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African nations may pay a heavy price for neutrality

A vendor selling cereals in Nairobi. Picture: Simon Maina/AFP

A vendor selling cereals in Nairobi. Picture: Simon Maina/AFP

Published May 15, 2022

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By Nicholas Westcott

Far from being swift, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now looks likely to become a long-running war of attrition. It will therefore have an accumulating, and increasingly drastic, impact on Africa, unless it can be brought to a swift end. But can African countries influence that? And do they really want to?

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This article argues that African and western countries need to change their approach if Africa is to suffer less damage from the crisis. If it continues to sit on the fence, it risks exacerbating conflict in Africa itself. The Ukraine war has compounded the economic problems caused by the pandemic.

The International Monetary Fund and UN Economic Commission for Africa have emphasised the economic damage being done to African countries. On top of food price inflation and Africa’s dependence on food supplies from Ukraine and Russia, the World Food Programme has highlighted the shortage of emergency supplies to feed the starving in drought-struck eastern Africa.

The 20%-40% increase in oil and gas prices has hit consumers and manufacturers, as well as farmers, through the price of fertiliser. And as revenue falls and demand for government spending rises, there is a growing risk of debt distress. This is true even of hitherto stable countries like Ghana. This economic pressure, and particularly rising food prices, may not only provoke protest but precipitate political instability and conflict across the continent.

It was, after all, food price rises that stimulated the Arab Spring in 2011. Sri Lanka’s current foreign exchange crisis shows how politically dangerous it can be. The war in Ukraine has also diverted global political attention from Africa’s problems, and made it harder for the UN to lead international peace-making efforts.

Unless the AU is willing and able to step in, the lack of global attention risks more African conflicts getting out of hand. The Ukraine crisis, therefore, significantly increases political stress and potential conflict throughout Africa.

African governments are already appealing for more economic support to mitigate these stresses. But many donor countries are now diverting more money to defence, and it would be quicker and more effective to tackle the root of the problem: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Yet African governments seem increasingly reluctant to put pressure on Russia. The shocking breach of national sovereignty and territorial integrity initially led many to support the Kenyan arguments at the UN Security Council against the invasion, and on March 28, they voted for the UN resolution condemning the invasion and only one, Eritrea, against.

Even so, 17 abstained and eight absented themselves. A month later, however, in the vote to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council on April 7, only 10 voted for, nine against, and the remaining 34 sat on the fence. A few authoritarians, like President Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea, and a number of states that depend on Russia for security, like Mali and the Central African Republic, were always likely to support it.

But other countries with sound democratic credentials, like Senegal, Ghana, and Botswana, have also avoided picking sides. Many Africans firmly believe they should remain neutral. Not all agree.

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South Africa has been accused of prioritising its political ties to Russia over its principles of sovereignty and self-determination: President Cyril Ramaphosa urged a peaceful solution, but criticised Nato for its expansion rather than Russia for its invasion.

For European and North American countries, the immediate point of historical reference is WWII: dictators who invade their neighbours cannot be trusted and must be firmly opposed for the safety of the whole world. Hence their remarkable unity and swift response.

For Africa, however, the historical reference is the Cold War, when the Soviet Union supported the liberation Struggle against (western) imperial powers. This looks to Africans more like a replay of the Cold War, of Russia vs “the west”, than of WWII (democrats v dictators), and nonalignment therefore seems natural.

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Russia actively promotes this interpretation on social media in Africa, pedalling a narrative that Nato is the aggressor and Russia the victim, writing the Ukrainians out of the script. But this creates problems for Africa.

It prolongs the war. Soviet imperialism was just as real as Western imperialism, simply more local. Ukrainians and other east Europeans achieved their independence from Russia long after most African countries, and are equally determined to keep it.

Many, therefore, rushed to join Nato and the EU; and Ukrainian refugees have received a warm welcome in neighbouring countries because their hosts are all too aware that unless Russian aggression is stopped, they too could be refugees tomorrow. What would an alliance with Russia bring African countries in a multipolar world, where the international rule of law is ignored and might alone makes right?

The Syrians know already: ruthless and effective military support for a client dictator, enabling him to crush and expel all dissent. The Libyans also know, though Russia’s military support for General Haftar was neutralised by Turkey’s intervention.

Even in South Africa, the Russian alliance nearly brought the country a ruinous contract to build nuclear power plants that would have generated more corruption than energy. But western countries also need to recognise they are not innocent.

From an African perspective, trade still feels unbalanced, the costs of “structural adjustment” are still resented, and while western donors see themselves defending human rights, financial probity, good governance and civil society, others see them as hypocritical, supporting dictatorial regimes past, like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now DRC), and present, like Rwanda and Uganda.

Western governments have been using the wrong arguments, appealing to the need to preserve the international rule of law and multilateral institutions, when many Africans see these as skewed in favour of “the west” and Africa as perpetually disadvantaged.

Even if ending the war is in Africa’s self-interest, Western countries need to address this perception if they are to persuade African countries to put more pressure on Russia. Will Africa benefit from standing aside, urging talks, while the conflict continues and the world economy is irreparably damaged?

The longer the war continues, the worse the economic damage to Africa, and the greater the risk that conflict breaks out in African countries themselves. Russia will not stop the war until forced to do so, by arms or by bankruptcy.

* Westcott is a research associate, Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS, University of London. This is an edited version of his article that was first published on theconversation.com.

The Conversation

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