Eight reasons why it’s in Africa’s interests to support Ukraine

Eight reasons why it’s in Africa’s interests to support Ukraine
Ukrainian Katerina Kalinina drapes the statue of Nelson Mandela outside the City Hall with the Ukranian flag on the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion. 24 February 2023. (Photo: Brenton Geach)

At the end of the day, when all the calculations have been made, it is clear that Africa should support Ukraine if it wants to advance its security, trade, investment and development interests. But there are reasons that go beyond pure national self-interest.

The debate on Russia’s war in Ukraine has been dominated by ideological exchanges and the information wars waged by bots and trolls which sadly infect the media space these days. Those who make actual arguments are divided into two camps. Some argue that the Russian invasion has compromised sovereignty and threatens democracy; others defend Russia, recalling historical ties with the old Soviet Union and pointing to its membership of BRICS and the prospects this offers of changing the current workings of the global economy.

But what if the debate were to focus on a simple question: What is in the  best interests of African people?

From this vantage point, a Ukrainian victory — or at least, its survival as an independent nation — is desirable for at least eight reasons:

1. Upholding a rules-based world order

Respect for national sovereignty and international boundaries is the only way to ensure peace and stability. The alternative is to allow countries to take territory from others based on the use of military force and according to their subjective desires. 

Unchallenged, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens this order and opens the way for African countries to settle border disputes with force. These protections do not only apply to territorial sovereignty, but to all regimes centred around respect for states as independent actors, from trade to investment, property rights, arms control and nuclear non-proliferation.

2. Strengthening democracy

The improvement in Africa’s fortunes over the last several decades has been accompanied by a movement towards democracy. While Ukraine is an imperfect democracy, since 2004 its domestic reforms have accelerated through the Orange and Maidan Square revolutions. 

All the evidence shows that democracy and economic growth are intertwined and that free, open societies offer greater opportunities to all citizens. This is not to say that democracies are perfect. But they are certainly better than authoritarian regimes such as that in Zimbabwe, where mass impoverishment and repression have become the norm. Ukraine is a democratic country that has been invaded by an authoritarian country. Africa must take the side of democracy or undermine progress on the continent.

3. Supporting multilateralism

Cooperation between countries in a region improves trade and investment and creates greater stability. But, crucial to the growth of successful multilateral institutions is a country’s right to choose which entities it wishes to join. 

Ukraine wishes to join the EU, a move which would provide its citizens with enormous opportunities. It wanted to join Nato because it feared that its security was threatened by Russia — a threat which has become very real during over a year of brutal conflict. No country should be punished for the choices it makes to join or leave multilateral institutions.

4. Supporting nuclear disarmament

Ukraine – along with South Africa – gave up its nuclear weapons when it embraced democracy. It remains a powerful proponent of nuclear disarmament, which is necessary if the world is to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. 

Russia has repeatedly threatened to escalate its invasion of Ukraine to a nuclear conflict. This is highly irresponsible and demonstrates that Russia poses a global security threat. No country interested in global peace can support this sort of dangerous rhetoric. 

“The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war,” says the Putin ally and former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends,” said the man who serves as deputy of the national security agency.

5. Fighting food scarcity

Ukraine is a major global supplier of grain. According to Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Ukraine accounts for about 10% of the world’s wheat and supplies large quantities of grain to North African states “which other sources could not replace even in the long run, according to current model calculations”.  

Although the “grain deal” with Russia has allowed some grain to be transported, it is still well below Ukraine’s normal supply levels, which have also been affected by the invasion. 

The secondary effect of volatile grain prices has also destabilised the food supply. This is very real for Africa where the average household expenditure on food is over 40% — compared with 6% in the US, for example. In addition, the invasion has caused a 2 million tonne fertiliser shortage across Africa.

6. Improving trade and investment

Africa’s trade with Russia is negligible. According to the Africa Center, the continent’s largest trading partner is the EU ($295-billion), followed by China ($254-billion) and the US ($65-billion). Russia’s trade amounts to just $15-billion and the trade balance is dramatically in Russia’s favour. To put that in perspective, Russia’s trade is 5% that of the EU. And foreign investment by Russia is practically nonexistent. 

According to the centre, foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa by Russia is less than 1% of total FDI into Africa and “nowhere near the top 10 investors”. If the choice between supporting Russia and Ukraine is made on the basis of the importance of trade and investment, there is only one choice to be made. In addition to this, Russia is an extractive economic partner, seeking to control mineral resources and going so far as to deploy its Wagner mercenaries in several countries to ensure it controls these.

7. Taking a stand against colonialism

Russia seeks to control Ukraine according to a view that is founded on a belief that Ukrainians have no right to run themselves according to their own, democratic choice. This colonial assault on self-determination should sound familiar to most Africans.

8. It’s the right thing to do

At the end of the day, when all the calculations have been made, it is clear that Africa should support Ukraine if it wants to advance its security, trade, investment and development interests. But there are reasons that go beyond pure national self-interest. 

The moral imperative is strong. It is simply not acceptable for a country to use its military to take part of another country that is recognised by international law. This is especially so given the extreme violence meted out against ordinary Ukrainians, including the use of large missiles against apartment blocks, the execution of civilians and the abduction of children. There is abundant evidence of all these abuses, so much so that the International Criminal Court has indicted Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, over widespread child abductions. Many war crimes trials will follow. 

Debt of gratitude

Despite all of these compelling reasons to support Ukraine in its hour of peril, there are still those who argue that Russia’s invasion is legitimate. The chief argument that is made is that Africa owes Russia a historical debt of gratitude because of its support for liberation movements when it was part of the Soviet Union.

Proponents of this view believe that Russia is forever excused from its responsibility to uphold international law because it was once on the “right” side in Africa and should be supported at all times. This is less of an argument than an emotional appeal to those who remember this past association. Many Africans don’t. Their memories of Russia are its more recent forays into Africa using the Wagner Group.

The countries where Wagner is involved — Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Sudan — happen to be in the throes of massive instability, not least because Russian paramilitary forces are adding fuel to the fires of conflict.

For example, in Mali, UN experts have called for an independent investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Malian armed forces and Wagner operatives. UN Deputy Representative Richard Mills described Wagner as a “criminal organisation that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses in Mali and elsewhere”. 

In any event, the Russia of today is very different to the old Soviet Union which assisted liberation movements. It is somehow forgotten that Ukraine was part of that Soviet Union and that many liberation fighters — including from South Africa — were trained there at bases in Odesa and elsewhere. And there is the fact that, with the notable exception of South Africa, this argument is usually made by countries with repressive authoritarian regimes.

A second argument in favour of Russia which is frequently made is that Russia is part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group of countries. Association with BRICS is seen as aligning with growing economies that support “the Global South” in its fight to stop “unipolar” dominance by “the West”.

But the BRICS view on Russia and Ukraine is far from clear. A few weeks back, China, India and Brazil voted in favour of a UN resolution, a part of which described Russia as an aggressor and called for the prosecution of war crimes. South Africa, determined to remain loyal to Russia at all costs, abstained. China is seemingly intent on becoming a global power with or without BRICS.

Finally, there are those who support Russia because they actually admire its state model. They would like to emulate a system where a political elite controls the country with an iron fist, jailing the opposition, banning free speech and surrounding itself with connected oligarchs who make a lot of money out of mineral resources and state contracts.

There is more than one African country that has gone far down this road — most notably Zimbabwe, where the government and its cronies actually legitimise the smuggling of gold and the payment of bribes all the way up to the president.

Africans have a choice. And the choice is simple. It is based on what sort of country and global system you might like to live in. Would you prefer one where elites are unrestrained in their extractive habits and untroubled by democratic niceties, and where individual rights are seen by leaders as an unnecessary luxury? If so, support Russia. If not, Ukraine’s choice is your choice. DM

Greg Mills and Ray Hartley are with The Brenthurst Foundation.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Brilliant! It clearly sets out what is at stake here and the how all these issues are intertwined. Pity that our hideous, corrupt and treasonous anc criminal cabal, masquerading as government, are too stupid, arrogant and self-serving with their heads so deep up their and Putin’s backsides to even begin making sense of all this. There is one way out of this – vote these parasites out of power, forever!

  • Don Garcia says:

    South Africa should support Ukraine and reject Russian aggression and ungodly war!

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


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