“How Africans voted on the Ukraine War is an indication of the plurality of views [in the continent]. If the weather forecast is a cold front, it is likely immense pressure will be exerted on African countries to choose sides. We know what follows, and we have been there. Better be united and cautious.”
The above quote from Carlos Lopes, a professor at the University of Cape Town, illustrates the impact the war in Ukraine has had on Africa’s international relations. Since February 2022, Russia and the Western powers have increased their presence on the continent. Africa showed a wide range of views on the war, Russia, Ukraine, and the world. Still, a degree of unity can increase the continent’s ability to avoid a concerning trend of being part of global disputes as a proxy.
Africa is a theatre for disputes between the West, China and Russia. In 2022, leaders from Germany, France, the United States, and Russia visited some of their key African allies. Since then, African states were pushed to take sides. While a unified position on every subject is unlikely to happen, this is an opportunity for African states to identify areas of agreement if they want to survive an ideological battleground,
like that of the Cold War.
With an increasing number of African countries facing food security issues, the war has exacerbated an already tenuous situation. It’s directly affected global food supply chains, particularly grains and fertilisers, where Ukraine and Russia are major international players. In April, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) showed that its Food Price Index reached its highest level since the 1990s, which is primarily affecting African countries.
The visit to Russia in June of Senegalese President Macky Sall and AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat shows that when the continent undertakes a coordinated approach,it may gain more leverage. African pressure – exemplified by this visit to Moscow – led to the mediated process by the UN and Turkey to ensure continuous access to grains and fertilisers from Russia and Ukraine. The Black Sea Grains Initiative, often under threat, reduced food prices by 15%, providing essential relief during a period of increasing global inflation.
The war in Ukraine impacted the political ties between African countries, the West and Russia. For Russia, its deteriorating relationship with the West forced a new political offence on the continent, hoping to regain its global influence, exploit new markets, and boost political support. The West aims to counter what it calls “malign influence” from Russia in Africa and created a new impetus to gain Africa’s support.
The sanctions imposed by the West on Russia have created an opportunity in Africa for Russian businesses that lack access to many global markets. With a growing population, massive space for development, and vast resources, the continent is an ideal space for Russian businesses looking to survive.
However, Russia’s trade with Africa is dwarfed by other global powers. With only 14 billion USD in total trade with the continent in 2021, it’s a fraction of what is seen in the West or China.
Economic relations do not reflect the entirety of Africa-Russia connections. Instead, most of Russia’s actions in Africa are of a political or military nature. Over 20 African countries have signed military agreements with Russia in the past decade. Many are facing political instability and armed conflicts. Cameroon, for instance, was one of the latest to sign a military deal with Russia in April 2022. Since 2016, Cameroon has faced a separatist civil war between its francophone and anglophone communities. 44% of all arms traded by African countries came from Russia in 2022, according to the Swedish think tank SIPRI.
In addition to traditional military agreements, Russia is notorious for using mercenaries in conflict zones on the continent.
The Wagner Group, an infamous Russian private military corporation, has played controversial roles in Mali, Sudan, Libya and the Central
African Republic (CAR).
Wagner is accused of assisting Russia by gaining influence by exploiting instability, with several allegations of human rights abuses and economic exploitation. In October 2021, the UN stated that civilians in CAR were harassed and intimidated by Wagner members. Reports allege that the Wagner Group has colluded with Sudan’s military junta to exploit gold mines in the country.
African responses to the war in Ukraine have been far from cohesive. In March and October 2022, the UN General Assembly cast votes on resolutions condemning the invasion of Ukraine and the Russian annexation of four Ukrainian regions.
In March, 26 African countries voted against, abstained or were not in the room during the vote; in October, 24 African countries abstained from voting or were absent from the room. The similar numbers in both votes showcase that the continent showed the most divided within any region regarding the war in Ukraine.
The challenges of using voting patterns to explain African positions is exemplified by South Africa, one of the countries that advocate for an “active non-alignment” approach. South Africa abstained from voting on all resolutions condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine. On the one hand, senior South African officials, including the defence minister, visited Russia during this period. On the other hand, the country also engaged in high-level dialogue with Western countries, including presidential visits to the United States and the United Kingdom in recent months. Is Pretoria hedging its bets?
It’s important to note that the African governments’ engagements in international organisations do not necessarily reflect public opinion. Relationships between African countries and Russia tend to be centralised in high-level interactions. An upcoming paper from the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) reflects on how Africans perceive the role of Russia on the continent. The study assesses sentiments in social media in several African countries, which show that while many in the continent have strong opinions in favour of or against Russia, feelings proved to be largely indifferent.
The future of the African role in international relations amidst a global dispute is difficult to predict. Much will depend on how the Ukrainian war ends and Russia’s overall capabilities to project influence. Regardless of the war’s outcome, it is vital that the continent ensure that it does not become a pawn of global power competition. And for that to happen, African countries must know what they want from their international relationships and promote clear efforts to achieve their goals. (Photo: Russian mercenaries provide security for convoy with the president of the Central African Republic. Clément Di Roma/VOA)
Gustavo de Carvalho
South African Institute of International Affairs.