Africa and Ukraine
Posted on 28th February, 2022 in Director's Blog
African leaders, forty of them at Head of State or Government level, returned from the EU-AU Summit in Brussels on 17-18 February. Big issues were discussed – and I will return to them below – but scarcely had they landed back home when the world was turned upside-down by an event many had thought inconceivable even months ago: the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
African leaders have been swift to comment on the situation. The powerful statement to the Security Council by the Kenyan Ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, and the immediate condemnation from the African Union were followed by all three African members of the Security Council (Kenya, Gabon and Ghana) voting to in favour of the critical resolution vetoed by Russia. Even traditional friends of Russia like South Africa have spoken out against it. All recognised that Africa has major interests at stake in this conflict. Not that African countries risk a Russian invasion: Putin has little interest in the continent other than an opportunistic wish to stir up trouble, sell weapons and protect clients (in the CAR, Libya or Mali). The concern is that the war in Ukraine imperils the very world order that has allowed African nations to exist independently and promote their interests at the global level.
The United Nations is the embodiment of that order. All African countries belong. A network of global institutions in which they are represented exists under or alongside it. They may not feel they have a fully equal voice in the world (something the Society actively seeks to rectify), but they have a place, a voice and a vote.
Putin’s world view, increasingly shared it seems by China’s President Xi, is that you are either his client, his ally or his enemy, and that differences with the latter can be settled by force. Putin has fought a succession of wars – in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine – to ‘restore’ Russia’s position in the world, while ruthlessly eliminating opposition at home. He is entirely content for his own people and his neighbours to live in poverty and fear. Prosperous democratic neighbours are nothing but a threat, to be forced into subservience like Belarus.
So the international rule of law, a cornerstone of the UN system – wobbly perhaps, but still there – would be replaced by the rule of power, the law of the jungle: the Anarchical Society as one political scientist called it.
One need only look at the wreckage Russian intervention has visited on Syria to understand what Putin means by power and how he intends to use it. The fate of individual people, their wellbeing and livelihood, are wholly irrelevant. Control is all that matters. In unleashing the forces of disorder on the world, his aim is that the world becomes unsafe for democracies and incapable of development. It forces all countries to focus more of their resources and their foreign policies on the overwhelming need for security. Many African leaders will remember that the Cold War was not kind to Africa: in too many countries it was not ‘cold’ at all, and elsewhere led foreign powers to turn a blind eye to corruption and bad governance.
Already the invasion is having negative economic consequences for Africa, as Patrick Smith of Africa Confidential explained to the BBC, with a risk of price rises for basic food imports and the loss of some key export markets. The rising oil price may encourage investment in the longer run but is tough for energy consumers today.
So the invasion of Ukraine is bad news for Africa. With security now top priority, who will provide the hundreds of billions of dollars to adapt to climate change, deliver health programmes, and redress Africa’s infrastructure and energy deficits?
Which brings us back to the AU-EU Summit.
Far from becoming irrelevant, it has become much more important. The Joint Declaration’s commitment “to promote effective multilateralism within the rule-based international order, with the UN at its core” has suddenly acquired particular resonance.
There were disagreements, of course. No such meeting exists, if it is to be meaningful, without difficult issues to negotiate. On migration and access to pharmaceutical IP, compromises were reached that, while not ideal, enabled African arguments for more equitable outcomes to be heard and included. The EU pledged €150 billion for the Global Gateway scheme to support infrastructure spending, explicitly to provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road funds. Some may scoff at its claim to be a partnership of equals, but there is genuine listening on both sides, and genuine support for Africa’s own policy priorities. More than that, it strengthens Africa’s aspiration to speak with a collective voice on the world stage. The African Union may be institutionally weak compared to the European Union, but the two groups come together collectively, and both are the stronger for it.
There are no such negotiations at FOCAC, China’s equivalent encounter with African leaders. Grateful clients come to the emperor’s court to receive whatever largesse he is pleased to grant them and sign whatever contracts have been provided. There is solidarity and investment, but no real equality.
‘The West’, as a shorthand for the liberal capitalist democracies of the world, for Europe and North America and those who share this philosophy, has been much criticised in Africa. The terms of decolonisation may have been unequal, the legacy of colonial rule a hindrance more than a help to political and economic development, and a relationship dominated by aid and migration is not a balanced one.
But for many African countries and especially for African people, as Afrobarometer has regularly confirmed, the aspiration to a more prosperous and more democratic future is powerful. And it is an aspiration it shares with the West and which Russia explicitly wishes to undermine. Our interests, political and material, coincide. If there is to be an economic transformation in Africa, Europe as the nearest neighbour, biggest market, biggest investor and preferred migration destination, will have a central role to play.
So Africa and Europe must hang together on Ukraine, for surely they will hang separately if they do not. The cost of a weakened and subverted international system will be felt in Africa as much as anywhere. Aspiring strongmen, autocrats and jihadists would all take strength from a Russian victory in Ukraine.
And where is Britain in all this? On the margins. It was not present at the Brussels summit. No African leaders chose to transit London on their way there or back. The Prime Minister seems to have no time in his busy schedule for Britain’s African partners. It confirms the African view that Britain’s role in Europe and Africa is fading. On Ukraine sanctions, it is the EU and US that count. On aid it is cutting back where others are stepping up. It need not be so. Britain can still be a crucial player on both continents. But it needs to join the party, not hold one on its own in No 10.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.