Defend Truth


Fallout for Africa will follow Russia’s invasion of Ukraine


Azubuike Ishiekwene is the editor-in-chief at Leadership Media Group.

The humiliation of Russia after the breakup of the USSR and the anger of Vladimir Putin at Europe and the US are not adequate grounds for the invasion of Ukraine. But Putin is not alone responsible for the crisis — the West must take its share. Amid it all, as we saw in World War 2, there will be significant fallout for Africa.

War is messy and never fails to spread misery in its wake. When Adolf Hitler asked for the creation of safe routes to East Prussia through the Polish Corridor and for the cession of the occupied port of Danzig, not many could have imagined that it would spiral into a world war that would cost 85 million lives and leave an unspeakable trail of devastation in its wake.

More than one million Africans died. They were not in Danzig, Berlin or London. They had no idea what Hitler’s request was or why Britain refused to listen to him. They were enlisted for the war by force from Nigeria to Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta), and from Senegal to Democratic Republic of the Congo (then the Belgian Congo). On the 75th anniversary of that war two years ago, the few survivors on the continent still bore the scars as if they had been inflicted yesterday, yet not knowing the reason they went to fight in the first place.

There has been nothing like it in all the years since. On the whole, large-scale conflicts have declined, even though Iraq, Syria, Darfur and Yemen remind us that the world is never far away from the base instincts that invited the past atrocities.

Exaggerated comparisons between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hitler have surfaced since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine. But let’s be clear, Putin is not Hitler.

What is not in doubt, however, is that after decades of Russian humiliation following the collapse of the Soviet empire, Putin has become obsessed with restoring the glory of a Russian past — a mission which Europe and the US have not only stirred, but inflamed by taunting the wounded bear.

It’s a bit like the Treaty of Versailles all over again. After defeating Germany during World War 1, the Allies were not content to impose heavy retribution, including the excision of the mineral-rich regions of Alsace and Lorraine from Germany. They also went ahead and imposed a financial penalty of £6.5-billion on the country, which would have taken Germany decades to repay. The victor wanted the vanquished to never again rise.

The crushing weight of that humiliation was too much for the Germans to bear. The result, of course, was Hitler and World War 2.

The West may not have imposed heavy financial costs on Russia after the collapse of the USSR, but Putin, who was at that time an officer in the KGB, saw, first-hand, the humiliation that followed the collapse of his country, the triumphalism of the West and its relentless efforts since to crush whatever was left of Russia’s pride and spirit.

That is the source of Putin’s rage. Of course, to understand it is not to excuse or justify the current invasion. But to ignore it, as the West has mockingly done, is foolish.

Putin insists that after the former Soviet Union broke up into 15 states, there was an agreement between President Mikhail Gorbachev and the West that Nato would not expand eastwards. Nato has denied the existence of such an agreement, but has barely hidden its subversive encouragement in bringing three countries under the former Soviet Union into its fold, virtually encircling Russia. For Putin, the invasion of Ukraine is his last stand, his push, after Crimea, for Russia’s modern-day Danzig.

How is that any of Africa’s business?

There have been noises here and there, including the threat of sanctions against Russia by a few African countries. The strongest argument from Africa against the invasion is perhaps the one by Kenyan diplomat Martin Kimani to the UN.

“This situation,” he said, “echoes our history. Kenya, and almost every African country, was birthed by the ending of an empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris and Lisbon.”

Kimani was right about that historical fact. However, the truth now, as it was in 1884 during the scramble for and partition of Africa, is that in spite of the significant progress that the world has made to establish a rules-based system, the strong, in pursuit of self-interest, will continue to lord it over the weak.

African states are content to leave the colonial boundaries largely untouched, not because they love their neighbours any more than Israel loves its Arab neighbours, for example, against whom it has waged one of the longest, bloodiest modern-day wars. Unlike Israel, however, perhaps many African countries do not feel sufficiently threatened by their neighbours or even where such threats may exist, the consequences of aggressive expansion far outweigh the benefits of remaining within their present borders.

In short, Africa has remained what it is because of the lack of capacity among its state actors to exact any meaningful change in their border status however much they may desire it.

In 2006, for example, Nigeria chose peace instead of war with Cameroon over the Bakassi peninsula dispute, not only because the judgment of the International Court of Justice was unfavourable, but, more importantly, because it knew that the negative consequences of taking Bakassi by force far outweighed the benefits. Cameroon, just like the other Francophone states in the subregion, has a defence pact with France which might have been activated if Nigeria, or any other aggressor, attacked.

It’s not because Morocco loves Saharawi Arabs or out of deference for the original Spanish-drawn boundaries that it has been unable to seize the territory after decades of a bloody conflict. No. It’s simply because Rabat has lacked the military capacity to enforce and maintain its will.

