter-war period) resulted in the waning of feudalism and the end of the political hegemony of the Holy Roman Empire. This laid the groundwork for an updated understanding of what a state is and how states interact. Post-1648, this revised notion of a state was characterised by autonomy, territorial integrity, political sovereignty, and the development of inter-state diplomacy – all concepts that were not commonplace at the time. These characteristics allowed for the principles of peaceful co-existence and non-inference in the domestic politics of a sovereign state as a cornerstone of the Westphalian model of interstate relations. In other words, a rigid interpretation of the Westphalian model means that only nation-states can practice internationalism. With this lens, it could be assumed that internationalism, in the common understanding of the word, did not exist on the African continent. But we know that is not true, there is historical evidence of African internationalism in the pre-modern era. For instance, Howard French’s account of the city-state of ancient Djenneé in West Africa, which was not only one of the most prominent ancient cities in Africa but was urbanised before encounters with Arabs in the seventh century. French shows that archaeological artifacts in Africa from as far off from Han China and the Mediterranean (French, 2021, pp. 18–19). Djenneé, amongst other cities, are an important piece of pre-modern history that points to African internationalism and IR. As French notes, the city ‘became swept up in a process of empire formation in a part of Africa that would become as outward looking as Portugal or Spain, only long before the oceanic explorations of the Iberians’ (Ibid, p. 23). The IR of individual states did not just begin with their encounter with imperial Europe. Indeed, as Edozie and Khisa point out conceptualizations of what a state is

The modern history of Africa’s internationalism took a major turn with the European-African imperial encounter that led to the transatlantic slave trade and the creation of global diasporic Africa, and to successive colonial regimes from formal colonization to neocolonial and postcolonial global orders (Edozie & Khisa, 2022, p. 28).

Essentially Africa’s internationalism, and the understanding of Africa’s IR was obfuscated, and modern IR theory, circa the early twentieth century, was coloured by concerns around issues of hierarchy as imperial power began to recede and sovereign states began to multiply.

The cornerstone of this shifting dynamic were issues of race and ethnicity which cannot be divorced from the structure of the nation-state, or the fabric of the international system (Ozavci, n.d; Kayaoglu, 2010). Kelebogile Zvobgo and Meredith Loken describe race as ‘central organizing feature of world politics’. They point to the fact that concerns around race and ethnicity are woven into world politics such as the ‘anti-Asian sentiment that influenced the development and structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’ and the intermarriage between race and anti-communism that marked Washington’s global approach during the Cold War (Zvobgo and Loken, 2020). They point out that:

This is a key element of IR’s racial exclusion: The state system that IR seeks to explain arises from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War and established European principles of statehood and sovereignty. Far from 17th-century relics, these principles are enshrined in the United Nations Charter – the foundation for global governance since 1945. But non-European nations did not voluntarily adopt European understandings of statehood and sovereignty, as IR scholars often mythologize. Instead, Europe, justified by Westphalia, divided the world between the modern, “civilized” states and conquered those which they did not think belonged in the international system (Ibid).

Further evidence of the importance of race in the development of IR and IR theory can be gleaned by looking at the work of scholars such as American T. Lothrop Stoddard (1920) who advocated for prevention of racial mixing and the maintenance of racial hierarchy. Stoddard influenced Nazi Germany’s approach to Race, and he was very influential in the US till the defeat of Nazi Germany (Bednar, 2021, p. 140; Lebovic, 2021).

Robbie Shilliam’s forward in Marta Iñiguez de Heredia and Zubairu Wai’s edited volume, ‘Recentering Africa in IR: Beyond Lack, Peripherality, and Failure’, takes us to Geneva 1936 when Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, challenges the League of Nations for ignoring Italy’s invasion ‘sovereign Ethiopia’. In Selassie’s plea to the League of Nations, he states:

I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one. It is not merely a question of the settlement of Italian aggression. It is collective security: it is the very existence of the League of Nations. It is the confidence that each State is to place in international treaties. It is the value of promises made to small States that their integrity and their independence shall be respected and ensured. It is the principle of the equality of States on the one hand, or otherwise the obligation laid upon small powers to accept the bonds of vassalship. In a word, it is international morality that is at stake. Have the signatures appended to a Treaty value only in so far as the signatory Powers have a personal, direct and immediate interest involved? (Selassie, 1936; English translation from Shinn 2004).

