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Is Africa witnessing a new cold war as the Ukraine conflict drags on?

September 8, 2022 at 8:15 am

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy [Metin Aktaş/Anadolu Agency]

One of the unintended consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, now entering its seven months, is the emergence of new axes and allies rallying behind each other in a way reminiscent of the cold war days. Most world countries have condemned what Moscow calls “Special Operation” in Ukraine, but most also did not go as far as sanctioning Russia for it—a top Western demand from other countries.

On 20 June, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the African Union, but only four heads of African States out of 54 countries, were listening, while the rest were represented by subordinates. Mr. Zelensky, whose video links has become a fixture of the world’s diplomatic calendar, wanted to rally African nations behind Ukraine and against Russia. In his speech, he blamed Russia for the high food prices caused by those who “started the war on our State” the President said.  Africa is highly dependent on grain imports from Ukraine and Russia.

President Zelensky’s attempt did not yield much in terms of reversing African positions of neutrality on the conflict in his country. After all, Ukraine has only ten embassies across Africa compared to Russia’s 40 diplomatic missions on the continent.

Kyiv is neither a military world power nor a United Nations Security Council permanent member, like Moscow. Yet the President tried to charm African leaders by announcing plans for future projects, including “major Ukrainian-African political and economic conference” while reminding African leaders of Ukraine’s contribution to peace keeping missions on the continent. However, all that failed to impress African leaders, as many viewed such a project as being “unrealistic”, as an African diplomat put it.

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Back in March, only 28 African countries voted in favour of UN General Assembly’s resolution calling on Russia to immediately and unconditionally leave Ukrainian territories.  However, that number dropped to only ten when the conflict was discussed at the UN Human Rights Commission with the intention of suspending Russian membership in the UN body.

In general, the African continent’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been rather muted, as African leaders found themselves in a rather difficult position. Condemning Russia could have its own severe consequences, given Moscow’s historical ties to Africa and its current relations with many African countries.

Nearly the entire continent of Africa was colonised by western countries, including major powers like the United Kingdom, France, Italy and others like Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal. Russia does not have any colonial history in any African country; instead most African nations regard it as their main ally in the struggle for independence.

During the Soviet era, most African liberation movements benefitted from Moscow’s political and military support while they fought Western colonial powers. Independence generations and leaders in countries like Angola, Namibia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa are still feeling indebted to Russia.  On top of that, Moscow’s re-engagement in Africa is making a big difference as many African States are now turning to Russia for support against terrorism, development and security.

Russian oil - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Russian oil – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

There was a time when anti-apartheid South African leaders, for example, were shunned by Western countries, while Moscow welcomed them with open arms. This, in part, explains why South Africa, a major continental power, chose to be neutral on the current conflict in Ukraine. In the sixties and seventies, thousands of African students were offered free higher education in Russian universities.

Russia has been revitalising its ties to the continent, as it makes a come back to its former comrades. Today Mali, Cameroon and the African Central Republic are only a few of the African countries that are hosting Russian troops, or Wagner Group’s private military personnel, for training and even combat missions against Jihadists in Mali, for example, replacing the French troops— former colonial master of many West African countries.

In July Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, toured Africa visiting Egypt, the Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia. In a statement published by media outlets in the four countries during the visit, Mr. Lavrov praised Africans for what he called “resisting” the “undisguised attempts of the US and their European satellites” to impose a unipolar world order. Minister Lavrov commended the “independent path” of African countries in steering away from Western sanctions, despite what he described as “unprecedented” Western pressure. The European Union and the US have imposed severe sanctions on his country in the wake of invading Ukraine.

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, even before ordering the invasion of Ukraine, repeatedly spoke of the United States’ policy of dominating the world order – a world view the Russian leader has held ever since he emerged on the world stage. It is in this context that he sees the Ukrainian invasion and, not surprisingly, many African leaders share his view, too.

Western media has been projecting Russia as a new “colonial” power seeking to install a puppet regime in Ukraine and would, certainly, replicate that model in Africa as it seeks to carve out its spheres of interests, particularly in Africa. That might be true but Moscow, in the eyes of many Africans, is pursuing its own interests just like Western powers did, and still do even today, offering help with little strings attached.

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However, many Africans have not yet forgotten that Western powers used that policy in many African countries. It is no secret that France, for example, used to organise overnight coups that installed its own puppets in countries like Mali, Ivory Coast and others.  But, if Russia is intending to do the same, it is yet to be proven.

What Moscow is doing in Africa is simply reclaiming what it sees as inherited interests dating back to the Soviet era.

For now, though, Africans believe the war in Ukraine is not their war and they are better off to remain neutral in a conflict that is, indeed, hurting much of the world, including Africa, at least in the energy and food sectors.

However, the conflict in Ukraine could be an opportunity for Africa to assert itself on the world stage, particularly as the issue of reforming the UN is coming up in this month’s UN General Assembly meetings. Moscow, unlike many Western capitals, is likely to be more supportive of any common African position adopted on the issue, including allocating Africa a permanent UN Security Council seat.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.