African leaders made their case for a stronger voice in world affairs on Monday ahead of a summit hosted by President Nicolas Sarkozy to renew France’s ties with the continent.
Sarkozy will welcome 38 African leaders in the Riviera city of Nice, hoping to put his stamp on a gathering that has been a fixture of France’s Africa diplomacy for nearly three decades.
Giving Africa a strong voice in world governance is a key theme of the summit as France prepares to take the helm of the Group of Eight and Group of 20 clubs of rich economies next year.
France is hoping to make headway in cementing a united African position on reshaping the United Nations Security Council, but pre-summit talks on the thorny issue ended with little agreement.
“When there is a serious economic crisis in the world, we cannot continue to hold meetings without Africa and make decisions without Africa on behalf of the entire world,” Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso said ahead of the summit.
“Africa cannot continue to be the fifth wheel and the Security Council cannot continue to be without Africa,” he told France Info radio.
African countries came together in 2005 to press demands for two veto-wielding permanent seats in an expanded Security Council as well as two non-permanent seats, but these calls have gone unheard.
Hoping to relaunch the debate, France is proposing that Africa press for one permanent seat, with Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner stressing that it was important to be “realistic”.
Among the 10 non-permanent member countries that sit on the UN Security Council on a rotating basis, there are three African countries, alongside the five veto-holding powers: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
Many see that structure as a holdover from the Cold War and argue that Africa needs stronger representation given that 27% of UN member-states are on the continent.
The Security Council has been reformed once, in 1963, when four non-permanent seats were added, but subsequent attempts to broaden the top body have failed.
“France’s position is very clear: We want Africa to be represented in all international institutions, including the UN, but we do not want to impose this,” said Kouchner.
The 25th Africa-France summit is Sarkozy’s first since taking office in 2007 and reflects France’s shift away from its traditional West African allies toward engagement with the continent as a whole.
Among the heavy hitters at the high-level talks are South African President Jacob Zuma, who travelled to Nice just weeks before his country hosts the Soccer World Cup, and Nigeria’s new leader, Goodluck Jonathan, sworn in this month.
In a first, 80 French business leaders including top bosses at oil giant Total and nuclear behemoth Areva are taking part in summit talks along with 150 heads of African companies.
The push on the economic front comes as France has taken a back seat to China, Africa’s biggest trade partner, which has injected billions over the past decade to tap into raw materials needed to fuel its hungry economy.
Underscoring France’s desire to engage with African powers, Sarkozy will have a working lunch with Zuma before the summit opening and also meet separately with Jonathan.
French Development Minister Alain Joyandet has described the Nice gathering as “the summit of renewal, a sort of launch of a new era”.
Rights groups have criticised the summit for turning a blind eye to corruption, human rights and the pillaging of resources that continue to plague Africa. — AFP