As Shilliam observes,

Selassie I’s speech has historical acuity, rhetorical force, and is theoretically rich in its utilization of two concepts that will become key to IR scholarship: “collective security” and “international morality.” Who though, do students read for this pivotal moment in the inter-war period, purportedly sparking IR’s “first great debate”? Invariably it is the English historian of Russia, E. H. Carr (Shilliam, 2018, vii–viii).

The Ethiopian example, amongst many others, point to the fact that main- stream IR is not divorced from Imperialism as previously argued by scholars such as Niang (Ibid.), Shilliam (Ibid.) and Robert Vitalis (2017). These considerations arguably seeped into the League of Nations, and multilateral projects such as the Atlantic Charter, affected Africa (and Africa in the diaspora) in two fundamental ways: first, it restricted Africa’s participation in the shaping of, and participation in, the international system. Second, it shaped the context in which future African internationalism and African IR theory exists.

In 1967, I. William Zartman predicted that the nation-state as a unit of IR would be replaced as the most important unit in the face of the rising importance of regional groupings. As is evidenced in the strength and elevation of European regionalism, and the creation the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). He uses the realist description of Africa being a ‘subordinate state system’. Zartman correctly points to the collective identity of African countries as being shaped by their ‘colonial struggle, denigration by colonialists, confrontation with modernization, similarity of aspirations’ (Zartman, 1967, p. 58). Yet, as Niang points out, the view of African IR from the lens of marginalisation is unsatisfactory because of its incompleteness. Pointing to the notion of a global commons, Niang points to the fact that the fight to break free from the shackles of colonialism ‘gave effectivity to the notion of a global commons of free and equal polities’ (Niang, Ibid, p. 458). Pointedly, Niang argues that the ‘decolonisation period can be seen as a unique ontological moment during which freedom, solidarity, and human rights had to be rethought for how they informed an effort to rescue humanity from the ethical collapse in which it had been plunged by imperial impulses’ (Ibid, p. 459). A clear question that may be derived from Zartman and Niang positions, is why decolonisation did not contest the nation-state system? In response, it may be argued that decolonisation is an incomplete process that sparked the modern state system. In commentary on decolonisation in the post-war period, Peo Hansen sets forth the argument that the modern nation-state system is ‘a product of decolonisation and thus a reaction and alternative to the European designs for the modern-world order’ (Hansen, 2021, p. 36). Yassin El-Ayouty reminds us that many of the conflicts between European Powers, prior to World War II, often related to disagreements over colonies (El-Ayouty, 1971, p. 8). For that reason, the African and Asian group at the UN, believed that the end of colonialism was critical to ensuring peace (Ibid). Thus, what emerged were new states that did not strictly conform to the Westphalian notion, rather various other configurations including ethno-national state formations, for instance those that emerged out of Eastern Europe. However, for African and Asian states, many of which were still colonies, there was resistance for them even achieving independence from the European Powers such as Britain. As a result, the newly formed UN system created a Trusteeship system in which many former colonies fell under the administration of their former colonial heads as a precursor to eventual self-determination.

Achieving independence meant that the supposed ‘new’ states [no matter their configuration] became members of the UN. But, as Mark Mazower, highlights that ‘[t]he UN’s later embrace of anti-colonialism had tended to obscure the awkward fact that like the League [of Nations] it was a product of empire and indeed, at least at the outset, regarded by those with colonies to keep as more than adequate mechanism for its defence’ (Mazower, 2003, p. 23 cited in Hansen, 2021, pp. 35–36). We need to remember the context in which the UN Charter was signed in 1945, there were very few sovereign African states, indeed only four countries were in attendance, The Kingdom of Egypt, the Union of South Africa, The Republic of Liberia, and the Ethiopian Empire. The UN approach to decolonisation, including the UN Trusteeship system, all contributed to an international system that continues to peripheralise its former colonies – particularly those from Africa and Asia. In the face of continued peripheralisation, newly independent states continued to advocate for influence. A clear example was the Bandung Conference in 1955, the first conference for newly independent states mostly from Asia and Africa. The conference famously laid the foundations for the non-aligned movement and the rise of the South-South solidarity movement. Nonetheless, even Bandung Conference could not shake off the strictures of what has come to be known as the nation-state. As Shilliam points out:

The paradox of the conference was that it took the key method of self- determination from blueprints of the masters’ architecture: the enabling institution was to be the nation-state; and the process was to be development or modernization (Shilliam, 2015, pp. 425–435).

The implication is that even if the Westphalian notion of nation-state is an illusion that ignores the influence of decolonisation to the eventual conceptualization of nation-state, the erasure or marginalisation of non-Western contributions affect the praxis of IR; this has implications for even how theory is developed.

Odoom and Nathans (2017) provoke IR scholars to fundamentally question the makeup of IR theory in the 21st century. Whose ideas and insights are part of IR theory, and which approaches to ontology, epistemology and methodology do we follow. I take it a step further to ask; why we can’t look beyond individual contributions and ‘stories’ and look to African philosophies. Of course, there is a danger in viewing African philosophies from a binary lens, there is also a danger in focusing on knowledge from only one geographical region. In essence, we run the risk of replicating the very hegemonic treatment of knowledge that we speak against. Yet, the fear of duplicating hegemonic systems should not stop IR scholars from looking towards the continent to extract knowledge. Indeed, borrowing from the robust study of African philosophy would show more similarity rather than dissimilarity.

African IR in the 21st century can still garner a lot from the ideas and normative values that can be garnered from African traditional philosophies such as Ubuntu. Karen Smith observes that concepts like Ubuntu are still ‘on the fringes of scholarly analysis in IR’ (Smith, p. 88). Part of the challenge with terms such as Ubuntu, or similarly related Ujamaa, is that it is a communitarian worldview – which is dissimilar to the individualist worldviews that currently dominate mainstream IR. The challenge further lies in the fact much of the central tenants of Ubuntu and Ujaama are not always reflected on the continent owing to various endogenous and exogenous pressures that ultimately lead to various degrees of conflict and ethno-identity strife. As Smith explains, this apparent disconnect ‘does not invalidate its potential to contribute to our understanding of IR’ (Ibid, p. 88). Smith looks to Tieku’s collectivist understanding of Africa’s understanding of IR, to illustrate that main-stream IR concepts such as ‘national interests’, if viewed from an African lens would make supposedly ‘irrational behaviour by African states’ more understandable (Ibid). Smith points to Tieku’s three collectivist approaches: consensual decision-making; group think; and the Pan-African solidarity norm (Tieku, 2012; Smith, Ibid, p. 89). Many of the decisions that African leaders make collectively are grounded on the Pan-African solidarity norm (Clapham 1996, pp. 106–107; Mazrui, 1963).

Tieku describes the Pan-African solidarity norm as the ‘widespread belief among African ruling elites the proper and ethically acceptable behaviour of Africa’s political elites is to demonstrate a feeling of oneness and support towards other African leaders, at least in public’ (Tieku, 2009). He provides the example from July 1964 when …

a group of Foreign Ministers showed strong opposition to Ghana’s Africa Unity proposal which was submitted at the second session of Council of Ministers (Council) held in Cairo, Egypt. Opposition to Ghana’s proposal was described as un-African. Also, the Foreign Minister of Tunisian Ali Amer complained that the disagreement undermined the spirit and letter of Pan-African solidarity norm. Amer claimed: “we speak of solidarity … [when we show] a feeling of tolerance and support toward each one of us … [when we support an African state] if we find that [the country in question is] in conflict or in difficulties with a country outside of Africa.” (OAU, 1964; Thompson & Zartman cited in Tieku, Ibid).

What this illustrates is that the solidarity norm is not new to African IR, indeed it’s a key feature that was embedded into Africa’s approach to internationalism. As Smith explains, the solidarity norm would inform many of Africa state’s decisions that would go against main-stream expectations. For instance, the

show of solidarity with Sudanese President al-Bashir – which involves their refusal to arrest him despite calls by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Attempts by the AU to engage Muammar Gaddafi in a negotiated solution before the United Nations (UN) decision to authorise North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) airstrikes is another illustration. Former South African president (Smith, 2019, p. 88).

Another one of the approaches highlighted by Tieku, consensus-based decision- making; is, as he explains, best encapsulated in Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere’s statement, ‘We talk until we agree’. Consensus-based decision-making is the hallmark of many traditional African societies (Wiredu, 1995). As Kwesi Wiredu reminds us, reconciliation is a form of consensus that is found in traditional African polity (Ibid, pp. 53–54). Therefore, contemporary reconciliation instruments such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, favoured by African states, as we have seen in South Africa after apartheid and Sierra Leone, amongst other examples, are not rare exceptions but indicative of innovation from the continent.

