Almost half of the 40 countries worldwide that did not vote in favor of the resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations General Assembly were from Africa.
It is heartening that some 28 out of the 54 African countries that voted condemned the invasion. But, at 51%, this is hardly a strong majority.
Much of the commentary in the Global South, including in Africa, on Ukraine rests on moral equivalences such as “NATO expanded” or “Russia was lied to’ or ‘the West invaded Iraq.”
While these arguments might sometimes have validity in explaining President Vladimir Putin’s actions, that’s completely different from excusing them.
But Russia has done very well in exploiting this seam between the worlds representing more than 70% of the world’s wealth which supported Ukraine in the U.N. and the 60% of the world’s population which did not.
Ndileka Mandela, for instance, the granddaughter of the late, great South African president recently wrote of the necessity of moral leadership as a unifying force in ending apartheid.
That much we agree with.
But South Africa’s remarkable transition from war to peace also involved the application of sustained pressure from the outside world, strategic-minded leadership that possessed timing and courage, and for the conflicting parties to see that there was more to be gained from settling than continuing the struggle.
Moral authority alone was thus far from enough to deliver South Africa’s democratic transition in 1994. As was the case in South Africa, there are no grounds for ethical ambiguity or equivalence between Russia and Ukraine.
Mandela writes that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s moral authority is in danger of being undermined on account of the treatment of African students at the border with neighboring countries in the early days of the war when there was a rush to leave the country and that these actions have, somehow, endangered peace.
It is in the process forgotten that there were over 9,000 African university students studying in Ukraine before the war, an illustration of solidarity, not racism. This attempt to trivialize the war by exaggerating the hardships experienced by students — who were, by the way, part of a large wave of refugees of all races and many nationalities struggling to get out of Ukraine — should not obscure the fundamental issue, which is that Russia broke international law.
There is no case for the moral ambiguity that she attempts to introduce into the debate.
Just as apartheid ended because it was morally and ethically unacceptable to most South Africans, black and white, the war in Ukraine is a struggle between what is good and bad, right and wrong. It is a result of Russia’s invasion and attempts to capture and occupy Ukraine for its own political and economic purposes. There is consent among democratic nations that Russia instigated, organized and conducted the invasion on spurious grounds.
The Mandela surname should not confer moral authority on an article any more than Putin’s claim of empire confers moral authority on his act of violent colonialism.
It is unfortunate, however, that many politicians try to avoid taking a clear stance on the invasion of Ukraine. There is no conceivable way of squaring the rhetoric of democracy with support for Moscow’s actions.
And in an African context, support for Russia or Ukraine equates to a choice between elites and the general population.
According to regular polling, around two-thirds of Africans prefer democracy to any other form of government. This stance by African leaders, who support Russia’s invasion, puts them at odds with their populace.
There are several reasons for this.
For one, Putin’s form of authoritarianism is appealing to some African incumbents, representing a formula for making money with little chance of being upended at the polls.
There are also lucrative contracts to offer. For instance, the presidency of Jacob Zuma in South Africa was characterized by “state capture,” with Russia at the center of several of such deals, notably around the procurement of nuclear power stations. The Russian company, Rosatom, announced that it had sealed a “strategic partnership” with South Africa in 2014 when Zuma visited the Kremlin. The plan was to build eight nuclear reactors in South Africa with a combined output of 9.6 gigawatts by 2030.
Also, according to documents released to the public, the largest funder to the ruling African National Congress is currently a Russian mining oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, who reputedly enjoys close ties to Putin.
Such opacity characterizes Russian dealings in other African countries, not least the Central African Republic and Mali, where the Wagner private security group has gained a foothold, and in Eritrea where the government is dependent on Russian materiel. Asmara’s government, which has given Eritrea the reputation of Africa’s North Korea, has proven a routine destabilizing force in the Horn of Africa, a thorn in the side of those who seek a path of peace and prosperity.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises many problems for Africa.
If Russia gets away with this invasion, free from condemnation and able to hang onto the territory it has seized, what does this mean for democracy in Africa, the principle of sovereignty, the sanctity of borders, and human rights and basic freedoms? Does this mean that, in the future, might is right in changing boundaries and political regimes? And there are the increasing real costs for Africans given the increase in food, fertilizer and fuel prices that have resulted from the closure of Ukrainian ports.
Given Africa’s colonial history, claims of territory on ethnic and linguistic grounds could result in an endless continent-wide conflagration. There is also the issue of empire: Africans should be wary of the signals they are sending out to those elsewhere on the acceptance of intra-European colonialism.
This war continues because Putin wants it to. This is not in the interests of African people. Peace and the protection of democracy is.
Bobi Wine heads the Ugandan opposition National Unity Platform; Dr. Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation.