DM: 'African support of Russian invasion extraordinary after the continent’s colonial past'

Published 25 July 2022 in Insights

Daily Maverick

'African support of Russian invasion extraordinary after the continent’s colonial past'

By Greg Mills

Daily Maverick - Op-Ed

Published 24 July 2022


Many Africans seem ambivalent about Putin’s attempts to recreate Russia’s empire, even though colonialism caused the African continent so much personal pain and injury, and seeded state dysfunction. Liberation struggles should be worthy of support, in Europe as in Africa.

'A reminder in Kyiv of the cost of war. (Photo: Greg Mills)'

No nation has the right to make decisions for another nation; no people for another people.” These were the words of Tanzanian President Julius Kambarage Nyerere on colonialism in January 1968. Such perspectives have apparently been forgotten in responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Amid confusingly contrarian reports how Russia is “about to run out of steam” in its invasion of Ukraine, how Russia is openly no longer “limiting its war aims” to Ukraine’s eastern areas, and the grain shipment deal agreed on by Kyiv and Moscow followed immediately by Russian missile-strikes on the Odesa port, one African contradiction stands out: Why, in the face of an obvious abrogation of human rights and international law by Russia, do many African states refuse to take the side of Ukraine?

'A memorial in Borodianka to Ukrainian soldiers who served in Afghanistan, now destroyed by Russian forces. (Photo: Greg Mills)'

The answer may have to do with opportunism.

The South African Department of International Relations and Co-operation has examined how South African businesses can profit by plugging the holes created by Ukraine’s absence, for instance. 

It may be speculative, for example over possible gas or nuclear deals with South Africa. It may have to do with naked self-interest: the potential financial support of the ANC by Russian oligarchs is one illustration, as is the role of the Wagner private military company in Mali and the Central African Republic.

It may be down to past favours, and succour for liberation movements, even though Ukraine is as much an inheritor of the obligations of Soviet assistance as Russia.

'Russian casualties in Ukraine are conservatively estimated at 60,000 including 15,000 combat deaths. (Photo: Greg Mills)'

It may be down to current ideological empathies, in terms of Russia’s role in supposedly supporting the global “south” through the BRICS, for one, and staying on the side of China which has taken an ambiguous if supposedly neutral position. Such ideological tendencies may also reflect in an enduring anti-Western sentiment, a legacy of the Cold War and empire. Some African countries may just be unwilling to engage, given the enormity of the problems that they face themselves at home.

Blind spot

The extent to which all these traits and reasons are present in the foreign policy calculations of African leaders should not obscure their apparent blind spot when it comes to Russia’s motives, one which should resonate particularly with Africa.

President Vladimir Putin’s move on Ukraine has been designed to roll back the clock and re-establish Russia as a great power. To do so, he needs Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe (after France), and rich in agriculture and natural resources. To recreate, what William Burns, the CIA director, has described as a “sphere of influence in Russia’s neighbourhood”, Putin needs at least to control Ukraine, preferably by making it part of Russia and destroying Ukrainian culture.

'Russian positions outside Kyiv were abandoned as the war swung east. (Photo: Greg Mills)'

This is akin, however, to France attempting to take back Algeria, no matter the views of Algerians; or closer to home, Rwanda the Kivus in protection of the Banyamulenge and other Tutsi affiliates, and Lesotho parts of the Free State. If these are political non-starters, why do we turn a blind eye to Ukraine?

The extraordinary thing is that many Africans seem ambivalent about Putin’s attempts to recreate Russia’s empire, even though colonialism caused the African continent so much personal pain and injury, and seeded state dysfunction. As Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of a democratic Congo said about colonialism: “Without dignity there is no liberty, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence, there are no free men”.

Ambivalence

The question is, will this ambivalence cost Africa?