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African countries and their national interests in the Russia-Ukraine conflict

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People cross a destroyed bridge as they evacuate the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, during heavy shelling and bombing on March 5, 2022, 10 days after Russia launched a military in vasion on Ukraine. (Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP)

By Shifaan Rykleif

English entomologist William Kirby once said: “You could argue that war is always an irrational act, and yet many states enter into military conflict out of rational calculation or national interest or the stability or longevity of their regime.”

This sentiment couldn’t be more true amid the decision taken by some African countries to abstain from voting on the Russia-Ukraine conflict that has now entered its 132nd day.

On March 2, the United Nations General Assembly convened an emergency session in which countries would vote on a resolution to condemn Russia’s Aggression on Ukraine.

Following the announcement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stressed the need to act swiftly on the situation in Ukraine, adding that “the ticking clock is a time bomb”.

“Looking ahead, I will continue to do everything in my power to contribute to an immediate cessation of hostilities and urgent negotiations for peace,” said Guterres.

At the time of the UNGA meeting, 28 out of the 54 African countries voted in favour of the resolution while 17 African countries abstained and eight African countries did not submit their votes.

Eritrea on the other hand completely voted against the resolution.

Shortly after the resolution, the UN General Assembly convened yet again in a vote to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, of which 58 countries including South Africa, Brazil, India as well as Indonesia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates abstained from the process.

Now five months down the line, some countries are still holding on to their decisions.

Key questions however remain.

  • Will Eritrea’s decision benefit its citizens and if so how?
  • What about those who are perceived to be “sitting on the fence” over the matter, will they go under scrutiny going forward?
  • Is there a handsome reward for those who have voted in favour of the resolution?

One will have to wait and see what emerges out of the Russia-Africa summit scheduled to take place between October-November 2022 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Ukraine’s view of Africa in conflict

During an address to the African Union (AU) recently, Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky warned African officials of food insecurity on the continent and made a bold statement by calling Africa a “hostage” of the war.

Zelensky’s address to the AU came more than two months after his initial request to engage with the continental body which was poorly attended as only four of the 55 heads of states who were invited attended the virtual meeting — those who did not attend sent official representatives.

“Africa is actually a hostage of those who unleashed war against our state,” he has pointed out.

He continued: “This war may seem very distant to you and your countries, but the food prices that are catastrophically rising have already brought the war to the homes of millions of African families.”

Russia’s relationship with Africa

Russia has since expanded its influence and tightened its relationships in Africa over the past few years. According to the BBC, Russia’s involvement in Libya, Mali as well as Mozambique and Ethiopia is aimed at assisting the countries in the fight against rebels.

Looking closer at the invasion of Libya which resulted in the killing of Muammar Gaddafi and the destabilisation of North Africa and the Sahel, many on the continent have rejected the decisions made by Nato.

BRICS partner South Africa has also remained neutral in the conflict and said it hoped for a negotiated solution.

During an address to parliament in March this year, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called out Nato for the war in Ukraine and said the crisis “could have been avoided if Nato had heeded warnings from amongst its own leaders over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region”.

Meanwhile, the renewed Russia-Africa relationship looked to have gained some real momentum following the 2019 Sochi summit where more than 50 African officials attended including 43 heads of state.

Russian President Vladimir Putin alongside African leaders, Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa) and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa at the 2019 Russia–Africa summit in Sochi, Russia Picture: GCIS

At the summit, Putin pledged to boost trade and investment on the continent and reminded the leaders present of the historic ties that stretched back to the days of the USSR.

With this in mind, African nations’ stance toward the conflict is based on strategic calculations rather than on the rising humanitarian crisis.

Russia’s strategic partnerships

Over the past 10 years, several African nations have created significant military alliances with Russia which include the import of arms and the hiring of special military contractors in their bid to combat insurgencies.

Late last year, the Nigerian Embassy in Moscow announced the signing of a legal framework agreement in which Russia would supply Nigeria with military equipment and training.

Ethiopia also penned a military cooperation agreement with Finance Division State Minister of the Ethiopian National Defence Force, Martha Liwij, saying the agreements will have a “paramount significance” in transforming the longstanding relations between the two nations to a higher level.

Outside of military operations and arms, a number of African countries hold deep economic ties with Moscow and depend on its wheat and fertiliser exports.

According to Agri-Pulse which holds comprehensive sources of the latest in agricultural information, Russia accounts for16% of global wheat production and 13% of fertiliser production. And, with the lack of support from traditional western allies in Europe and the United States during the pandemic, many have shifted their support towards Russia.

Any prospect of a peace brokering process any time soon?

Highly unlikely.

In one of its reports, Al Jazeera highlighted that Kyiv has been engaged in “complex negotiations” with Moscow to release its ports from the blockade, with Zelensky adding that “there is no progress yet”.

While it’s evident that oil and petrol prices, as well as food prices, have been impacted by the conflict since it started on February 24.

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is ready to facilitate the export of grain from Ukrainian ports in coordination with Turkey, in order to prevent it from not reaching the global markets.

Yesterday, all indications were that Putin is not yet alive to the idea of holding peace talks at this stage as Russian troops have tightened their grip on some parts of Ukraine, recently being the City of Lysychansk.

Looking forward

Whichever way the pendulum swings in this conflict, Kirby’s comments are seemingly apt.

Indeed, in war, every country’s national interest supersedes emotional attachment.

Ryklief is a multimedia journalist with the African News Agency (ANA). He specialises in world current affairs.

This article is original to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.