3 Collective Bargaining in African IR: The Start of Building African Common Positions

Collective bargaining, and activism, have historically been powerful tools; for African countries, even more so due to their weakness relative to stronger nations. For instance, in the earlier 20th century, as African countries fought for their emancipation from colonial domination, their collective action in bodies within the UN made the most inroads. The African Caucus of the UN had successes in censuring South Africa at the UN general assembly in 1961, getting the UN General Assembly and the Secretary-General to agree to Afro-Asian consultation on the issue of Congo (Spencer, 1962). To a large extent, particularly in light of the period, the African caucus was able to garner enough collective influence to pursue, and succeed, in their anti-colonialist agenda.

The African caucus started as three distinct groupings: the Brazzaville Group, the Casablanca group, and the Monrovia group. These three groups eventually coalesced under the guidance of Emperor Haile Selassie to form one grouping at the newly formed. The Organisation of African Union (OAU) in 1963. An African caucus was also set up at the IMF and at the World Bank. At the conference that birthed the OAU, a resolution was adopted in 1964 that compelled OAU members to coordinate their common interests and concerns at the UN (OAU, 1964; Endeley, 2009, p. 13).

By 1978, The OAU adopted a further resolution – ‘A Common African Strategy to Consolidate the Non-Aligned Movement’ United Nations (OAU, 1978). Despite the initial dynamism shown by the African group, their negotiation tactics lacked the assertiveness that marked the push for anti-colonialist sentiments that buttressed previous activism at the UN. The success of following common negotiating positions underscore not only the power of collective action but also illustrate how African agency can be animated on the international stage.

Edozie and Khisa view the collective action of the OAU (and later the AU) as an indication of the institution cementing its role as multilateral global governance actor. I will in unpack this viewpoint further as break down the crafting of CAPs.

3.1 Crafting the CAPs

The articulation and implementation of common positions is hampered by several structural factors and a consistent common approach is ‘elusive’ (see Zondi, 2013; Vickers, 2013). Nevertheless, an important driver or point of power for African countries is its collective continental agency. As Edozie and Khisa illustrate, African states are able to use the CAPs ‘as institutional platforms’ to influence their position in the international system (Edozie & Khisa, Ibid, p. 59). As they explain, the CAPs are

part of the continent’s journey toward global actor status and provided African states with a platform for exercising agency on a range of issues from UN system reform to climate change, international security, and international trade (Ibid.).

Table 1
Table 1

Selected list of common African positions

Citation: African and Asian Studies 22, 1-2 (2023) ; 10.1163/15692108-12341581

Source: Compiled by Author

Table 1 provides a list of selected CAPs in a number of areas that show Africa’s interests in various areas. The challenge in crafting successful common negotiating positions, however, is not only normative but is also practical, as these positions need to be championed and implemented. Siphamandla Zondi points out that the value of common negotiating positions is undermined by the failure ‘to develop an institutional framework of norms, values, platform and institutions to manage, coordinate and champion them’ (Zondi, 2014, p. 5).

Under the auspices of the AU, we have witnessed African countries be more forthright about their collective bargaining at the UN and with other external partners. Brendan Vickers (2013, p. 692) points to a shift in Africa’s negotiation tactics away from ‘passivity’ to pushing against global governance norms, pushing for more ‘distributive justice’ (Ibid). This shift was most evident in Africa’s push for UN reform guided by the Ezulwini consensus. Even though the initial requests for permanent representation (with Veto power) in the UNSC has not yet been achieved, what Africa was ultimately able to do was get three revolving seats on the UNSC (Cilliers, 2015; Adebajo, 2021).

The road to developing CAPs has been long and complicated. Not only is the path to developing a CAP complex and mutable, but there are difficulties in getting long-term buy-in from internal and external partners. The internal challenge arguably impacts the ability to influence external partners such as multilateral bodies. Explaining the process, Bankole Adeoye points out that the diplomatic contestation and consensus-building between AU members during the CAPs process is part and parcel of the process:

In the AU system and for advocacy purposes at the international level, a CAP reflects a consensus reached in the form of a negotiated text on a specific thematic or policy subject of continental or cross-regional areas (Adeoye, 2020, p. 4).

