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The realpolitik behind African disunity on the Russia-Ukraine crisis


Dr Oluwaseun Tella is Director, The Future of Diplomacy, at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge.

Africa has been divided on the Ukraine crisis, with many countries either remaining neutral or opposing condemnation of Russia’s aggression. This must be seen against the backdrop of Moscow’s relationship with the continent since the Cold War.

On 11 April 2022, African Union (AU) chairperson and Senegalese President Macky Sall noted that he had received a call from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

They discussed the global economic impact of the war in Ukraine and the salience of dialogue in the quest to end the conflict. Zelensky also asked to address the AU.

This request can be located within the context of Zelensky’s global charm offensive which is arguably a subtle and perhaps the most appropriate weapon at his disposal in light of the asymmetric war between his country and Russia. Moscow has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal while Kyiv has none, and Russia has four times more military personnel than Ukraine.

Indeed, Zelensky has become famous for his speeches to national (especially European) parliaments and international organisations across the globe, including the US Congress and German, British, French, Italian, Japanese and Israeli parliaments, as well as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union.

He uses his rhetorical prowess to request international support, invoking memories of historical events and tragedies such as the Berlin Wall, 9/11, Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima and the Holocaust and using emotive phrases and sentences such as “prove you are with us”, and “if you fail to live up to this moment, then shame on you”, and has received standing ovations.

Zelensky’s request to address the AU arguably aims to garner African support and possibly influence African states to adopt a common voice on the Ukrainian crisis. In light of his previous addresses, he would be likely to invoke the spectre of colonialism.

Africa has been divided on the Ukraine crisis, with many countries either remaining neutral or opposing condemnation of Russia’s aggression. This must be seen against the backdrop of Moscow’s relationship with the continent since the Cold War. For example, on 7 April 2022,  the UN General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the organisation’s Human Rights Council. Nine African states voted against the resolution and 24 abstained, representing more than half the continent.

As one of the key players in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the US has exerted diplomatic pressure on African governments to support sanctions against Russia, with no success. For example, following South Africa’s third abstention on resolutions condemning Russia’s actions this month, President Cyril Ramaphosa received a call from US President Joe Biden who stressed the need for a unified international response.

While the AU and the Economic Community of West African States have condemned Russia’s aggression, a lack of consensus among African leaders has undermined US efforts. Indeed, US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a recent BBC interview that “you cannot stand on the sidelines and watch the aggression that we see taking place in Ukraine and say you’re going to be neutral about it”.

The AU Constitutive Act states that the organisation provides “a unique framework for our collective action in Africa and in our relations with the rest of the world”. However, the world has witnessed a divided Africa as regards the Ukrainian conflict. It is instructive to note that before the adoption of the 7 April resolution mentioned earlier, almost half the AU member states abstained from voting in the first resolution, demanding an end to Russia’s offensive in Ukraine on 2 March.

There was a similar display of disunity in response to the second resolution adopted on 24 March demanding an end to the humanitarian crisis.

What lies behind African disunity on the Ukrainian conflict?

First, China’s position on Russia has possibly influenced some African states’ stances, since it is Africa’s largest trade partner, having overtaken the US in 2009. This implies that some African states’ abstention may not necessarily be a pro-Russia stance, but rather reflects their strong ties with China.

Second, some African states such as South Africa have highlighted Washington’s double standards by drawing attention to the US’s wars in Iraq and, from an African perspective, in Libya. Indeed, the US-led NATO invasion of Libya and the killing of its head of state, a prominent African leader, significantly dented NATO’s image in Africa.

Furthermore, some African leaders see the rationale in maintaining a neutral stance in light of their economic and security interests and challenges. They collaborate with a number of allies to promote their interests and tackle the challenges.

Thus, for these states, taking sides may not be a strategic move. This is complicated by the fact that the US is increasingly seen as an unreliable partner in view of the failure of its foreign policy in the past. For example, following the US’s decision in 2021 to halt an arms deal with Nigeria over concerns about human rights abuses, Abuja turned to Moscow in its quest to combat Boko Haram terrorism.

Similarly, when France withdrew from Mali in February, the West African country turned to Russia, which is the largest supplier of arms to Africa.

Other states such as Ethiopia, Eritrea and Libya have established military alliances with Russia. In the economic realm, Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of wheat to African states, with Egypt being the world’s largest importer of wheat. Indeed, more than half of Egypt and Senegal’s, and more than 90% of Somalia’s wheat is imported from Russia and Ukraine.

Given these realities, Africa is likely to remain divided on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. DM



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All Comments 5

  • For the first time in history Africa together with Brics could have said no to Russia and there wouldve been no war. Africa did not use its power

  • I guess a “failure of foreign policy” to some is a success of human rights to others. All the reasons the writer supplies above are rather proof of many African governments failure to consider the actual act of an unjust war, an illegal invasion and the wholesale killing of civilians on the one hand, and the utter cowardice of not even being able to put your money where your mouth is on the other. Why abstain when you can make a more powerful difference by picking your side? What is significant about the “disunity” of the African vote, is that most African governments care less about human rights, and more about where their arms come from to control their own restless populations. We, the people, should take note…

  • Finally, some rational and insightful content on the invisible force that actually drives global events and it driving war in Ukraine… realpolitik. The United States is building a coalition to crush Russia, has been doing so for decades and it has finally said as much this week via Blinken. This will require Ukraine to be the battlefield on which this geopolitical objective is achieved with mountains of Western arms and support but without loss of Western lives. If the US government truly cared about the people of Ukraine, they would be talking peace for them and using their significant power to broker those negotiations with Russia. You hear no such talk, only talk of Ukranian victory which will be at the expense of many Ukranian and Russian lives. African states have every right to abstain from this propaganda-fuelled drama. It might seem morally reprehensible at first but it is geopolitically expedient, shows a greater understanding of what is truly transpiring in Ukraine and should be debated and understood for what it is before receiving the knee-jerk condemnation many have delivered.

  • Rarely does a situation arise which is so clear-cut as to leave not a shred of doubt as to the guilt or innocence of the parties involved. And rarely does it result in the level of death and destruction being inflicted every day on the people of Ukraine. One would hope that in such a case the world would set aside national interests and grievances long enough to condemn the perpetrator. That we are unable to come together, even in this most obvious and urgent tragedy, looms as an ominous cloud on humanity’s horizon.

  • Morals should, most of the time, trump all other considerations. Should I say more?
    Also, I do not see Russia rushing to help Africa when there is a pandemic or other major disaster and neither do I note large numbers of Africans risking life and limb to migrate to Russia.

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