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Russian war with Ukraine: Five reasons why many African countries choose to be ‘neutral’

By Olayinka Ajala

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.

So why did African countries not vote overwhelmingly to support the resolution?

There are five key reasons: these include skepticism towards the North Atlantic Treat Alliance (NATO), and its motives; growing reliance among some countries on Moscow for military support past decade; growing dependence on wheat and fertilizer imports; and a sense that this is a return of the Cold War.

African countries have 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. 

The driving arguments

First, some African countries including South Africa see the 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 NATO 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 skeptical 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 destabilization in North Africa and the Sahel. The result is that NATO has become quite unpopular in several African countries.

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.

The lack of emphasis on adherence to human rights has shifted many countries in Africa to building military alliances with Russia. 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.

Third, several African countries depend on Russia for wheat and fertilizers. 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 fertilizer production. African countries are already reeling from the impact of COVID-19 are skeptical about cutting any trade links.

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.

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 countries to some stay neutral at this point.

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 is 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.

…And A Reset Is Possible In The Africa/EU relations if Europe changes its attitude

Some African and European leaders at the last AU-EU summit in Abidjan
, Cote d’Ivoire, November 2017.

Summits between the African Union and European Union are essential to setting the big picture agenda of contemporary Africa-EU relations. They also carry weight because of their potential to ensure that African perspectives are also prioritized within the relationship.

Over the past six decades, trade and development has constituted the main basis for interaction between Africa countries, the continent’s institutions, and the EU. The EU remains an important actor in Africa despite the growing interests of other actors such as China, Turkey and the US, among others.

To negotiate and facilitate favorable terms of engagement, summits are important – even essential – diplomatic sites for African leaders. But they are not without their tensions, the main one being the fact that the power balance between the two blocs is wholly unequal.

The EU’s economic and political power in global relations far exceeds Africa’s. Consequently, the EU’s priorities dominate key agreements. Even at the inception of what is now the EU, in 1957, the terms of engagement with African countries were determined without consultation with Africans themselves. The EU has refused to check the power hierarchies that keep alienating Africans. The difference in approach to dealing with the pandemic further underscores these tensions.

The persistent power inequalities do not bode well for supposed change. This is why the latest summit presents an urgent opportunity for the EU to convince African decision-makers that – this time – the desire for change can be followed through by action.

The EU of course must agree with the idea that African priorities matter and that they can be mutually beneficial for Africans and Europeans if given a chance.

This attitude benefits the EU’s own aims as a global actor while enhancing Africa-EU relations too.

Summits – what are they good for?

The first summit between the EU and African countries was held in Cairo, Egypt in 2002. It was held on the eve of the formation of the African Union, which replaced the Organization of African Unity.

The summit marked an important milestone in Africa-EU relations.

First, it was engaging Africa as a region outside of the transnational African, Caribbean and Pacific grouping. Significantly, it provided the opening to move the relationship beyond trade and development cooperation. These had reinforced colonial patterns of interaction.

New areas were considered. They included the facilitation of regional integration, science and technology, energy governance, climate change, security, good governance and migration.

This period aligned with changes in both blocs. In Africa this was happening through the formation of the AU. For its part, the EU was developing its own foreign policy practice. This was set out more clearly in its 2003 European Security Strategy.

Underpinning the move towards continent-to-continent engagement was the attempt to reconfigure relations. This was to ensure that the Africa side had a say in defining priorities within the relationship. With the creation of a new continental institution to set collective priorities, the summit reinforced the idea that the power asymmetries that had previously defined relations were coming to an end.

Yet, the opening provided by the summit was not fully realized. Beyond the broader issue areas, the relations remained more or less the same.

The opportunity to revisit the status came once again at the second summit in Lisbon, which launched the Joint Africa-EU Strategy, supported by an Action Plan 2008-2010.

The strategy was more political than previous agreements. It focused on peace and security, democratic governance and human rights, while reinforcing trade and regional integration. It was supported by a narrative that promised greater accountability to citizens and not just decision-makers.

The idea seemed to be that this was a partnership of equals – that the problem of asymmetry had been confronted.

But not much changed as a result of this so-called people-centered partnership. The strategy was all but abandoned as a governance framework for Africa-EU relations. The EU appeared to favor the trade and development focused 2000 Cotonou agreement which had gained precedence in the context of existing EU-ACP relations.

Despite the minimal advancements in the scope of the relationship in Cairo and especially in Lisbon, the promise of a true continent-to-continent relationship seemed in the rear-view mirror.

A new dimension was included in 2010 at the third Africa-EU summit, held in Tripoli, Libya. This was the formal integration of civil society into the process of policy development and implementation.

The summit also endorsed the second Action Plan (2011-2013). But the process of getting there brought to a head some of the simmering tensions between the two sides.

For example, the AU refused to sign elements in the second declaration related to climate change commitments. It wanted these deferred. This pushback came at a time of increasing assertiveness on the part of Africa vis-a-vis the EU. Other examples included the AU’s resistance to the EU’s insistence that African countries sign up to the Economic Partnership Agreements.
For some AU states, the EU’s tactics to force this issue illustrated the maintenance of hierarchical colonial relations.

Over the years, summits have been supported by the thematic ministerial-level and annual meetings between the European Commission and the Africa Union Commission as well as ad hoc delegations between European and Pan-African parliaments. These dialogue sites in between summits should have helped deepen trust and moved both sides towards a joint agenda.

However, underpinning the resistance to change is the architecture of engagement which has been forged in colonial hierarchies which unfortunately persist.

Yet, the current state of affairs would suggest they have only reinforced the power asymmetries in the relationship.

Old problems persist 

As the partner with “special” relations with African countries, summits with the EU are especially important as sites for the articulation of African positions and priorities – African agency. Yet, the perception that the EU does not take seriously its own calls to reset or “overhaul” the Africa-EU relationship has created the space for new and close relationships with other actors.

One example of this is the EU insistence on Economic Partnership Agreements, which African countries have consistently resisted on the basis that they undermine Africa’s own regional economic integration plans. This, however, does not dissuade the EU from making them, at times, a condition for further engagement.

Recently, the EU’s approach to the governance of the COVID pandemic is at odds with Africa’s, reinforcing the perceptions that African priorities are either ignored or downplayed.

Reflecting on the summits in Brussels and Abidjan in 2014 and 2017 respectively, this desire for reset remains unrealized – the discussions surrounding this summit feel very much like déjà vu.

Arguably, the potential of the typical Africa-EU summits as sites to deepen the continent-to-continent relationship may be waning.

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