Africa’s Ambivalence on the Russo-Ukrainian Conflict: A Historical and Geopolitical Analysis

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AfriKo. This article is a part of the Trialogue project to facilitate a frank exchange on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine between Baltic/CEE, EU, African experts, funded by Africa-Europe foundation.  

By Dr Hassan Khannenje, Director of the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies

On 24th of February 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine in a major escalation of the conflict between the two countries that had been simmering since 2014 when the Euromaidan revolution removed the pro-Russian president, Victor Yunokovich from power followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and an intractable and vicious conflict in the Ukraine’s Donbass region between the Russian backed separatists and Ukraine. The conflict, which has claimed thousands of lives and livelihoods is the worst on continental Europe since the end of WW2.  Inversely, western imposed sanctions on food and energy exports from Russia in response to Russian actions in Ukraine have exacerbated the economic situation not only of Russia’s and Ukraine’s immediate neighbors, but critically, many countries in Africa that are food dependent on the conflict area accounting for close to half of Africa’s wheat imports. The conflict, the most internationalized in recent history, has exposed the weakness of the international community’s ability to prevent major wars, challenged the foundations of the United Nations system and increased the risks of nuclear conflagration. The ongoing inflationary pressures on economies across the globe and increasing risks of serious confrontations in Europe poses perhaps the first major existential threat to the community of nations since the Cuban missile crisis of the early 1960s.

Africa’s Response to Russian Invasion.

Whereas Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was ostensibly meant to ‘de-nazify’ and ‘demilitarize’ Ukraine in a ‘special military operation’, the speed and scale of the operation caught many by surprise. The action while surprising, was not however shocking to many African countries. This perhaps explains the divided reaction on the United Nations vote condemning Russia’s actions as well as the resultant general ambivalent attitude toward the whole saga. In the vote, about half the countries from Africa voted for the resolution while slightly less than half abstained. Only Eritrea voted in support of Moscow. Prima facie, the vote may be misleading if it is interpreted as a vote solely in support of Ukraine as subsequent actions by African countries have proved. The vote has to be understood within a wider context of Africa’s sensitivities with border issues as well as within the context of international law and multilateralism.  Beyond the vote, Africa’s reaction has remained largely ambivalent. A number of factors can help explain Africa’s response:

  • Cold War and Africa-Soviet relations

Much of what became Soviet- Africa relations were formed in the early years of the Cold War. The end of the second world war coincided with increased clamor for independence in Africa. Colonized countries sought to shed off the yoke of colonialism partly inspired by independence movements around the world and partly enabled by the new desire by the West to unburden itself from the colonial responsibilities in the wake of economic constraints caused by the devastation of the second world war. The Soviet Union, a new superpower that had emerged from the ruins of the war sought to align itself ideologically with many liberation and independence movements across the continent. This relationship was extended for much of the post-colonial period up until the collapse of the Berlin wall in the late 1990s. In fact, for much of the cold war period, Africa, much like many the global south became theaters of Cold war contestations, pitying ideologically competing political groups against each other. Some of severe manifestations of this happened in Southern Africa and the Horn of Africa regions including South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania among others.

  • Post-Colonial Relations

While much of the continent was ostensibly nonaligned in the Cold War calculus, in practice, it was largely aligned with the West with whom it had natural ties. Many of the new leaders at independence had schooled in the West and the economies of individual states were mainly capitalist in orientation. Yet certain political colonial arrangements between the newly independent states and their colonial metropolis created dangerous dependency that allowed for security interventions and were amenable to political interference by their former colonizers. This is especially true in Francophone Africa whose economies were not only tied to the franc and French economics, but politically, there was a perception that their political leaders were hostages to French interests.

  • End of the Cold War and Africa’s Abandonment

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a watershed period not only in Russia-Africa relations but also in the political and economic history of Africa. While the Cold War had fueled many intra-state and sometimes interstate conflicts across the continent, it also provided opportunities to allied states in the Cold War competition between the East and the West. These opportunities immediately vanished with the end of the Cold War as the West focused on rebuilding eastern Europe and on the new agenda of globalization.  Similarly, Soviet client states on the continent were starved off their economic and security lifeline occasioned by the death of the Soviet empire. Worse still, the subsequent push for Structural Adjustment Programs, economic sanctions to push for political reforms and minimal western investment in the 90s and early 2000s created a sense of both paternalism and abandonment by the West. The New World Order of western economic and military preponderance had served to diminish the agency of Africa, reducing African countries to perpetual beggars of international aid.  The economic reforms, while well meaning were not followed by necessary foreign investment to grow the local economies consequently creating social dislocation, political turmoil and collective disillusionment. Finally, the widespread lack of interest in the conflict in Somalia following the downing of a helicopter carrying American servicemen, the cavalier attitude, complicit involvement and active resistance by the west to intervene in the Rwandan genocide confirmed the fears of Africa’s irrelevance to European and Western international calculations, further undermining efforts to build confidence between the two regions in the immediate post- Cold  War era. To the extent that the youth of those painful years are today the policy makers in government partly explains the continued distrust the continent’s leadership has in the West as an honest partner for peace, human rights, and development.

  • Pax-Americana and Perceived Rise of Western Unilateralism

The New World Order signified the triumph of market economics and liberal democracy as proven ingredients for successful statecraft. With this, emerged the desire to remake the world in the image of successful western democracies. Wittingly or unwittingly, the economic and political reforms that were advocated for adoption reflected the obsession with these ideas. With the United States as the sole super power, such obsession in part created a sense of a messianic mission of spreading democracy as a panacea to authoritarian, totalitarian and conflict-ridden societies on the continent as well as in other parts of the global south.  Whereas there are not credible alternatives to democracy, the unilateralist and dogmatic approach to democratic advocacy without paying attention to prevailing social, cultural as well as economic peculiarities began to provoke resentment for the democratic project. Worse still, American and Western interventions in Sudan, Iraq, Serbia while may be justified, had moral and security implications. These were interpreted on the continent as evidence of Western disregard for international consensus and practical as well as peremptory norms of international law. Further, lack of serious consideration of Africa’s interests on the international stage and minimal investments in resolving Africa’s conflicts has reinforced this perception.

  • Arab Spring and the Collapse of Libya

Perhaps the most recent event that has contributed to shaping Africa’s perceptions on the Russo-Ukrainian conflict in so far as the Africa-EU relations are concerned is the Arab spring. While many Arabs in the world are culturally associated with the Middle East, geographically, majority of Arabs are found in Africa. The Arab spring was therefore a fundamental occasion both for the Middle East and Africa. Its implications were felt across the continent. What was celebrated by liberal minded people around the world as a dawn or a new era, quickly turned into a long nightmare of Arab winter. Safe for a few places in Tunisia and Morocco, the initial success turned into war, conflict, military dictatorships and state collapse with profound political, security and economic implications for the rest of Africa.  Of particular relevance to the continent is the collapse of the state of Libya, of which many Africans attribute to NATO interventions. While NATO did not initiate conflict in Libya, there is no denying the pivotal role that NATO aviation played in the eventual overthrow of Libyan strongman Colonel Muhammar Gaddafi. Soon Libya would be embroiled in internal conflict between competing tribal and militant groups for power, fueling proliferation of arms and growth of terrorist groups in North Africa and across the Sahel region.

Arguably, much of the instability in the Sahel region today can in large part directly be attributed to the collapse of the state of Libya and the resultant inability by actors both internal and external to play a proactive and constructive role in seeking resolution. The Western Libyan intervention was viewed by many Africans especially South of the Sahara as the epitome of western disregard for African agency, in part because of the manner in which NATO mission disregarded ongoing African efforts at the time to mediate the conflict as well as multilateral arrangements of the United Nations.  Such incidents have further served to color Africa’s perceptions of Western collective security arrangements and western geopolitics in general in which hypocrisy and double standards are seen as the currency of western policy. Such views were recently shared in a recent speech by the new right wing Italian Prime minister Giorgia Meloni, in which she castigated France for bombing Libya because of what she claimed was the  fear that Italy would have access to Libyan oil. The French intervention she notes, helped fuel the problem of illegal migrations that Europe is currently facing, noting France’s leader has no moral grounds to comment on her party or African issues.

  • Rise of China and resurgence of Russia in Africa

Since the early 2000s, the rise of China has changed the geopolitical dynamics of the continent. China’s aggressive engagement has not only provided the continent with alternative sources of funding and investment, it has also exploited the perceived failures by the West. Further, it has exploited the sentiment of abandonment and Western paternalism to present itself as a fair and equal partner from the global south without the colonial baggage or moral righteousness and puritanical dispositions. In so doing, it has deployed massive economic power to create client states across the continent, building significant diplomatic capital. Similarly, Moscow has exploited the apparent vacuum especially in conflict ridden or unstable states on the continent to build security partnerships. Essentially, both have sought to fill the void left by the relative decline of western engagement in Africa as well as the emerging dissatisfaction by Africans with western interventions or lack of them thereof on the continent. Further, the increasing Sino-Russian alliance means that African countries have been careful on the type of message they sent to Beijing especially given that Beijing may soon face a similar situation over Taiwan, of which it has vowed to take by force should it proceed to declare independence. Thus, adopting strategic neutrality by African countries appears to be the safest approach compared to existing alternatives. This calculation has further shaped what appears to be a non-aligned approach to the conflict.

