Contrasting Drives. Framing the Russia-Ukraine War from Africa

“The Chair of the African Union and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission urge the two Parties to establish an immediate ceasefire and to open political negotiations without delay, under the auspices of the United Nations, in order to preserve the world from the consequences of planetary conflict, and in the interests of peace and stability in international relations in service of all the peoples of the world.” It was February 24th when the current Chair of the African Union and President of Senegal, Macky Sall, and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, the Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat, published this joint, short statement. These words expressed by the two highest political authorities of the African continent gave the impression that a clear unity characterized the position of Africa with respect to the crisis between Russia and Ukraine. A week later, though, the wind shifted when the UN resolution votes revealed which single African countries were in fact determined to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Out of 54 African countries, 28 voted in favor of the resolution, 17 abstained, one was against it and the rest avoided voting altogether.

“If African states had chosen at independence to try to reunite their ethnic, racial or religious groupings – said Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for a greater Russia – we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later, while we must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression”. Kenya, therefore, voted in favor of the resolution. Many other African regional powers like Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo did the same. But geopolitical dynamics, even if related to a war that, at the moment, has little effect on the African continent, can be quite tricky. Divisions are not just among African States but even within the States themselves.

Senegal is maybe one of the best examples. Even though President Sall signed the joint African statement, his ambassador to the UN abstained from sustaining the resolution. As one of the most renowned democracies in West Africa and particularly loyal to its former colonial power, France, Senegal wants Russia’s company Lukoil for its future offshore oil production; upsetting Moscow today could in fact cause important consequences for the Senegalese leadership tomorrow. That’s also why the Ukrainian embassy in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, was recently warned by the local authorities that any attempt in recruiting their citizens for combat in Ukraine will be dealt with punitive actions. The Ukrainian ambassador had to remove his post of a “call to arms” from his Facebook page as soon as tens of Senegalese volunteered to leave for Ukraine to fight against the Russians.

South Africa also abstained and its President, Cyril Ramaphosa, was offered on March 11th the role of mediator by Putin after a phone call between the two. Few days later, the leader of the Rainbow nation accused NATO of “not heeding the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region”, adding though that, “South Africa cannot condone the use of force and violation of international law”. While the dialogue between South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, and Moscow is ongoing, it seems that Ukrainian’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is too suspicious of South African involvement. South Africa is also member of the BRICS grouping with Brazil, Russia, India, and China, and among these countries only Brazil voted in favor of the UN resolution while India and China decided to abstain. Basically, authorities in Pretoria remember very well the help that the Soviet Union gave to the African National Congress during the years of Apartheid to end white minority rule. So do Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, Southern African States that decided to abstain.

Lately, though, standing with Russia seems more of a stand against France, especially for countries like Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR). Both of them have recently strengthened their ties with Moscow. The Russians are militarily protecting the authorities of these two countries prone to coups d’état and trapped in a civil war that has been raging for years. The Russian delegation was the first one to meet with the new Malian junta leader, Assimi Goïta, right after the first coup in August 2020, and promised to help fighting against the jihadists in the central and northern part of the country. Malian military leaders went to Russia a few weeks before the coup and, soon after, promoted an anti-French sentiment that in less than two years pushed French media, army, diplomats and ambassador out of the country. For years Russian soldiers have also been protecting Central African President, Faustine-Archange Touadéra, in exchange for mining contracts. The Russian Wagner Group, a private military contractor whose members are labeled as mercenaries, was accused of atrocities against rebels and civilians alike by human rights organizations and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA), but apparently no credible investigation has been launched to confirm these crimes. In the same spirit, no concrete results have been achieved in the investigation of the killing of Russian journalists Alexander Rastorguyev, Kirill Radchenko and Orkhan Dzhemal, shot dead in 2018 while driving toward Sibut, a small town in the middle of the country. Their objective was to film a documentary about the Russian presence in CAR. Moscow enjoys a similar quid pro quo in Burundi, where Russian companies are involved in the mining sector, and in Sudan, where the local authorities are negotiating for the opening of a Russian military base. Moreover, Uganda President, Yoweri Museveni, and his son, lieutenant general Muhoozi Kainerugaba, have both publicly shown their support for Putin even though their country abstained when the UN resolution condemning the invasion was tabled. The only African States that voted against it is Eritrea; no surprise given the isolation that this one-man-State has suffered for decades and its disdain for Western imperialism. Ethiopia, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Togo, Eswatini didn’t turn out to vote at all.

Social media played an important role in the propaganda war that also involved many African countries. A photo of Putin in military fatigues in Tanzania surrounded by other soldiers that were fighting against apartheid in the 70s was circulating recently before being confirmed as a fake picture. Videos of crowds supporting Russia and waiving the Russian Flag have been seen in Bangui and Ouagadougou, the capitals of CAR and Burkina Faso respectively. On the other hand hundreds of African citizens wanting to go and help Ukraine have been interviewed by the press or have posted their pleas on social media. One of the volunteers, a Kenyan, said to the German media Deutsche Welle: “I would rather die on the front line in Ukraine knowing that my family would be compensated even after my death, rather than die in Kenya from depression because of the insane unemployment rate!”. A Nigerian in the commercial capital city of Lagos went even further: “Being a soldier in Ukraine would be better than being here. I’ll probably be allowed to stay if the war ends, plus I’ll be a hero and fight an undeniable enemy.” Africa has so many of these “wannabe-volunteers” for Ukraine that after a few days the Ukrainian government decided to close down the “International Legion” recruiting website only to the African continent in order to avoid angering the local authorities.

A lot of complaining, though, have directed the attention toward the treatment of thousands of African students that wanted to leave Ukraine when the war started. What’s been going on at the Ukrainian-Romanian border was traumatic for many of them that had to endure blatant racial discrimination. Only Nigeria had 4,000 of its citizens studying at the schools of various Ukrainian cities. Instead, Ukrainians in Africa are mainly known for their bars and restaurants in cities like Bamako in Mali, Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire, Ouagadougou and Dakar. In the latter, Senegalese custom officials seized in January a boat that was carrying three containers full of undeclared or wrongly declared ammunition. The ship called Eolika and arriving from the port of La Spezia was confiscated and the four members of the crew, including the Captain, all of Ukrainian nationality, were arrested. According to analysts, though, Russia remains the biggest arms dealer in Africa by providing about half of the imports.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is also having an economic albeit, for now, mild effect on many African countries, with Northern Africa being most affected. About 90% of Eastern Africa imported wheat comes from Russia and Ukraine. Interviewed by the media organization “Voice of America”, Abdullahi Nur Osman, CEO of the Hormuud Salaam Foundation that gives aid to Somalis living in regions hit by drought, said that: “A decline in wheat trade will have a compound effect on the drought, as so much of our food comes from Russia and Ukraine. From the price of goods, to the actual supply, Somalia is going to feel the impact of this crisis for many months to come”. Somalia’s main wheat source is Egypt; the latter receives 85% of its wheat reserves from Russia and Ukraine. A report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development estimated that Africa imported between 2018 and 2020 over $5 billion worth of Russian and Ukrainian wheat. The cost of fuel might also go up in the coming days and African authorities are worried about higher costs for food that needs to be transported.

As the conflict goes on, the African continent is gaining a more pivotal role in the potential negotiation-making process of this crisis. But like it happens in a big family, divisions can be rampant.


Cover Photo: A roadside vendor display baskets of oranges for sale at Asese, Ogun State in southwest Nigeria – March 14, 2022 (Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP).

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