The War in Ukraine and How Africa Surprised the West

by Ted Snyder, published on, April 3, 2023

On March 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow. The meeting, at which the two leaders “reaffirm[ed] the special nature of the Russia-China partnership” may be a crucial moment in the emergence of the new multipolar world that is challenging US hegemony.

But while the US and its European partners watched and worried about the meeting with XI, Putin was busy shuttling between that meeting and a conference of the representatives from more than forty African countries. The conference was called Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World. Moscow was bristling that day with the signs of a changing multipolar world.

The African response to the war in Ukraine surprised the US and Europe. Not one country in Africa has joined the US led sanctions on Russia and the dominant stance of the continent has been neutrality. The US and its European allies expected strong support from Africa and strong condemnation of Russia. Instead, they got neutrality from most, a lack of condemnation of Russia from many, and the blame being placed on the US and NATO by several.

At the conference in Moscow, Putin was warmly greeted by the delegates. He called the conference “important in the context of the continued development of Russia’s multifaceted cooperation with the countries of the African continent” and said “[t]he partnership between Russia and African countries has gained additional momentum and is reaching a whole new level.” He promised that Russia “has always and will always consider cooperation with African states a priority.” The tone was very different from what Africa hears from the US and Europe. The effect has been very different too.

The representatives of many of the African countries attending the conference on Russia and Africa in a multipolar world joined Putin in the call for that new world. The representatives from South Africa and The Congo said their countries support a multipolar world, as did the representatives from Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe, Mali, and more.

Africa’s answer of neutrality is not the continent declining to take a position. It is the powerful new stance that you do not have to choose a side in world where you can partner with may poles, in a world where you don’t have to fall in behind the US in a unipolar world or choose between blocs in a new Cold War.

The US exerted intense pressure on Africa to support US led sanctions. The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told African countries that “if a country decides to engage with Russia, where there are sanctions, then they are breaking those sanctions” and warned them that if they do break those sanctions “They stand the chance of having actions taken against them.” Nonetheless, not one African country has sanctioned Russia.

In July 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to South Africa to warn Pretoria away from cooperating with Russia and to win US support. It did not go well. In September 2022, President Biden met with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in an attempt to persuade the country seen as leading African neutrality and the refusal to condemn Russia. That did not go any better. South Africa has rejected the US led sanctions on Russia and has abstained from voting against Russia at the UN. On January 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in South Africa for talks aimed at strengthening their relationship. In February, South Africa, ignoring criticism from the US and the EU, held joint military training exercises with Russia and China of its coast. The South African National Defense Force said that the drills are a “means to strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.”

On June 3, 2022, Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, was accompanied by African Union Commission Chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat on a trip to Moscow. This defiance of the Western isolation of Russia was especially worrisome for Washington and the West because Macky Sall is not only the president of Senegal but the current chairman of the African Union. According to Olayinka Ajala, in an article called “The Case for Neutrality: Understanding African Stances on the Russia-Ukraine Conflict,” Washington and the West have wondered whether Sall’s stance should be interpreted as representing the stance of Africa as a whole.

Though much of Africa has remained neutral and all of Africa has stayed out of the sanctions, Ajala says the stance of several African countries may be especially important. He singles out South Africa, Namibia and Senegal.

Along with Russia, China, India and Brazil, South Africa is a member of BRICS, an international organization intended to balance US hegemony and advance a multipolar world. Egypt, Nigeria and Senegal were recently welcomed as guests at the BRICS Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. Ajala reports that South African President Ramaphosa has said that “his country has been pressured to take a ‘very adversarial stance against Russia’.” Ramaphosa not only repelled that pressure and insisted, instead, on negotiations, but blamed the US and NATO. He told the South African parliament that “The war could have been avoided if NATO had heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region.”

In a war that Biden has framed as a battle of democracy versus autocracy, Ajala says that Senegal’s neutrality is significant because it is “one of the most established democracies on the continent” and a “key ally.” Senegal’s significance is amplified by its president’s role as the chair of the African Union.

Namibia stands out, according to Ajala, because, like South Africa, it has been seen by the US as a long-term ally.

