Many African countries are much more muted about the war in Ukraine than Europe or the United States. Many abstained from voting against Russia in UN votes. The reasons for this are manifold, and should serve as a wake-up call for development actors.
For Europe, Russia's war against Ukraine represents an alarming threat. For the first time since World War II, a head of state in Europe invaded a sovereign neighboring state – a breach of international law.
In the Global South, on the other hand, outrage over the Ukraine war is limited. This war does not represent a turning point to them. Given recent experiences – such as bombings, war atrocities and suffering in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen – this development is not really surprising. Thus, while many developing countries have condemned Russia's attack (see below), few are participating in the sanctions.
On February 24, the chair of the African Union (AU) urged all actors to "respect international law, territorial integrity, and national sovereignty of Ukraine at all costs. [...] Both parties should undertake an immediate ceasefire and start political negotiations [...] without delay to save the world from the consequences of a planetary conflict." A more strident joint statement would probably have been impossible to push through among AU members. This is because many African governments have been reluctant or neutral. At best, they left their commentary to this request for Russia to withdraw its troops and settle the conflict peacefully. This is probably to avoid being drawn into a possible resurrection of the Cold War, in which many African countries served as proxies.
A look at the UN General Assembly illustrates how divided Africa is on this issue: on March 2, 28 of the 54 African states voted in favor of the UN resolution "Aggression against Ukraine," which "strongly disapproved" of Russia's attack as a violation of the UN Charter and called for the immediate withdrawal of its troops. The remaining 26 abstained or did not to participate. Eritrea voted against the resolution.
Reservations became even more pronounced on April 7 when Russia's membership rights in the Human Rights Council were suspended. Just ten African states voted in favor of the resolution, nine were opposed, and 35 abstained or were absent. The resolution was adopted by 93 votes to 24, with 58 abstentions. Russia had unsuccessfully tried to avert the suspension, urging various states to vote "no." It said abstention would be considered an unfriendly act and would affect bilateral relations.
Russia's charm offensive and military presence
Many governments in Africa have traditionally maintained good relations with Moscow. Among them are those that emerged from liberation movements supported by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This is true of South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. While Western states were seen as enemies at the time, the Soviet Union was seen as being on the side of liberation. The nostalgic view of the support at that time benefits Moscow today.
But some African countries are not condoning the Russian attack on Ukraine because of current ties. In recent years, Moscow launched a charm offensive to increase its influence in Africa. An expression of this was the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019, attended by 40 African heads of state and government. A total of about 10,000 people from all 54 African countries attended. In the final declaration, the participating states agreed to strengthen political, economic and military cooperation. Whether the second summit, planned for the end of 2022 in St. Petersburg, will take place is unknown at this time.
Russia pursued four strategic goals with the summit: (1) expand its power on the world stage through support from African countries, (2) gain access to Africa's raw materials and natural resources, (3) expand its dominance as a supplier of arms exports and security, and (4) support the development of energy and electricity supplies by Russian companies. Although Russia gambled away any credit internationally with its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow did achieve "success" in some of the aforementioned goals.
For example, Russia expanded its military influence in Africa. It is now Africa's largest arms supplier of heavy weapons, with a 44 percent share. It also supports governments that are under domestic political pressure or are internationally isolated by sending weapons or paramilitary units, such as the state-affiliated Wagner mercenary force, to fight rebels in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali. They are often paid with revenues from mines; in Sudan, for example, with gold.
Despite the solemn commitment to participation and cooperation in Sochi, many African states have always been de facto dependent on Russian (and Ukrainian) wheat supplies. So their refusal to directly condemn the war is surely also an expression of concern about food supplies. After all, Russia and Ukraine have been the largest suppliers of wheat, corn, rapeseed and sunflower oil to date. Nevertheless, Africa's food security is now threatened in the long term because of the war, and the famine is worsening.
The West’s failures
But Africa's reticence is also the result of omissions and mistakes in Western policy. This is not just about past times, when the colonial powers divided Africa among themselves in order to claim human and natural resources. The fact that the West has recently given the lie to its supposed moral superiority through its own actions has also contributed significantly to this: be it, for example, with the shameful withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers from the South or the vaccination nationalism of rich countries in the first two years of the Corona pandemic. Moreover, North African and Sahel countries have always been disappointed by Europe because of its inadequate migration policy support. African states also lack the West's willingness to cooperate in security policy in the face of increasing "hybrid threats," a combination of traditional military operations, economic pressure, cyberattacks, and propaganda in the media and social networks. As a result, many states have turned to Russia (and China).
Currently, Western allies are rightly trying everything to bring Putin's Russia to its knees. But when the weapons in Ukraine are silent, the West will have to reach out to the countries of the Global South. It must show that a world in which liberal democracies call the shots is better than anything offered by autocracies like Russia or China. However, many people in the South are not convinced of this. The Western world must rebuild the trust of the Global South; this requires listening and taking seriously why one in five states in the UN did not vote against Russia and helping poorer countries cope with the economic consequences of war – such as food prices. Above all, however, Western states must learn to view African states as equal partners – economically, in terms of security, and sociopolitically – and not as recipients of aid and directives. This requires, in particular, a fair international trade, tax and migration policy in which there are no losers.
If this effort does not succeed, and if the West does not recognize the alarm signals, then African states will increasingly look elsewhere for their partners – especially in China and Russia. This would jeopardize the African Union's "Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want," the master plan for transforming the continent through "inclusive social and economic development, continental and regional integration, democratic governance, and peace and security." Agenda 2063 is an expression of the quest for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and shared prosperity. However, such a scenario would also raise fears that the fight against climate change would be made more difficult, human rights would be weakened, the rule of law would be undermined and the global peace architecture would be seriously jeopardized. This would also push the 2030 Agenda goals for sustainable development into the background.