We condemn military aggression of one state on another.
We remain non-aligned in a fight between super-powers and historically imperialistic nations.
These two things are true.
On March 2, 2022 as the UN voted on its resolution to condemn the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Africa’s vote surprised more than one, including its own citizens. 28 countries voted to condemn the invasion of Russia by Ukraine, 1 voted against, 17 countries abstained, and 8 others did not vote at all. This measured response seemed to coincide with popular opinion in Africa. This has not always been the case when African governments vote in New York.
What explains this pondered response in African public opinion? Several factors.
On the one hand
There is little hesitation in Africa about the fact that no nation should use its military might to invade another. Russia is wrong to invade Ukraine. Few Africans question that.
There is sympathy for the Ukrainian people who from one day to the next found themselves, without any provocation whatsoever, being bombed and are now displaced and refugee victims of war. Too many Africans know the ravages of war on individuals and families. Their sympathy with the people of Ukraine is unquestionable.
So why the mitigated response?
The mitigation, ponderation and equivocal responses pertain to what many Africans perceive as a war between Russia and the West for which Ukraine is unfortunately paying an extremely high price. They pertain to Africa’s long, difficult history with the West that has never been addressed, and they pertain to a demonstration once again of a culture of white supremacy that is demonstrated by the West in almost every interaction with the rest of the world.
A long unresolved history
From slavery to colonialism and more recently neo-colonialism, African countries have been invaded repeatedly by the West, usually resulting in death, destruction and mayhem for decades. Europe and the United States have systematically refused to acknowledge their historical aggression on African states and have rather sought to justify it.
To cite just a few examples, there is still open debate in France on the “benefits” of colonization with parliament introducing a law including this phrase in 2005 and schoolchildren being taught to list these ‘benefits’ in a classroom exercise in 2019.
The U.S.-led invasion of a Libya, which posed no threat to the West, in 2011 remains a hard pill to swallow for many Africans. Americans invaded and left. Africans from Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and more have had to manage the aftermath of regional destabilization which most experts agree is one of the contributing factors to the rise of armed groups on the continent, including the murderous Boko Haram. It is debatable what would have happened had Khadaffi, unquestionably a dictator, remained in power. That is in the realm of the unknown. What is fact is the U.S. led invasion which ended in catastrophe or a “s—t show” as described by Barack Obama himself.
No one seems to be asking the U.S. and its NATO allies to be accountable for this unprovoked invasion. The hesitation of many Africans to condemn Russia lies in the fact that such a condemnation seems to establish a double standard for the world. Invasion is acceptable when committed by the West and unacceptable when committed by anyone else.
The West’s Friendliness with African Dictators
For as long as we can remember, African dictators have danced with the West. Presidents who have changed constitutions to maintain themselves at the head of their countries for decades, whose governance has led to armed conflicts that generate displacement of their citizens and untold suffering on their populations have remained friends of NATO countries, often doing good business together at the expense of African citizens. One of the key condemnations of Putin is that he is an unhinged dictator. Most Africans would agree, being all too familiar with the telltale signs. For the average African citizen, it is difficult to understand why Russia’s dictator should be sanctioned for violence and destruction when many of African dictators who wreak the same violence and destruction on their lives, go on to wine and dine with the very countries asking to condemn Putin today. Is it that African lives do not matter when they are destroyed by dictators?
The acute expression of white supremacy
Western politicians, media and citizens have continued to express it since the first day of the Russian invasion. These lives, this country, this nation is to be saved. Why? Because they are “like us”. In its mobilization of resources, in its mad rush to apply sanctions sometimes without regard for the law, in its treatment of refugees, the West has expressed repeatedly throughout this crisis that white lives matter more. Currently, as refugees from Africa and the Middle East live in the squalor of camps in North Africa and some European countries due to Europe’s policy towards immigrants, as countries like the U.S. repatriate refugees back home to countries where they risk imprisonment and possibly even death; these same Western countries are asking their citizens to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees, immediately. In some parts of Europe migrants have been waiting for years for housing, it remains unclear what their fate will be as Ukrainian refugees jump the queue and are housed instantaneously.
When faced with human beings fleeing war and conflict, Europe and the U.S. continue to demonstrate clearly that they will treat human beings differently and the undeniable factors of differentiation seem to be race and culture.
Africa’s unwillingness to align itself wholeheartedly with the West has little to do with Ukraine and a lot to do with its history with Europe and the United States, as well as the way in which even in this moment where the crisis is not about us, our humanity is denied and refuted.
The politics and the economics
The fact that out of 54 countries, only Eritrea voted against the motion to condemn Russia is perhaps most telling. This despite the fact that multiple African countries have historical, political and economic ties with Russia. In the past 10 years Russia has renewed its diplomatic offensive in Africa. Countries like Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali have indisputable military ties with Russia and in the case of CAR are even dependent on it for fundamental security. Yet these countries did not vote to support its invasion of Ukraine. The message is clear. It is not in the interest of the non-superpowers that African nations are, to support unprovoked military invasion of one country by another under any pretext whatsoever. African countries have chosen not to side with Russia despite military dependence and economic dependence. Multiple African countries depend on Russian wheat for their daily bread.
Africa must go further
Beyond the vote, Africa must seize this moment of crisis to make and push for changes at both economic and political levels. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is reconfiguring the world and its geopolitics. It is necessary for Africa to proactively act for its own and for global interests.
At the economic level:
On the heels of the Covid-19 crisis, the Ukraine war acutely demonstrates the need for Africa to focus on its food security. Crises are a moment to make powerful change. Cassava, sweet potato, soybean, chickpea, plantain and more. Africa produces multiple flours that can substitute wheat. Doing so would greatly benefit African nutrition, food security and economies. The impact on poverty would be substantial. However, this substitution requires swift, radical action by governments to boost production, improve transportation and enable transformation. It requires governments mobilizing the private sector, research institutions, farmers organizations, youth and women farmers to make strategic decisions and implement them quickly.
Inflation of basic food prices leads to social unrest. The window for African governments to act is small and closing. It is however a definite window of opportunity. African governments who seize it will take a major step in ensuring stability for their countries and multi-faceted growth for their citizens.
A few African countries are in a position to seize the opportunities offered by the energy crisis that has been deepened since the invasion of Ukraine. Algeria is well positioned to do so, but Mozambique, Nigeria and Senegal also have the potential to seize this moment. It is also the time for Africa to accelerate its own drive for energy efficiency and energy security. Years old plans for green energy, large-scale natural gas projects and the decentralization of energy provision all need to enter implementation phases now.
At a political level:
More than anything else, the Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that the international institutions meant to maintain world peace and guarantee the fundamental rights of every human, have been failing for quite some time now. No one knows this better than African citizens. For decades institutions like the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Commission have been unable to assist Africa in finding solutions to its deep, often cyclical violent crises.
The invasion of a country by another is a crisis that concerns the entire world. The outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees is the way that refugees should be treated whenever human beings find themselves under violent attack. The plethora of sanctions that has been unleashed against Putin, should be on the table for every dictator who reaches the extent of killing and endangering human lives.
Africa’s non-aligned position places it in a unique position to initiate the conversation on how the world needs to react to state violence, refugees and gross violation of human rights from now on. The West’s reaction to Ukraine is a step in the right direction. It needs to be examined as precedent and the global community needs to determine how it will use this experience to ensure the safety and security of human beings around the planet in an equitable fashion.
Given the current state of governance in Africa today, this conversation cannot be left to governments. Civil society, business communities, African Diaspora, grassroots movements, media and African intellectuals must step up and lead this debate.
One of the most important ways to support the Ukrainian people is to ensure that this atrocity cannot occur to them or any other people across the globe regardless of race, religion or culture, ever again.