The CAPs do not necessarily emanate from only one position. They may arise from regional powers or, as Zondi explains, through ‘the Permanent Representative Council (PRC) and the Council of Ministers in the African Union’ (Zondi, 2013, p. 22). In other words, a continental position might be an agenda formed by a few states (Ibid). However, as Adeoye and Zondi demonstrate, the multi-layered process of developing a CAP means that a considerable amount of intra-state negotiations occurs, and these positions are cross-pollinated by different interest points – including those of smaller/weaker states. For instance, the approach to the Ezulwini Consensus and Sirte Declaration was propelled by Committee of Ten on UN Reform of the African Union Summit, in comparison to the African Consensus and Position on Development Effectiveness which grew out of the African Platform for Development Effectiveness (Edozie & Khisa, Ibid, p. 59).

It is important to note, as Thomas Kwasi Tieku’s research indicates, the African Union Commission (AUC), the engine room of norm development and policymaking at the AU, has a significant degree of agency in intra-African relations and external partnerships (Tieku, 2021). Thus, Africa’s collective voice in places such as the UN General Assembly ‘can disguise many divisions. Due to their voting power in the General Assembly, the members of African Group are feared, but not always respected’ (Paterson & Virk, 2013, p. 16). The implications of Africa’s activism being weakened points to failures in the entire process of developing the CAPs. Is the problem at inception when the CAPs are being developed – which points to normative fragility? Or does the problem relate to structural impediments, such as global power interference, and logistical and financial weakness on the part of AU member states?

We must remember that the CAPs are not externally handed down processes or viewpoints, but rather policy instruments developed internally, with buy-in. This would give the impression that there would be sufficient impetus to ensure that member states champion these CAPs and essentially sing from the same hymn sheet. The CAPs are meant to guide AU’s negotiation position within the United Nations and with external partners.

A few of the most ‘impactful’ CAPs, as Adeoye describes, have included: the Ezulwini Consensus; The Master Roadmap on Silencing the Guns; the Common African Position on the Post-2015 Development Agenda; The Common African Position on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (Adeoye 2020, p. 5). But the AU has not yet developed the logistical and institutional infrastructure to operate independently. This fact alone ensures that the structural embeddedness of former colonial and global powers remains a factor in politics at the AU. This is further complicated by the lack of a cohesive ‘pan-African identity’ (Zondi, Ibid, p. 31). This brings us back to the question of norms and values and with whose lens are we viewing the AU, and the CAPs in particular? Weak capacity is undoubtedly an issue that still needs to be tackled appropriately. However, I argue that the building blocks for a pan-African identity exist in legal form, as evidenced by the AU Constitutive Act and how the AU and the AUC operate (Tieku, 2021). The real issues are two-fold: first, finding alternate lenses to view the CAPs – with this article suggesting a few options; second, how to take intentions, principles and norms towards actionable activities.

4 In Search of an African Norms and Values Based Framework

As IR theory evolves, alternate accounts are slowly being co-opted. As argued earlier, Afrocentric traditions are not commonly used as centre points, for a plethora of reasons. Of course, Africa is made up of 54 states with varying geo-linguistic traditions, numerous and diverse cultures, as well as philosophical leanings. However, there is a richness and nuance in Afro-centric philosophies that can speak to the values, norms, ethics and aspirations of African states. For the purposes of this article, I have only focused on two Southern African philosophies: Ubuntu and Ujamaa. Of course, much can be written about other philosophies emanating from other parts of the continent. My use of these two philosophies stems from the value they offer in explaining organisational relations or communal ethics, and the unique viewpoints that they offer in trying to understand collective positions as a form of existence – and ultimately survival. Moreover, these philosophies, also have resonance with other philosophic traditions present on the African continent. Two common, and complementary threads can be drawn across the various African philosophical traditions and political approaches – African socialism and humanism. The philosophical underpinning of both relates to communal welfare.

