Disclaimer:This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.
Following the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022, the latest incident in the ongoing Russo-Ukraine War, much of the international community has come together to condemn Vladimir Putin. However, the African stance on the invasion seems to be decidedly less vehement.
On March 2nd 2022, the eleventh emergency session at the United Nations General Assembly concluded in a resolution to stand against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where it was said that Russia should “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders”. But it is evident that among the African continent, votes were effectively completely split between the support of Ukraine’s national sovereignty and complete abstention from voting in favour of Ukraine or Russia. The outlier was Eritrea, which voted in favour of Russia. Figure 1 just above illustrates the total vote where we can see that countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Algeria have all chosen to abstain. South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement concerning the invasion encourages peaceful negotiation over the “barrel of a gun” and said that “we remain steadfast in our conviction that achieving world peace through negotiation…is indeed attainable”. The statement, made on March 7th 2022, has caused widespread speculation, as well as condemnation, as to what could have prompted such a move by the South African government. This twitter user was “appalled”, calling Ramaphosa’s government “spineless”. Of course, we could simply accept that South Africa’s abstention is rooted wholly in the desire to uphold the UN Charter, and foster the same peaceful negotiations that ended apartheid. But it is worth looking at other possible motives, such as the relationship between Russia and Africa.
By now we are well aware of the extent of control Vladimir Putin has over Russian Oligarchs, with some being jailed for their opposition, but it seems that his will may also stretch through them – straight into the African continent. Democratic Alliance, a South African non-profit, reported that Russian Oligarch Victor Vekselberg owns 49% of South Africa’s 4th biggest manganese mine, and in 2020 and 2021, the mine was the biggest donor to the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling political party. From this we can easily tell that the motives for South Africa’s decision are not as transparent as Ramaphosa makes it out to be. Other African countries which abstained, such as Sudan, also have ties with Russia. Brookings reports that in 2022, Sudan will be an area of focus for Russian intrusion, particularly with gaining access in Port Sudan. Mali, another country which abstained (both in 2014 and now) has had long term relations with Russia. There have even been alleged recent talks between Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Malian foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop recruiting the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company (PMC), to be deployed in the Sahel. With 2022 dubbed the “Year of Africa” by foreign policy elites, Russo-African relations have indeed gotten closer in past years, with Putin trying to oust Western power in the continent and exert his own, and some African leaders cooperating.
The same simply cannot be said for Ukraine. Whilst Ukraine does have some economic agreements with African countries, it is nowhere near the same type of influence that Russia has. In 2020, Ukraine’s total exports to Africa were estimated at over $4bn, whereas in 2020 Russia’s total trade revenue in just Egypt was $4.53bn, closely followed by Algeria at almost $3bn, a country which also abstained. It is not just Russia’s economic influence in Africa that succeeds Ukraine, but also its public relations. IPS Journal reports that “in 30 years of independence, there has not been a single visit from a Ukrainian president to Sub-Saharan Africa”, whereas later this year, Russia has set up the second Africa-Summit to take place in St. Petersburg in November 2022.
So what prompted some countries on the continent to be so indifferent to the prevailing international opinion? The answer lies not just in the economic, foreign policy, and public relations we have discussed, but also more social ones. There have been reports of Ukrainian officers barring Africans from leaving Ukraine by pushing them to the back of the line, and even beating them with sticks. The African Union called this “shockingly racist”, and the Ukrainian deputy interior minister Anton Heraschenko, obviously, denied this. Any racism is abhorrent, but the fact that in the most fatal of life-or-death situations, some people are prepared to discriminate based on race is truly extraordinary. It is not outlandish at all to suggest that these experiences in Ukraine for hundreds of African students and African citizens alike would be off putting at best, or completely turn African attention or sympathy for the Russian invasion of Ukraine away at worst.
What actually can we expect for the future of African relations with Ukraine and Russia? I hypothesise that Russia’s insistence on pushing back against NATO and the Western world order, of which racism and white supremacy are founding features, spells an opportunity for African nations to finally distance themselves from the prisoning grip of the EU. There’s a choice to be made between being economic ‘partners’ to the EU, who mostly have a history of pillaging, enslaving, and stealing from Africa, or with Russia, whose moves in Africa are nothing short of predatory. Unfortunately, the choice seems to present itself as a ‘lesser of two evils’ situation. Finally, with China, an economic powerhouse, also abstaining from the vote, Africa’s deeply split consensus on the invasion could be a sign of what frame of mind non-NATO or non-EU countries will have on the future of Russia and Ukraine.
Faiza Hassan is a penultimate year BSc Politics and International Relations student at University College London (UCL).