The war in Ukraine through an African lens
African policymakers and civil society opinion makers, like their counterparts around the world, share no consensus on the war in Ukraine.
Its impact is undeniable, as the economic fallout for Africa has been profound, not least in the shortages of wheat and fertilizer from the region.
The head of the African Union, Sengalese President Macky Sall, is meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, June 3, to discuss the war and how to resolve these issues for the African continent. This involves wheat exports from Ukraine, which must pass through Russian-controlled ports or the port of Odessa on the Black Sea. Russia has also limited grain exports except to its top customers. Less noted but also vital for Africa are fertilizer exports from Belarus, blocked by closure of the export route through Lithuania.
Africans are also not insensitive to the highly visible suffering of Ukrainian civilians caught up in the war.
But the reluctance of African governments to vote for Western resolutions at the United Nations, or take sides with Washington and its policy of military escalation, should not be seen as support for the Russian invasion or for Vladimir Putin.
Yet both the Biden administration and Congress continue to demand that African leaders take sides. On April 27, for example, the House of Representatives passed the “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act” by a margin of 415 to 9. The bill essentially mandates a new Cold War in Africa, including action against African governments that “facilitate the evasion of United States sanctions against Russia.”
The debate about causes and responsibility for the war in Ukraine will undoubtedly continue. Some in Africa, as elsewhere around the world, may resist Washington’s demands to take sides because they approve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Governments in a few African countries, notably Mali and the Central African Republic, may do so because of Russian military support they have been receiving since the Wagner Group joined the host of French, U.S., and international agencies providing training and “advice” to African security forces.
But many, if not most, give more substantive reasons.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, called on both Russia and Ukraine to prioritize negotiation, citing South Africa’s own difficult history of negotiations to end apartheid, in which he played a central role. A South African columnist in the Nairobi-based newspaper The Elephant called for “rebooting the non-aligned movement.” A Ugandan columnist in the same paper denounced the war as a return to the European norm after the decades of peace since World War II. And a Nigerian intelligence analyst argued that it was not in Nigeria’s interest to get involved in this geopolitical conflict.
Such concerns are consistent with wisdom gained from African experience with other wars. They should not be taken lightly. Here are a few such lessons gleaned from African history.
As President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania commented in the late 1990s, wars waged by big powers, hot or cold, have not been good for Africans.
In a short interview with an Indian journalist, which came as the Clinton administration appeared to be ramping up a new post-Soviet Cold War, Nyerere repeated his oft-cited adage that “when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” This applies to wars driven by European powers and white settlers on both sides of the Atlantic, from the wars of conquest in the 19th century to two World Wars and the first Cold War. Leaders such as Nyerere, and Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel were resolute in defending non-alignment and the right to choose their own friends, whether the demand for allegiance came from Washington, Moscow, or Beijing.
Peacemaking is essential. Wars must eventually end, and negotiation is essential even with those who have committed atrocities.
As Africans know, the causes of war and who was the aggressor or who committed the worst atrocities can be debated endlessly among historians, active participants, and innocent civilians and victims and their descendants for generations.
But Africans also know from experience, the vast majority of those involved in wars want peace and the freedom to go about their lives. Peacemaking is not an exact science, to say the least. But the reality is that it can only happen by de-escalation and dialogue, not by adding fuel to the flames by outsiders pouring in weapons and urging the combatants to fight it out until one wins.
The global leaders known as The Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela and currently co-chaired by Graça Machel, just issued an urgent call for diplomacy to “end this terrible war.” And, as Elizabeth Schmidt argues in her widely praised book, foreign military intervention in Africa most often did more harm than good, prolonging conflicts or making them more lethal. That observation applies just as well to conflicts in Europe, including Ukraine.
Who is involved in a war is not always visible from photographs or eyewitness reports of the battles.
In 1968, I was in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, working as one of the non-Mozambican teachers in the secondary school of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), the movement then fighting a guerilla war for independence from Portugal with the support of Tanzania and other African countries. Western expatriates I met elsewhere in the city were saying they knew on “good authority” which foreign countries were behind turmoil within the movement that preceded the assassination of that liberation movement’s founding president Eduardo Mondlane in February 1969.
In an emergency meeting, movement security chief Joaquim Chissano (later President of Mozambique) advised the small group of foreign teachers at the school, including volunteers from the United States and Sweden as well as others seconded by the governments of India, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic, to “never believe rumors.”
That caution is even more critical in the age of social media as both information and disinformation propagate around the world at Internet speed. This is particularly true of Ukraine, in which the disinformation wars have been well rehearsed by all parties since the first Cold War ended in the early 1990s.
For Africans, the war in Ukraine is a painful reminder that Western foreign policy priorities, in part as reflected by mainstream Western media outlets, are still shaped primarily by racial bias and geopolitical rivalries rather than the urgent global issues that face Africa and the world.
For Africans, as well as others who have lived in Africa or worked on African issues, the disproportionate attention given to this war featuring white people, compared to more deadly ongoing wars in Africa, is a sad repeat of biases that were pervasive during the first Cold War.
Although news attention to Ukraine dropped significantly in April and May, it was still much more prominent in news in the United States than comparable conflicts in Africa or elsewhere in the Global South, according to Google Trends. Statistics on civilian casualties are hard to verify in any war. But the human toll of each of the wars in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the West African Sahel almost certainly matches or exceeds the toll in the more closely watched war in Ukraine.
Whether then or now, the issue is not only Western failures on Africa-specific topics, such as the refusal to welcome refugees from wars in Africa in contrast to the way in the way Ukrainian refugees have been treated. Africans also correctly see themselves as leading defenders of global multinational institutions and advocates for collective action in addressing global threats from which their continent is the first to feel the pain.
As TransAfrica Forum noted in 2009 in a policy paper directed to the incoming Obama administration, “on virtually every global issue, Africa and people of African descent endure a horrendously disproportionate share of the damage.” In 2022, with “vaccine apartheid,” heightened global economic inequality, and the climate apocalypse, that observation reinforces African determination to lead on global issues and oppose efforts by any power to initiate a new Cold War that could divert attention and resources from these kinds of challenges.
Africans focused on world affairs, less blinded by the Washington-insider tilt towards the Biden administration’s hawkish foreign policy than pundits in the West, should be emulated rather than scorned for their critical analysis of yet another “white people’s war” in Europe. As Hippolyte Fofack, director of the Africa Export-Import Bank, warned in a blog post last month, African development depends on “regional ownership of its security,” rather than being drawn into a new Cold War.