Unpacking Africa’s divided stance on the Ukraine war

A lack of principled consistency in solving conflicts makes Africa’s non-aligned position look like short-sighted opportunism.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the United States (US) and European governments have been scrutinising Africa’s reactions. Views from the continent vary from country to country, with many states taking a ‘non-aligned’ position. How should this stance be understood in a multipolar and highly interdependent world?

African votes in the United Nations (UN) on the war revealed sharp divisions between countries. Djibouti endorsed the UN resolution for Russia to end its offensive, while Algeria, Tanzania and South Africa underscored the importance of diplomacy without condemning Russia’s actions. The high number of abstentions was widely interpreted as a sign of Russian influence or evidence of the growing anti-Westernism of African governments and citizens.

This view wrongly assumes that Africa is a political monolith. It also suggests an underlying expectation by the West that states on the continent should align with them because of the West’s pre-eminence in development and humanitarian aid, and their shared historical past.

Does Africa’s tentative stance on the war show a rejection of key African Union (AU) principles, such as respect for territorial integrity, the inviolability of borders and the peaceful settlement of disputes?

African states have a cynical view of a global order whose rules seem to be determined by the West

The joint visit of Senegalese President Macky Sall and AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat to Russia in June increased Western perceptions of a Russia-leaning ‘neutrality’. Sall said his trip aimed to minimise the conflict’s impact on Africa’s supply of agricultural products and fertilisers, but Western diplomats weren’t convinced. The lukewarm reception received by President Volodymyr Zelensky when he addressed the AU’s Bureau of Heads of States fueled perceptions that African countries were indifferent to Ukraine’s occupation.

In recent years, Russia has used various means to disseminate anti-Western propaganda that aligns with African people’s deep anti-colonial and anti-Western resentment. The legacy of 1960s and 1970s Third-Worldism still shapes the views of Africa’s governments and citizens. Russia’s colonial past didn’t extend to Africa, and its backing of some liberation movements means that Russia elicits more support than Ukraine from Africans. Ukraine is often seen as a pawn of the West.

Western surprise at most African countries’ limited emotion towards Russia’s invasion, and Africa’s neutral stance, point to a self-centredness on both sides. The West wants its African partners to share its condemnation of Russia. African states meanwhile cling to their monopoly on victimhood and historical resentment of Western domination in world affairs.

To justify their indifference towards the Ukraine conflict, some African authorities compare it to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq or Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s ousting by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2011. An infringement of international law (Iraq) or a generous interpretation of a UN Security Council resolution (Libya), is considered similar to Russia’s war of occupation in Ukraine – an infringement of the international order.

While some African states propose a rules-based international order, others favour coercion and force

How do African states benefit from proclaiming non-alignment? Although the conflict reveals the extent of the continent’s dependence on grain and fertiliser from Ukraine and Russia, it doesn’t compare with the Western aid that enables African countries to function.

The increasing price of hydrocarbons is affecting Africa’s most fragile states. While European countries imposed sanctions against Russia despite the costs to their energy supplies, many African countries feel less able to adopt a principled and values-based foreign policy.

The divide, however, runs deeper – extending to perceptions about the international order itself. Western states defend a rules-based system in which they are pre-eminent. African states have a more cynical view of a global order whose rules seem to be determined by the West. This difference in outlook may explain Africa’s leniency towards Russia, even though the latter has violated a cardinal AU principle on territorial integrity.

African states’ position is not without contradictions – which isn't surprising given the many norms and values on a continent of 54 states. They aspire to an international order based on rules, not force, while at the same time sympathising with Russia and China, which challenge this order for different reasons.

African divisions on peace and security were already visible in responses to Libya in 2011 and Burundi in 2015

These contradictions illustrate the crisis of African multilateralism. While some countries propose a rules-based international order that favours consistency and predictability, others prefer coercion and force. This suggests a dividing line in the AU, but that line is blurred. For example, while some states pushed for Chad’s suspension from the AU following the unconstitutional transition in April 2021, the same countries pushed back against Zimbabwe’s suspension following the 2018 coup that overthrew late president Robert Mugabe.

Divisions on peace and security were already visible in responses to the 2011 Libyan uprising and the cancellation of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) decision calling for military intervention to stop the 2015 conflict in Burundi.

What would the AU’s reaction be if a powerful African country invaded another? The precedent of the Organization of African Unity’s resounding silence during the military escalation between Cameroon and Nigeria regarding the Bakassi Peninsula in the late 1990s doesn’t foster optimism. Neither does the PSC’s ambiguous position on the maritime dispute between Somalia and Kenya.

Rather than schadenfreude, or the vengeful anti-imperialism that seems to guide many Africans, the Ukraine war should inspire a self-assessment of Africa’s ability to agree on how to solve conflicts. In the absence of principled consistency, non-alignment may look like short-sighted opportunism.

Paul-Simon Handy, ISS Regional Director for East Africa and Representative to the AU and Félicité Djilo, independent researcher

Image: © GovernmentZA

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