African countries are treading warily over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, especially those who have strong ties with Russia.
The continued strong influence of Russia across the continent, particularly in the military space, has persuaded some countries to refrain from condemning its actions.
Divided loyalties were clearly apparent when United Nations (UN) member countries took a vote on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early March.
In total, 28 African countries voted in favour of the UN resolution demanding unconditional Russian troop withdrawal from Ukraine, including major economies like Nigeria, Ghana, and Egypt.
Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Rwanda were also among the 141 nations that voted “Yes.”
But, 17 African countries abstained from voting, including South Africa, Uganda, Mali, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and the Central Africa Republic (CAR).
The day after avoiding the UN vote, Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed issued a statement calling for restraint.
“Ethiopia has abundant lessons to share from its recent engagement in war.
“Our experience has shown the devastating consequence that war inflicts upon families, communities, livelihoods and the economy at large,” he said.
Eritrea, Ethiopia’s previous foe turned ally, which has a deplorable human rights record, was the only African country to vote against the resolution.
Africa’s largest economy South Africa has a complex relationship with Russia.
The ruling ANC party had a long history with the former Soviet Union, which provided military equipment, funding and training to its activists and soldiers during the decades they fought to end apartheid in South Africa. “The history is however complicated as Ukraine was a separate socialist republic forming part of the Soviet Union with its own seat at the United Nations and many ANC members lived, studied and received training in the Ukraine” notes Pieter Steyn, director of Werksmans and Chairperson of LEX Africa.
A statement on the government’s website urges South Africans not to take sides in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as “this could go against our principles. In addition, South Africa has good bilateral relations with both countries.”
This was a complete about turn from the government’s original statement in February, which called on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter.
South Africa’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is further complicated by its membership of the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) bloc of emerging economies, established in 2006.
The split within the African Union (AU) member votes at the UN raises the question of why the block failed to unite in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But, as pointed out by The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in a recent article, voting in the UN is generally motivated by perceived national interests.
And it is misguided to think of African states as a bloc that will step in line with entreaties from Western countries.
PRIO points out that, as of 2020, 64% of AU member states were classified as not fully democratic, 38% as authoritarian, and 26% as a combination of democratic and authoritarian regimes.
“In such a predominantly undemocratic political landscape, aligning with democratic Western nations may appear to many states as a strategically less safe move,” it says.
There are numerous other factors that complicate African countries’ reactions to the war in Ukraine.
These include the fact that Africa’s ties with the West have been tainted with mistrust due to the dark history of slavery and colonialism.
Many Africa states, even those with strong ties with Western nations, may therefore view the West through a lens of suspicion.
On the other hand, it may be argued, that Russia never participated in the 1884 Berlin Conference at which Africa was divided, shared, and colonised by European countries.
It has neither colonised African countries nor looted their resources.
After delaying its return to the continent after the Cold War, Russia has since increased its arms sales to Africa, as well as ventures in mining, and the deployment of the private military group, Wagner.
As widely publicised, trade between Russia and Africa is currently around $20 billion – about 10% of China’s $200 billion – although in 2019 there was talk of it doubling that to $40 billion.
Events such as the US’s withdrawal from Somalia, or France’s withdrawal from Mali, both of which are on the cards, could create a security vacuum that Russia and its forces are likely to fill.
According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia was the largest arms supplier of major conventional weapons such as tanks or fighter aircraft to sub-Saharan Africa between 2016 and 2020.
Many African countries have important relationships with Russia in terms of their access to certain types of defence equipment, which Western nations might not be willing to supply.
Hence their need to stand in solidarity with Russia on the war in Ukraine while finding alternative supplies to maintain their military operations, says SIPRI.
Examples include a helicopter overhaul and maintenance repair facility that Uganda jointly owns with Russia’s Pro-heli International Services, which was launched by President Museveni in late January.
Russia is also known to support African countries with equipment and combat training, in all forms and manifestations, including terrorism.
Countries known to have benefited from Russian support include Sudan, which has been in political crisis since late last year due to a military coup, which led to the resignation of civilian Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok.
Russia has also been expanding its military footprint, largely through military companies like Wagner, in countries like the CAR, Libya, Mali and perhaps beyond, according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria.
Furthermore, a Russian citizen has been appointed to be the national security advisor to CAR’s president, according to the Swedish Defence Research Agency, (FOI).
Opportunities and challenges
Both Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of food commodities such as soya beans, wheat, barley, and sunflower oil to many African countries.
In 2020, African countries imported agricultural products worth $6.9 billion from Russia and Ukraine, according to the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
A protracted war threatens to disrupt this supply and drive up the price of commodities and exacerbate food insecurity and poverty across the continent, it says.
With electricity in short supply in many parts of Africa, there is major dependency on diesel to power generators – from individual consumers to entire industries – and the cost of the fuel has soared.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, but it has minimal refining power, and while the government subsidises the cost of petrol, diesel and aviation fuel are sold at market prices.
And local airlines are warning of looming flight cancellations due to fuel issues.
On the plus side, exporters of fuel and grain will benefit, from rising prices, examples being Nigeria with oil accounting for 95% of its exports, and South Africa as a net exporter of maize.
There is also an opportunity for South Africa and other mineral rich African countries to supply rare minerals to fill part of the vacuum left by Western sanctions against Russia.
Jakkie Cilliers, head of international futures and innovation at ISS notes that Africa could fill the gap in oil and gas supplies to Europe that will open up as it reduces its dependence on Russian energy.
Nigeria, Algeria and Niger recently signed an agreement paving the way for the construction of the 4,128km Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline, which will run through the three countries into Europe.
However, it will take time and investment for projects like this to be completed.
Meanwhile, concerns have been voiced that if left unpunished Putin’s actions will encourage authoritarian rule across the world including Africa where it is already rife.
Others have pointed out that NATO’s protection of democratic values is often marred by economic interest and power play.
The bottom line of all this is that African countries will need to tread carefully in managing their relationships with their various external trading partners to protect their national interests, as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine unfolds.
LEX Africa’s chairperson Pieter Steyn notes that ” the attack on Ukrainian sovereignty is not consistent with a founding principle of the African Union to respect the borders of African states inherited from the colonial era notwithstanding the arbitrary nature of these borders. The regional economic communities in Africa (including COMESA, SADC, ECOWAS, WAEMU, CEMAC and EAC) as well as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) have all involved big and small African states negotiating and agreeing a limitation of their sovereignty as equals to create a rules based system promoting trade, investment and development and strengthening the negotiating position of African states as a bloc when dealing with non-African players. The African approach promotes the rule of law and a global order where might is not right and military force is not an option to protect one’s interests or resolve disputes”.