By John Ikani
African countries are increasingly leaning on a neutral position in the Russia-Ukraine War as proven by the manner they voted on Russia’s Suspension From UN Human Rights Council.
On Thursday, the UN General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council over reports of “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights” by invading Russian troops in Ukraine.
How Africa voted on condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March
Out of 193 member states, 141 voted in support of the resolution, five voted against, 35 abstained and 12 didn’t vote at all. Of the 54 African member states, Eritrea voted against the resolution, 16 African countries including South Africa abstained, while nine other countries did not vote at all.
In all about half (26) of the 54 member states in Africa chose the path of neutrality in some form.
How Africa voted on suspending Russia from UN’s Human Rights Council In April
Out of 54 nations on the continent, 24 abstained, including Angola, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.
Nine voted against the move, including Algeria and Ethiopia, which have both had historically good relations with Moscow. Another 11 had no vote recorded.
Only 10 countries backed the suspension of Russian from the 47-member HRC. They include Chad, Comoros, the Democratic republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Libya, Malawi and Seychelles.
Why African countries didn’t vote overwhelmingly to support both resolutions
According to Olayinka Ajala, Nigerian Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Leeds Beckett University, “the decision of several African countries to stay neutral and avoid condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine was made on issues relating directly to the conflict as well as broader security, economic and political considerations.”
The university don posits that “African countries based their decisions on strategic calculations on how the conflict will affect them rather than on the humanitarian catastrophe arising from the conflict. This is in contrast to the European Union which has been able to converge and take a unanimous stance on the conflict.”
Ajala listed four key reasons of Africa’s neutrality to include:
• Scepticism towards the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and its motives.
“First, some African countries including South Africa see NATO as the aggressor with its expansion eastwards. This, in the view of these countries, constitutes a threat to Russia. The president of South Africa recently blamed the organisation for the war in Ukraine stating:
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.
“This is not the first time African countries have been sceptical of NATO’s activities. In 2012, the former president of Namibia (another country which abstained from the vote) argued that NATO’s overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi should be condemned and rejected by all right thinking Africans.
“The invasion of Libya and the subsequent killing of Gaddafi resulted in destabilisation in North Africa and the Sahel. The result is that NATO has become quite unpopular in several African countries.”
• Growing reliance among some countries on Moscow for military support in the past decade.
“Second, in the last decade, several African countries such as Libya, Ethiopia, Mali and Nigeria have developed significant military alliances with Russia. Several African countries have depended on Russia to combat insurgencies. This has ranged from hiring private military contractors from Russia such as the Wagner group to direct arms imports.
“Russia’s lack of emphasis on adherence to human rights has shifted many countries in Africa to building military alliances with it. For instance, in 2014 when the United States refused to sell certain weapons to Nigeria due to gross human rights abuses recorded in the fight against Boko Haram, Nigeria turned to other countries including Russia and Pakistan for arms supply.
“In 2021, Russia signed military cooperation agreements with Nigeria and Ethiopia, the two most populous countries in Africa.
“The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that Russia sold 18% of the total arms it produced to Africa between 2016 and 2020. Some of these military alliances have been in existence since the Soviet era and are deeply entrenched.”
• Growing dependence on wheat and fertiliser imports.
“Third, several African countries depend on Russia for wheat and fertilisers. This has deepened economic ties. The figures from the UN conference on trade and development show that African countries imported wheat from Russia and Ukraine worth about US$5.1 billion between 2018 and 2020. A quarter of African countries depend on the two countries for a third of their wheat consumption.
“Russia accounts for 16% of global wheat production, and 13% of fertiliser production. African countries, already reeling from the impact of COVID-19 are sceptical about cutting any trade links.”
• A sense that this is a return of the Cold War.
“Fourth, some African countries see the conflict as a proxy war between US and Russia, reminiscence of the Cold War and so don’t want to get entangled in the conflict.
“The Cold War brought untold hardship to several African countries as it happened when most of the countries in Africa were gaining independence and needed to align with one of the blocs. Several civil wars ensued. It therefore seems right to some African countries to stay neutral at this point.”
Other fuelling factors.
“In addition, the perceived lack of support from the west during the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted many African countries further away from their traditional western allies in Europe and America
“Furthermore, China, a major ally to several African countries has towed this line. As a result some of its allies in Africa chose the same path.
“Finally, there’s an increasing perception in several African countries that traditional western allies only care about their own economies and people, and would only assist if it is in their interest or falls within the liberal agenda.
“For instance, since the impact of sanctions on Russia started driving up commodity prices, the US has turned to Venezuela while the UK has turned to Saudi Arabia to increase oil production and reduce the burdens of citizens at home.
“There has been no mention on how African countries are affected, or how to help countries on the continent whose economies are struggling. This brings back memories of the lackadaisical support received from the west during the pandemic. And it further reinstates the need to be neutral – or in some cases not to be dictated to.”
Condemnation of Africa’s neutrality on Russia-Ukraine war
While Africans are criticizing their governments for their neutral position on both United Nations resolutions against Russia, the only high profile condemnation so far was from US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
In March, Linda decried African States neutrality on the war in Ukraine, stressing that nations of the second largest continent must not continue to sit on the fence.
The ambassador who stressed there could be no neutral ground, explained that the ongoing crisis was not simply a Cold War competition between the West and Russia.