Ama Biney, examining the historical discourse on African humanism, describes the different approaches to humanism and socialism around the continent. Biney looks to Nkrumah, who speaks of the ‘remoulding’ of society towards socialism, ensuring that ‘the humanism of traditional African life reassert[s] itself in a modern African society’ (Nkrumah, 1972, p. 439 cited in Biney, 2014, p. 35). In contrast, she notes that Nyerere believed that a socialist society would emerge from the traditional centring values (Ujamaa or familyhood) as the organising principle (Ibid). Biney sharply points to the incongruency of post-independence Africa, which despite paying lip service to the narrative of African humanism, experienced several brutal ethnic conflicts. Nkrumah, Nyerere, and others, though advocating African humanism and socialism, ultimately leant towards authoritarianism.

Variants of African socialism are dissimilar to scientific socialism, or Marxist- Leninist socialism, because even though they both focused on social and economic regulation by controlling the means of production, African socialism is not driven by the same impetus. As John Kakonge (1964) notes, scientific socialism is an output of industrial development whilst African socialism is birthed from traditional African social systems. Indigenous systems allow for religion and spirituality and have a different understanding of class. This has implications for the way socialism was ultimately practiced, and why implementation failed in African countries that decided to pursue socialist visions such as Senegal and Tanzania. As Jodie Yuzhou Sun points out, there was an additional layer to the implementation – or mis-implementation of African socialism, particularly as the Cold War progressed, the ideologies of many nationalist leaders were driven by competing interests. On the one hand, they had to dilute traditional leadership to ‘pave the way for nation building’ (Ibid). This meant that traditional applications of African socialism were made near impossible. On the other hand, African nationalists often ‘borrowed theories from western countries’ as result of their formal education (Ibid, p. 358). Leaders such as Nkrumah shied away from African socialism to embrace scientific socialism. In a 1967 speech, he decried the confusion caused by the mixed implementation of African socialism and what he suggests as the false implication that the traditional African society was classless (Nkrumah, 1967). Like Nkrumah, Guinean president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, also initially embraced scientific socialism. Ultimately, owing to the shifts in political climate most forms of socialism in Africa didn’t survive the fall of the Soviet Union.

Indigenous African traditional systems have a similar value system that centres around the well-being of human beings and communities. Senegalese intellectuals such as Cheikh Anta Diop and Léopold Sénghor, advocated for secular humanism in Africa whilst holding onto a historical vision of African society. We see Diop and Sénghor’s version of humanism emerge in Nkrumah’s political thought (Martin, 2012; Frehiwot, 2016). According to Sun, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda coopted African humanism into Zambia’s national philosophy and ideology (Sun, 2019, pp. 361–362). Fundamentally, socialism and humanism are intermarried approaches in African countries that followed African socialist ideals.

The formal co-opting of African humanist positions in public and foreign policy, outside of socialism, has only been seen a few times. For instance, South Africa’s 2011 draft whitepaper on its foreign policy, Build a Better World: The Foreign Policy of Ubuntu, speaks to its vision of how the country wants to operate in the world. Not as a country that was self-interested, but one that sees its interests wrapped up in collective well-being. The two last paragraphs of the preamble declare:

This philosophy translates into an approach to IR that respects all nations, peoples, and cultures. It recognises that it is in our national interest to promote and support the positive development of others. Similarly, national security would therefore depend on the centrality of human security as a universal goal, based on the principle of Batho Pele (putting people first). In the modern world of globalisation, a constant element is and has to be our common humanity. We therefore champion collaboration, cooperation and building partnerships over conflict. This recognition of our interconnectedness and interdependency, and the infusion of Ubuntu into the South African identity, shapes our foreign policy.

South Africa therefore accords central importance to our immediate African neighbourhood and continent; working with countries of the South to address shared challenges of underdevelopment; promoting global equity and social justice; working with countries of the North to develop a true and effective partnership for a better world; and doing our part to strengthen the multilateral system, 5 Final Draft – 13 May 2011 including its transformation, to reflect the diversity of our nations, and ensure its centrality in global governance (RSA, 2011).

Whether South Africa’s stated aims ever found expression in its actions is a matter of debate (le Pere, 2017; Alden, 2019). The same can be said, to a lesser extent, of Julius Nyerere’s social and economic policy of Ujamaa, which was later – perhaps unfairly – derided as a form of socialism that crippled the country (Saul, 2012; Fouéré, 2014; Delahanty 2020).

4.1 Ubuntu and Ujamaa

Ubuntu and Ujamaa are African collectivist philosophies that provide insight on organisational behaviour. As Smith argues, ‘[d]rawing on indigenous concepts like Ubuntu can help to explain not only the behaviour of African states, but in shifting our focus from an individualist to a collectivist ontology, can illuminate the dynamics at play in global governance more broadly’ (Smith 2019, p. 89).