  • Perceived Western Bias, Hypocrisy, and Double Standards on Ukraine

That the invasion of Ukraine by Russia violates the cardinal principles of international law is not in question. Many average Africans sympathize with the plight of Ukrainians considering the extent of devastation and destruction that the war is inflicting on the country. Many Africans to whom war and conflict is a very familiar issue prefers a diplomatic solution to the conflict even though Africa’s ability to influence the course of the conflict itself remains limited. This is partly evidenced by the fact that only one country openly sided with Moscow in the United Nations vote condemning Moscow’s actions. Even though many in the West criticized many of Africa’s abstentions, the sentiment was less about their quiet support for Moscow and more about their discomfort created by perceived similar unilateral interventions by other powerful actors, an item that was emphasized by Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations in a speech in which he rejected Russia’s actions in Ukraine that included the recognition of the self-declared republics in the East.

The situation was not helped by perceived mistreatment of Africans in Ukraine trying to cross to Poland as a result the war. Images of African students being prevented safe passage and the blunder by the western media in presenting Ukrainian refugee crisis as different from others due to their racial make up were treated with contempt not just by Africans but by many in the global south. In fact, the only forceful statement that the African Union released in the early days of the conflict was not condemnation of perpetrators of the war but condemnation when it came to the treatment of Africans. This was viewed as a manifestation of global apartheid.

  • Wrong Messaging, Miscommunication and Perceived Arm-twisting

One of the fundamental pitfalls in the general Western approach in enlisting African support has been the manner in which messaging has been conducted. The assumption that African countries would automatically join efforts to isolate Moscow was met by a sad reality of quiet but widespread resistance. Perceived attempts to arm-twist some countries on the continent through public statements or quiet diplomacy produced the opposite result since the continent lacked any agency in the entire conflict.  Further, statements coming from European leaders speaking to the inhumanity of the crimes committed as unparalleled, including president Zelenskly own description of the Bucha massacre as the worst since the end the second world war was found to be offensive considering Africa’s own predicament. Whereas massive atrocities have been committed in Ukraine that border on crimes against humanity and even genocide, the complete lack of appreciation of Africa’s own experience, past and present denied Ukraine the natural African solidarity over what is happening there.

Similarly, the narrative domination by the West over the conflict in Ukraine has denied Ukraine the agency to speak directly to Africans to the extent that Russia- Ukraine conflict is largely understood as Russia Vs West conflict. It is no wonder that during president Zelensky’s address to the African Union, only a handful of African leaders were there to listen to him. Finally, perceived Western obsession with a single conflict, despite it deserving of attention, is  seen to relegate the seriousness of similar crises, a sentiment that was recently shared by  the prime minister of  Barbados and the International Relations  minister of South Africa during the recently concluded  77th  session of the United Nations General Assembly.


  • Towards Improved EU- Africa Relations

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposes the fundamental flaw of the trend of unilateralism by powerful states against less powerful states in the international system. Fundamentally, it challenges the rules- based international order which has been under assault for sometime now. Such assault threatens the peace and security of the world and destroys the hopes of building more open, free and democratic societies. That the new world order is at hand occasioned by the rise of the rest is not in doubt. The question for free thinkers is, what type of world do we seek to build? Changes in the international system that leads to multipolarity tend to create a period of chaos such as the one we are confronting today. Appropriate responses should therefore be based not on hysteria but on a well thought out strategy that involves working with like-minded actors to build a more hopeful future.

In the Africa-EU dynamic, it will involve an honest exchange of ideas and an understanding of peculiar interest as well as concerns of each partner. A strategy is that devoid of history and current realities may often appear politically correct but will be unlikely to deliver the kind of cooperation that is needed to confront present dangers. On the Ukrainian conflict, a paradigm shift is not only necessary, it will be fundamental to improved EU- Africa relations not only on the Russo-Ukrainian issue but many related human and geopolitical issues. Today, Africa largely prefers a non-aligned position on the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, favors a diplomatic solution to the conflict and is averse to the prospect of continued conflict that has exacerbated the already weakened post- pandemic economies from which they haven’t recovered. Economic pressures are also not only fueling the rise of right-wing groups in some Western countries, they are also inspiring populist and revolutionary movements and leadership across the global south with an authoritarian streak.  Meeting African countries halfway and addressing some of the perceived western policy contradictions will go a long way in rebuilding trust and confidence for a more cooperative arrangement that can address the current conflict challenges as well as post- conflict reconstruction and justice mechanisms.  Hysteria in no substitute for policy, neither can passion for a just cause be an alternative to effective strategy.