News | Africa - Ukraine (en) As War Rages in Europe, Africa Seeks a Position

While many states seek to remain neutral, others draw parallels to their own colonial histories



Armin Osmanovic,

During the UN General Assembly on 2 March 2022, a resolution condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine was adopted by a large majority. Photo: picture alliance / Pacific Press | Lev Radin

On 2 March 2022, the United Nations General Assembly voted by a large majority to condemn Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Only Belarus, North Korea, and Syria voted against the resolution, along with one single African country, Eritrea, and Russia. Thirty-five countries abstained — among them a strikingly high number of African nations: Algeria, Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Congo, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. What’s more, the representatives of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco, and Togo were not even present for the vote.

Armin Osmanovic directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Tunis Office.

Translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective.

In all, 28 out of 54 African nations — 51.85 percent of the total number of African votes — condemned Russia’s act of aggression. One example was Kenya, an African member of the UN Security Council, whose UN Ambassador Martin Kimani delivered a powerful speech in which he described how his country had learned to peacefully resolve the territorial claims and ethnic differences born of the demise of the old colonial empires; that they had chosen to acknowledge the diversity that resulted from the past, rather than, like Russia, looking backwards into history with a dangerous sense of nostalgia.

The African Union (AU) also condemned the Russian aggression — unlike the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), of which many African nations are members. Secretary General of the OIF Louise Mushikiwabo attributed her organization’s reserved response to Russia’s attack to a lack of consensus among the 88 member states. Mushikiwabo, who is from Rwanda, personally denounced Russia’s war of aggression, stating that she knew from her own personal experience what it meant to be abandoned by the international community, as was the case during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The reasons why individual African governments find it difficult to condemn Russia vary greatly. When it comes to the Central African Republic and Mali, the motives are evident: both governments have grown closer to Moscow, and mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group — the owner of which, oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, maintains close ties to Putin — operate in both countries. In light of these Russian mercenaries’ close proximity to Putin and the brutal methods they employ in Africa and elsewhere, it is possible that those in power in Mali and the Central African Republic may even fear personal repercussions should they openly express their opposition to Russia’s actions.

Against Intervention

Many other African governments abstained from voting not because of any particular dependence on Russia — despite the fact that Russia is the primary arms supplier to a great many of these countries — but rather because they are generally opposed to foreign interference in their own internal affairs; after all, African nations have time and again served as the stage for past political and military interventions.

Many Africans are of the opinion that the West interferes far too often on the African continent, whether with regard to matters of economic reform or human rights. The fact that the People’s Republic of China also insists on a policy of non-interference with regard to the internal affairs of other nation states also reinforces the African countries in their reasoning, including with respect to the question of condemning the war in Ukraine: like China, a number of African nations also abstained from the vote in the UN General Assembly.

Yet in practice, China is increasingly acting in a manner that is not much different from that of the West. This is evidenced, for example, by the increasing deployment of private Chinese security companies to defend the economic interests of Chinese corporations against rebels, terrorists, and activists. Over the past two decades, the People’s Republic of China has become the most important economic partner to almost all African nations, which has in turn lessened these countries’ financial and economic dependence on the US, the EU, and donor organizations the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

The growing influence of China and other countries — such as Russia, Turkey, Brazil, and India — has enabled African nations to further distance themselves from the West with regard to questions of international politics or their voting choices within international organizations.

Distance From the West

This new distance from the West that many African governments are now seeking has the backing of a large portion of Africa’s population, for whom national sovereignty is a key objective. This is not surprising given that a great many Africans regard their economic and social situations as determined by external forces. This has to do with the influence of donor countries — many of whom are former colonial powers — on their economies and societies.

In French-speaking Africa, where the old colonial power has repeatedly staged military interventions, hatred towards France has become increasingly widespread. In places where violence and disinformation abound, conspiracy theories find fertile ground in which to take root — as was the case in the Sahel in November 2021, for example, when an angry crowd blockaded a military convoy in Burkina Faso due to concerns that France’s army was providing weapons to jihadists. Although it is not entirely blameless in this situation, Paris has become a scapegoat.

Africa’s resentment towards the West is also partly related to the wars waged by Western powers on the African continent, as well as these powers’ failure to render aid — as was the case in Rwanda in 1994, or in the Congo. But Africa has also become estranged due to the West’s double standards: Western politicians and diplomats talk about democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as their own interests are at stake — such as the war on terrorism or attempts to deter migrants — Western leaders, as always, do not hesitate to collude with Africa’s autocrats.

This is also true of Germany, which loves to talk about its value-driven foreign policy. Germany’s policy towards Africa also lacks clear direction with respect to Senegal, for example, a country that is often erroneously perceived as a paragon of democracy within Africa, even though its democratic system has found itself growing increasingly vulnerable for years. For example, Angela Merkel stated in January 2020 that the Senegalese President Macky Sall had become a “friend” to her. For the bereaved family members of the people who had fallen victim to the police violence that took place in Senegal in March 2021 or who had protested against the arrest of opposition politician Ousmane Sonko and have since been waiting for charges to be brought by the Senegalese authorities, this must have sounded like a mockery.

Yet at the same time, this resentment towards the West is exactly what Africa’s autocrats want. They do their utmost to encourage anti-Western protests because these help to divert public attention from the ways in which they themselves are culpable. Just like the Kremlin’s ruler, many African autocrats also act in an extremely cynical manner — as Wole Soyinka recently criticized. Like Putin, they openly disregard admonitions and calls to uphold democracy and human rights.

Potential New Fault Lines

In some parts of the continent, however, people are of the opinion that the war in Europe is simply not their concern — after all, the West is not concerned with Africa’s struggles. And when African refugees from Ukraine are discriminated against at the EU’s external border — as has been the case — this further intensifies the collective indifference in terms of engaging with the “white man’s war”.

However, as South African author Zakes Mda suggests, the specific histories of certain countries may also play a role here — such as in South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia, whose governments all abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly. As in other parts of the world, many people who were actively involved in past liberation movements in southern Africa and were once supported by the Soviet Union have apparently failed to grasp the notion that the leader in the Kremlin is no longer a comrade.

Among the African nations that voted to condemn Russia in the UN General Assembly are a number of countries that continue to maintain very close ties to the West, such as Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius, Niger, Sao Tome and Principe, the Seychelles, Tunisia, and Zambia. But there are also some hybrid, illiberal, and autocratic regimes that opted to vote against Russia, including Egypt, Gabon, Libya, Mauritania, Rwanda, and Somalia. Although they are not democracies, all of these countries have close ties with the West — in the form of military aid, for example, as is the case for Egypt.

In light of the war Russia is currently waging against Ukraine and its dynamics, the UN General Assembly vote could also be read as an indicator of how the political map of Africa might be redrawn.