The approach I take to understanding the concept of Ubuntu is grounded on the works of Mark Malisa (2017), John Saul (2012), and Michael Eze (2006, 2011). The concept derives from the Nguni phrase ‘Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu’ which roughly translates to ‘a person is only a person through others’. The concept of Ubuntu is rooted in Southern Africa, undergirded by what could be described as relational epistemology. It describes the human connectedness; more specifically, how humanness and personhood exist because of community.

Fanois Mangena, citing Michael Battle (2009, p. 135), best explains that ‘African epistemology begins with community and moves to individuality’. Mangena argues that Ubuntu epistemology can also be ‘experiential’ (Mangena, n.d.). What Mangena means is that how we create knowledge is derived from the experience or understandings within a community. Ubuntu is a regional communitarian philosophy, yet components of this philosophy are present all throughout the African continent. Munung et al (2021) illustrate that the concept/philosophy of Ubuntu is present in many ethnic groups across sub-Saharan Africa (see Figure 1). They argue that ‘Ubuntu is an epistemology that begins with the community and then moves to the individual though autonomous, is in a mediated relationship with their society and has a responsibility to share resources with, and to support other community members to achieve their full capacity’ (Munung et al., 2021). In other words, Ubuntu (and related philosophies) speak to the concepts of solidarity and interdependence. Johann Broodryk lays out the attributes of Ubuntu focusing on the ideals of group behaviour, and its illustration of universality. Table 2 (adapted from Broodryk) lists these attributes alongside their meanings.

Table 2
Table 2

Attributes and meanings of Ubuntu

Citation: African and Asian Studies 22, 1-2 (2023) ; 10.1163/15692108-12341581

Source: Broodryk, 2005, 175
Figure 1
Figure 1

Ubuntu and similar epistemologies across sub-Saharan Africa

Citation: African and Asian Studies 22, 1-2 (2023) ; 10.1163/15692108-12341581

Source: Author adapted from Munung et al. 2021, p. 379

Ujaama has been described as African Socialism. In his book, ‘African Political Thought’, Guy Martin mentions the differences in philosophical leanings of the African socialists, noting for example, Nkrumah’s proposed ‘philosophy [which] integrates the three main segments of African society (traditional, Western, and Islamic)’2 (Martin, 2012, p. 103). Nyerere’s Ujamaa unlike Touré and Nkrumah focuses more on self-reliance and cooperative economics (Ibid.; Nyerere, 1987; Ibhawoh & Dibua, 2003).

Ultimately, what we garner from both concepts/philosophies highlights inter-subjectivity and participatory leadership. Ujamaa, whose tenants are self-reliance, mutual respect, common ownership of property, equality, freedom, and unity, helps us to understand the capstone of the CAPs. The idea of ‘African solutions to African problems’ encapsulate this philosophy. Ubuntu, points to principles of participatory decision-making, accountability, and inclusivity.

4.2 Building a Framework to Understand the CAPs

I contend that the initial building blocks for applying Ubuntu and Ujamaa as a formalised theoretical framework already exists in the pre-amble of the CAPs. Moreover, the visions for Africa including the message of ‘one continent, one voice’ finds expression in Agenda 2063, which is essentially the developmental blueprint for the continent. As explained earlier, the articulation of CAPs is not uniform, but all have the same grounding – the AU Constitutive Act. Article 3 of the Act states that:

The objectives of the Union shall be to:

(a) achieve greater unity and solidarity between the African countries and the peoples of Africa;

(b) defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of its Member States;

(c) accelerate the political and socio-economic integration of the continent;

(d) promote and defend African common positions on issues of interest to the continent and its peoples;

(e) encourage international cooperation, taking due account of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;

(f) promote peace, security, and stability on the continent;

(g) promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance;

(h) Constitutif Act of African Union 6

(i) promote and protect human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other relevant human rights instruments;

(j) establish the necessary conditions which enable the continent to play its rightful role in the global economy and in international negotiations;

(k) promote sustainable development at the economic, social and cultural levels as well as the integration of African economies;

An interpretive reading of Article 3 points to the norms of solidarity, and accountability, as encapsulated in sections (a), and (g). The focus on collective self-reliance can be read into section (c), (i) and (h).