There are many reasons for Africa’s predominantly neutral stance and defense of a multipolar world. Not least is that Africa finds it hard to buy into America’s message of Russia as the historical villain who dismisses international law and disrespects other countries’ sovereignty and America as the hero who protects them. Africa remembers colonialism and neocolonialism; Africa remembers US coups.

In his address to the Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World conference, Putin reminded his audience that “Ever since the African peoples’ heroic struggle for independence, it has been common knowledge that the Soviet Union provided significant support to the peoples of Africa in their fight against colonialism, racism and apartheid.” He then provided the update that “today, the Russian Federation continues its policy of providing the continent with support and assistance.”

His receptive audience agreed. A representative from South Africa remembered that “Russia has no colonial heritage in Africa and no African country sees Russia as an enemy. On the contrary, you helped us in our liberation, you are a reliable partner.” A representative from the Republic of Congo remembered that “Relations between Russia and Africa became special during the period of struggle for independence, when the Soviet Union was the main force supporting the national liberation movements. Thus, the USSR became the defender of the oppressed. Then it was the USSR, and now it is Russia taking a special place among the friends of Congo in difficult times.” A representative from Namibia said that his country would always be grateful to Russia and appreciate its support.

There is a long remembered history, however, of American and European colonialism. In March, during a joint press conference, Felix Tshisekedi, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, found it necessary to scold French President Emmanuel Macron, telling him that “This must change, the way Europe and France treat us, you must begin to respect us and see Africa in a different way. You have to stop treating us and talking to us in a paternalistic tone. As if you were already absolutely right and we were not.”

Ajala quotes a scholar on Eritrean-Soviet relations as saying that the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front “always considered the Soviet Union as a strategic ally against imperialism and saw America as its number one enemy.”

In a reversal of the official narrative, in Africa, with its history of colonialism, it is not hard to see the US and Europe as the villain and Russia as the hero.

And, as blatant colonialism has been replaced by subtle neocolonialism, nothing has changed. Neocolonialism is colonialism imposed without formal rule. It is colonialism carried out, not by controlling a country’s territory, but by controlling its economy. In 1965, Kwame Nkrumah, the president of Ghana, said that “neo-colonialism is the worst form of imperialism.” He explained that “foreign capital is used for the exploitation, rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world.” A few months later, in 1966, Nkrumah was taken out in a military coup that was backed by the US.

An IMF senior economist who designed structural adjustment programs in Latin America and Africa would later confess that “everything we did from 1983 onward was based on our new sense of mission to have the south ‘privatize’ or die; towards this end we ignominiously created economic bedlam in Latin America and Africa. . . .

Nkrumah’s coup was nothing new. Africans also remember the coup in Congo in which Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. As colonialism gave way to neocolonialism, coups gave way to contemporary coups. According to Nick Turse, since 2008, US-trained officers have attempted at least nine coups in West Africa.

While Russia partners with Africa, the US continues to chart its neocolonial course. On April 27, 2022, the US House of Representatives passed the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act. Ajala explains that the bill was designed to punish African governments who cooperate with Russia in partnerships that undermine US interests. It was just a modern example of colonialism in which the US uses its power to dominate and dictate to Africa. It was meant to compel African countries onto America’s side.

It didn’t work. In August, The Southern African Development Community’s summit of Heads of State
vehemently expressed their collective opposition” to the US Act and, Ajala reports, reaffirmed their collective position of neutrality in conflicts that are outside Africa.

There are a number of other contemporary motivations for African neutrality. The most important is the support for a multipolar world. But many African countries also see the war in Ukraine as yet another incarnation of a cold war proxy war between NATO and Russia in which entanglement brings no benefit.

There is also the matter of military ties. Several African countries are reliant on Russia for the weapons they use to fight off insurgencies and for national defense.

Though the mainstream media often stresses the military motivation, it is but one of many motivations. In addition to multipolarity, colonialism and coups, the unattractiveness of involvement in a proxy war and military ties, there are a number of other contributing motivations.

Many African countries enjoy growing economic relations with Russia. In his address to the Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World conference, Putin stressed growing partnerships in electricity, nuclear energy, communication and transportation.