What Putin is doing is insane, reprehensible and extremely dangerous, but both Putin and those who oppose him in the West bear collective responsibility for the horror playing out in Ukraine today. At a time when Ukrainians ought to start getting their lives back after nearly 20 years of corrupt oligarchic reign, followed by a genuine yearning for change that brought Volodymyr Zelensky to power three years ago, the West has escorted Ukraine into a war it will not recover from in a long time.

African speeches must not cut the US or its Western allies any slack. Cuba was exercising its democratic right as an independent country in 1962 when it permitted the USSR to place missiles on its soil. But President John F Kennedy said it was over his dead body that this would happen in his backyard. He threatened war until Nikita Khrushchev removed the missiles and pulled back from what would have been the world’s first nuclear war. 

According to the US historian Christopher Kelly and the British historian Stuart Laycock, the US has invaded or fought in 84 countries of the 193 countries recognised by the UN and has been militarily involved with 191 of the 193.

A story in The Washington Post in March 2016 said the US government had tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the 45-year-long Cold War, an average of more than one every year, possibly earning itself the title of history’s all-time meddler-in-chief. And of course, the consequences of the atrocities of the US and its allies whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, have not always been pretty.

But I’m concerned here about what Russia’s invasion could mean for Africa, especially for thousands of students from the continent currently schooling in Ukraine. Although the statistics are scanty, there are reports of at least 8,000 Moroccans and 4,000 Nigerians studying in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, a good number of them in the medical sciences.

Unfortunately for these students, their leaders back home will not be in any of the major European capitals where the decisions already being taken to resettle refugees prioritise “Ukrainian Europeans” over other nationalities. Even before the shooting war started, other countries had taken advantage of intelligence and early warning systems to evacuate their citizens and minimise the disruption to their lives.

Africa, with perhaps the weakest capacity for a nimble response, waited till war broke out before acting. And yet, this task, far less mundane than contemplating the redrawing of its boundaries, reveals just how hopelessly incompetent the continent’s leaders can be in figuring out their own self-interest. 

Russia knows why it is invading Ukraine, in spite of global condemnation and the unprecedented sanctions it must endure: it is self-interest. And the US and its allies know why, in spite of their frustration and anger, they can only watch Russia invade from the sidelines: it is self-interest.

As for Africa, the restriction of colonial boundaries is not the only reason why it is often confused about its self-interest. Years of mental slavery, poor cultural attitudes, weak and heavily dependent institutions and poor leadership have combined to create boundaries of iron worse than anything that drawers of the geographical boundaries contemplated.

What’s Africa’s interest in Ukraine? A bit more history could be of service in the continent’s quest for an answer. DM


[hearken id=”daily-maverick/9226″]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Caroline Hart says:

    Stalin, a murderous cur was besties with Hitler, & would have happily carved up the world, (Africa et al), if Germany hadn’t turned on them in what Russian propaganda calls: “the Great Patriotic War.”

    Russia raced to Berlin, while the Allied forces fought the monstrous, genocidal (no coincidence) behemoth that Russia had succoured & callously helped unleash on Europe.
    Russia tried to consume, destroy & overtly oppressed every culture & nation between the Kremlin & West Berlin, from 1945 through to 1990, & sadly, beyond, as evidenced by the current illegitimate Ukrainian invasion.
    Russia had utterly no legitimate claim to even one of these nations, being not only the war starting/mongering jerks that they were, & still are – but because they have no ‘culture/history/modus operandi’ beyond (arguably necessary at the time but nevertheless) brutal & bloody extermination of differing idealogical orders. They have never been the liberators that they claim to be.

    African States & people need to educate themselves fast if they think either the USSR or Russia was ever their friend. While colonialism was bad, Russian imperial ambitions are exponentially worse & menacing.
    It will never support/aid us, in any way that doesn’t simultaneously extract more resources from us & imposes a yoke/bootstrap on our necks.
    Our rude awakening will come too late to change that outcome.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Well done South Africa, you really have hit rock bottom; you horror of an excuse for a democratic country. Everything from the constitution to the national anthem in meaningless tatters – and all achieved in Human Rights month.

  • Graeme J says:

    This ‘opinion piece’ is only regurgitating much of the trash that Putin put forward in his address to the the Russian people shortly before Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state. Watch Putin’s speech and judge for yourself.

  • Jamie WHITELAW says:

    I take issue with the comments regarding colonial boundaries in Africa. Without some form of
    colonial interference we would probably have hundreds perhaps thousands of little African States with hands held out for help from the former colonial powers. Just think!!

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