African peace and security issues have long dominated discussions at the UN Security Council, but African states have been excluded from engaging in issues pertinent to their continent owing to lack of representation. We look to the Ezulwini Consensus to help us build the preliminary framework to understand the CAPs. African states unanimously reaffirmed the Ezulwini Consensus by the Declaration of the Heads of State and Government on July 5, 2005. The demands listed in the CAP include:

  1. Africa’s goal is to be fully represented in all the decision-making organs of the UN, particularly in the Security Council, which is the principal decision-making organ of the UN in matters relating to international peace and security.

  2. Full representation of Africa in the Security Council means: i. not less than two permanent seats with all the prerogatives and privileges of permanent membership including the right of veto; ii. five non- permanent seats.

  3. In that regard, even though Africa is opposed in principle to the veto, it is of the view that so long as it exists, and as a matter of common justice, it should be made available to all permanent members of the Security Council.

  4. The African Union should be responsible for the selection of Africa’s representatives in the Security Council.

  5. The question of the criteria for the selection of African members of the Security Council should be a matter for the AU to determine, taking into consideration the representative nature and capacity of those chosen. (African Union, 2005).

The Ezulwini Consensus on UN Security Sector Reform mirrors the ‘concrete dimensions of the Pan-African aspirations of the OAU and what would become the African Union’ (Edozie & Khisa, Ibid., p. 56). As Edozie and Khisa argue:

Not only did Ezulwini represent an advancement of Africa’s regional internationalism and multilateralism, in its failure, it also marked the challenges that the continent faced in navigating the geopolitics of the new global order. For example, there was a lot of criticism of the African common position as it was based on the idea of regional representation, while the UN system focused on representation of countries on the basis of their national merit (Ibid, p. 65).

Moreover, the authors point to the fact that the:

factors that caused Africa’s policy recommendations to fail reveal the limitations of African global engagement even when Africans are organized. There are at least two explanations for the proposal’s failure to be adopted, and they speak to the challenges and limitations of African states’ emergent multilateral internationalism at the time. One reason was that the Ezulwini Consensus was inflexible in insisting African states be given two new permanent seats with veto power on the Security Council. (Ibid, p. 66).

The problem comes in, as previously discussed, because the common positions are not homogenous, they are also non-binding which spotlights the reality that sovereignty (and its concerns) still have more weight than collective action. As a result of the push for reform of the UNSC, three African countries hold non-permanent seats (A3). However, the A3 do not act always act as one voice as we see in the case of Somalia and South Sudan.

5 Conclusion

The embodiment of African humanism, particularly the notion of solidarity, connects the various debates before the OAU’s creation. As IR continues to evolve in response to a changing world, it behoves scholars and practitioners to look to diverse world views, including long-standing African conceptions of polity, as alternative lenses to understand how the world functions. Indeed, Africa is not a monolith, and African countries still operate in an international system fashioned by apparent Westphalian concerns. However, I argue within this article that there is room to borrow from philosophies and concepts that are more context-driven.

I provide an overview of Africa’s journey towards the development of CAPs, theorising that the values and norms encapsulated in these CAPs can be understood in the context of African philosophies. Values such as solidarity and consensus-based/participatory decision-making, drive many decisions. However, African states are still on the famished road where states are torn between individual ambitions (the present) and collectivist ideals (the past/tradition). I use the Ezulwini Consensus on UNSC reform as a case study, but any CAPs could be used. At the core, all the 40 (at the time of writing) CAPs are grounded on collectivism, inclusivity, and consensus.

The major problem with CAPs is that they are not legally enforceable, which means that it sits with individual member states to be willing to toe the line. The result is that the desires of external actors can easily displace the collective interests. There are many benefits to looking towards differing viewpoints on both an ideological and a practical level. First, to understand the principles behind CAPs, we can’t look at it with traditional IR lenses – because African states embrace collectivist ideals to a large degree. Second, if applied according to their core principles, Ujamaa and Ubuntu may bring the visions of the CAPs, their policy documents, and Agenda 2063 to life.


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For example, few scholars have undermined by the failure ‘to develop an institutional framework of norms, values, platform and institutions to manage, coordinate and champion them’.


For a similar discussion see Ali Mazrui’s triple heritage thesis (Mazrui, 1983).

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