In 2019, the first Russian-African summit was attended by every one of the fifty-four African countries. The head of state of forty-five of them attended. Putin said it “was very productive and noticeably invigorated our ties with African states.” “What is particularly striking,” according to Ajala, “is the position held by Russia to give support to African countries without interfering in local politics.” This approach is very different from the West’s policy of dictating ideological alignment or economic or political structural adjustments that “privatized” the South and “created economic bedlam” in Africa.

African countries have also complained of discrimination and neglect by the West. COVID didn’t help. While wealthy western nations sat on their vaccine stocks or disposed of unused, expired vaccines, neglected African countries, who thought they could count on the West, turned to China and Russia. Putin reminded the delegates of the Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World that “[d]uring the coronavirus pandemic, Russia was among the first countries to provide African states with large volumes of vaccines, test kits, personal protective equipment, and other medical and humanitarian cargoes.” Ajala says that the “perceived lack of support from the West during the pandemic further pushed African countries away from their traditional western allies.”

With the onset of the war in Ukraine, Africa was again reminded of the discrimination and neglect. The continent was critical of the apparently discriminatory treatment of Africans and other black people when it came to evacuation and safety. “Africans trying to escape Ukraine were being racially discriminated against,” Euronews reported. Africans were prevented from boarding busses and trains and experienced physical abuse.  Ajala reports that “About 16,000 African students trying to flee the war were denied admission to trains and were not given food while Ukrainians traveling with them were treated differently.” The International Journal of Public Health reports that the average time for people of color to cross borders is longer compared to Ukrainians. Once across the border they “find it more difficult to find temporary housing and assistance in European countries.” It also points out that European countries were “welcoming White Ukrainian refugees without hesitation” while they had “historically blocking entry to refugees of color from varying countries.”

The UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner noted “with serious concern the reports of officials preventing Africans from crossing the Ukrainian border, denying Africans entry to busses and trains “until all white migrants and asylum seeker have been accommodated,” and denying “entry for people of African descent into some neighboring countries.” Several African countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Gabon, have condemned the discriminatory treatment, and the African Union and the African Union Commission issued a statement saying that they “are particularly disturbed” by the discriminatory treatment and that “Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach international law.”

The war in Ukraine has forced African countries to complain, not only of discrimination, but of neglect. Several African countries are dependent on Russia and Ukraine for wheat and fertilizer. The war has threatened their food security. So, they were greatly relieved by the deal signed in Istanbul by Russia and Ukraine to permit the safe export of grain from Ukrainian ports. But, as Putin reminded the delegates at the Moscow conference, “about 45 percent of the total volume of grain exported from Ukraine went to European countries, and only three percent went to Africa . . . despite the fact that this whole deal was presented under the pretext of ensuring the interests of African countries.”

According to the UN, as of the earlier date of July 2022, 36% had gone to European countries and 17% had reached Africa. Though a little better than Putin’s statistics, the difference is unlikely to impress Africans. At that time, only a very small amount of food specifically shipped under the World Food Program had reached Africa. Reuters reported on March 20 that “African countries have benefited indirectly as increased supply has helped drive down global grain prices,” while “the main destinations for grain shipped under the deal have been China, Spain and Turkey.”

Putin contrasted the West’s treatment of Africa with the “almost 12 million tonnes [of grain] . . . sent from Russia to Africa.” In November, 2022, Russia agreed to send grain to some Russian countries for free. Ajala says Russia’s willingness to donate grain to Africa “can perhaps be seen as highlighting the desirability of a neutral stance towards the war in Ukraine.” Putin promised the representatives of African countries at the conference that if the grain deal is not extended, “Russia will be ready to supply the same amount that was delivered under the deal, from Russia to the African countries in great need, at no expense.”

This neglect and discrimination, together with aid and support, economic partnership free of ideological dictates, military ties and a continuing history of colonialism and coups has encouraged much of Africa to withhold both support for US led sanctions and condemnation of Russia. To the surprise and concern of the US and Europe, the predominant response of Africa to the war in Ukraine has been neutrality and growing support for a multipolar world.

*Featured Image: President Putin of Russia enjoying a very human moment with President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa at a conference Putin organized in 2019.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.

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