There is a war in Europe, and suddenly, Africa’s opinion matters, or does it? Is the issue rather that for once, African nations are exercising a policy based on thinking that does not align with what the West wishes.
Normally, none in the West, certainly not the media, which has been so exercised about Africa’s response to the Ukraine crisis, gives two hoots about what position African nations might hold, even on events in Africa, let alone elsewhere in the world. “We should tell our own stories” “African solutions for African problems” are repeated demands, often impotently. Now however, barely a day goes by, when we do not hear, or read, some censure of Africa’s stand, or lack of it. What has changed, if anything?
Russia’s war against Ukraine, has united the Western powers, as few things in recent memory have. Sanctions normally take an age to agree, and put in place. Those against Russia were unanimously agreed, and put in place at lightning speed.
In failing to line up dutifully behind the West’s sanctions against Russia, African countries are opposing the West’s will, challenging the age old unspoken agreement, that where the West leads, Africa shall follow unquestioningly. To see the West single mindedly marching towards a specific objective, and Africa lagging behind, must be an unheard of shock to the system.
The fault does not of course, lie with the West alone, arguably, if all. It must surely also lie with Africans’ complicity in their own denigration. The West has had little reason not to take for granted, the automatic compliance assured by this complicity.
The pressure on Africa to unequivocally declare for Ukraine, against Russia, is being framed as being largely in Africa’s own best interest. The war, it is asserted, will undermine Africa’s economies, as they recover from the impact of Covid-19.
It also threatens food security across the continent, and we are told, the example of Russia’s aggression might lead to an increase in conflicts that already bedevil so much of Africa.
There is of course, much truth in this and none of it can be minimised.
Despite having 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated land, Africa remains a net importer of food, for a growing population, estimated to have reached 2 billion souls, by 2050. Ukraine exports 40 percent of its grain, and corn, to Africa, much of which goes to feeding people supported by the World Food Programme, in East, and West Africa. Ukraine is also the world’s biggest exporter of sun flower oil.
The war has exacerbated the global cost of living crisis, from which Africa has not been immune, notably the hike in energy costs.
But much of this can also be overstated. The effects of the war are indeed affecting African households. As always, it is the poorest who are bearing the brunt of rising costs. Their already difficult lives are being made even harder. But they will shoulder the burden, the way they have always had to shoulder the burden of price fluctuations.
As is happening in Rwanda, for instance, responsible governments can offer some relief, by using the few levers it has, to for instance, regulate against profiteering, and setting price caps, for some essentials.
The Africa editor for the London based Financial Times, is one of the many Western voices, who have concluded, that Africa is ill advised to adopt a neutral posture over the war. As might be expected, his analysis is certainly thought provoking, albeit often predictable.
“Many African governments” he charges, “have turned a blind eye to Vladmir Putin’s campaign to redraw Europe’s in blood.”
Although the majority of African countries, did indeed vote for the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pilling, like most other Western commentators, was troubled by the number of abstentions, 17, and the 8, who did not turn up to cast a vote, one way or the another.
He sees the lack of full throated condemnation of Russia, as a misplaced adherence to Africa’s history of non-alignment.
“But non-alignment and neutrality are not the same…To see the war in Ukraine as some abstract confrontation between Moscow and NATO is to deny Ukrainians any say in what sort of country they wish to build” he continues.
Without getting into the detail of the claims and counterclaims about what is certainly a war of aggression by Russia, it is clear that the Russian President’s, NATO made me do it argument, is not really worth the oxygen it takes to utter. And whether it is Ukraine, or any other nation, it is their sovereign right to decide the complexion of their nation building, within their own borders.
Nor, as Kenya’s representative to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, unequivocally articulated, is it lost on Africa, that Putin’s attempt to erase Ukraine’s nationhood, is to say the least, little more than a wish fulfilment fantasy.
Referring to Putin’s recognition of the independence of the Russian speaking parts of Ukraine, of Luhansk and Donetsk, effectively annexing them to Russia, Kimani decried the action, recalling his own country, and Africa’s colonial past.
“This situation echoes our history” he told the chamber, “Kenya as almost every African country was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant metropoles of London, Paris and Lisbon, with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.”
“Today across the border of every single African country, live our countrymen, with whom we share deep historical, cultural and linguistic bonds. At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging blood wars, this many decades later.”
“Instead, we agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited but we would still pursue continental political, economic and legal integration…rather than form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our nations and peoples have ever known…”
The speech has been much quoted by Western media and commentators, one suspects less for its undoubted eloquence, and more because it tallies exactly, with what under such circumstances, they wish to hear, from an African country. It was however, a highly nuanced message, filtered by selective hearing.
In an obvious criticism of Western nations, Kimani condemned nations, which preached respect for the UN charter to safeguard nations’ self determination, but were the worst offenders in undermining the national sovereignty of other nations.
In their disapproval of Putin’s war of aggression, African nations are nonetheless hinting to the West, that people in glass houses, ought to think twice before casting stones.
And non-alignment and neutrality are indeed not the same, but they may as well be, for all the difference it makes, since the continent has never really had either. African nations have long suffered themselves to be the tail, to the West’s dog, moving according to whatever mood in which the West happened to be, and in whatever direction the West pointed they should face. Phrases like “West-leaning” barely rise an eye brow, while the mere thought that Africa nations may have an independent position, is regarded as risible, at best.
“Some may argue that a war in Europe is of little concern to Africans. Others will point to the “West’s rapacious colonial history, its frequent hypocrisies and disastrous invasions of Iraq and Libya.” That ought to really have been, frequent hypocrisies like the invasions of Iraq and Libya, that remain disastrous for both peoples.
Interestingly, that analysis is glossed over, almost dismissed, to assert that “this is no time for neutrality.” Perhaps not, but what is also true, is that neutrality would suggest an independent, well thought out position. African nations understand full well, that their opinions count for nothing, if they are considered at all. They are there to make up the numbers, behind positions held by those whose opinions do matter.
There is also some validity in Pilling’s derision of possible African “nostalgia for the Soviet Union”, but there is also some truth that far from it being a misplaced nostalgia, it is that Africa remembers. There is no confusion between the former USSR and the Russia of today, but there is a clear awareness that Russia, was an important part of the USSR.
Although it does not, Africa could point out that when for instance, apartheid was dehumanising Africans, murdering the continent’s best and brightest, like Steve Biko, the West not only prevaricated, but leant more towards support of apartheid, than the African National Congress (ANC) whose leaders, Nelson Mandela, included, were labelled terrorists.
Pilling suggests that Africa is either insensitive to, or unwilling to accept that it is falling prey to Russian imperial ambitions on the continent. “Africans will not welcome an analysis that sees the continent as a theatre for so called ‘Great-Power’ rivalry. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”
He quotes from a Tony Blair Institute for Global Change report, about Russia in Africa, which certainly ought to ring alarm bells, in African capitals.
From the mercenary “Wagner group” to questionable agreements to extract resources, the report is grim reading. But it is also déjà vu for Africa. Those Western “hypocrisies” come to mind. When it is not Russia about which Africa is being warned, it is China.
Most tenuous of all however, is the warning to Africa that it might follow the example of Russia into autocracy, from a “rules based world order.” Or that the food crisis might spark the kind of conflict that toppled the likes of Omar al Bashir in Sudan, and roiled governments in North Africa, from Egypt to Tunisia and beyond.
Africa does not, but it could argue that a rules based order is indeed a fine thing, but who makes the rules, and for whom are they designed to work? Certainly not for the world as a whole.
And it is either poor, or selective judgement, to suggest that governments like Omar al Bashir’s are brought down by a single issue, even one as important as food insecurity. People turn against governments they perceive as caring little for them. That threat was present before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and will remain long after it.
The British war time leader, Winston Churchill, is created with having coined the sentiment, that “never let a good crisis go to waste.”
There are lessons for Africa, from the crisis born of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The first of these lessons is that such lessons, if they are to be of any use, cannot come from the Western commentators.
Like all cliches, the common reference to the world as a global village, hold a lot of truth. Nonetheless, despite that, Africa ought to ask itself why, with all the potential it has, especially in agriculture, a war in a far away country, about which most Africans had scarcely heard, sends Africa’s food prices soaring.
As for Russia’s imperial ambitions, why given that Africa remains a play thing for such ambitions, are reports, such as that of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, initiated by outsiders to be read by Africans, rather than the other way round.
African nations are not turning a blind eye, they are watching helplessly, knowing their opinion will not count.