Africa Reacts to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is a history-altering event with implications for every region—and every nation state—on Earth. While the CSIS Africa Program has published some early thoughts on how the conflict might impact Africa, we wanted to hear from Africans themselves. Naturally, we decided to put together another edition of the “Africa Reacts” series, where we ask prominent African journalists, civil society activists, and thought leaders to share their analysis on U.S. and global developments.

In this installment, analysts raised issues of territorial integrity—tying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to colonial domination of African states—and noted that Putin’s unpunished actions will create precedent for autocrats across the world. Some reacted to the racism experienced by Black and African people attempting to escape Ukraine and Russia, and others warned that NATO’s protection of democratic values is often marred by economic interest and great power competition.

Read the previous installments of the Africa Reacts series here.

The contributions in this commentary have been edited by the CSIS Africa Program for brevity and clarity.

Simon Allison, Editor in Chief, The Continent (@simonallison)

America’s catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan shattered the illusion that the United States is the world’s policeman—and ruptured the global order it ostensibly protected. Until a new order asserts itself, autocrats everywhere know they can push the limits, and there is little to no appetite to stop them. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is just the highest-profile example of a trend that we’ve become all too familiar with in the developing world (see also Myanmar, Ethiopia, and the recent spate of coups in West Africa). That’s why the international response is so important: other leaders will be watching closely to see exactly how much they can get away with.

International development professional (name withheld due to employer request)

Amid the bloody conflict currently happening in Ukraine, discrimination by race among forcibly displaced people desperately looking for a shelter in neighboring countries in Eastern Europe, namely in Poland, is unacceptable. Over the past few days, numerous human rights violations targeting African natives have been reported at the border of Ukraine with Black and African immigrants fleeing civil war being systematically push back and denied entry. The African Union should liaise with the European Union, NATO, and humanitarian organizations to take immediate corrective actions and guarantee equal treatment between Black and white displaced people to restore equity.

Golden Matonga, Malawian Journalist (@GoldenMatonga)

Big nations and big militaries invading smaller nations sends a chilling effect across Africa primarily because the continent has suffered occupation, colonialism, slavery, and other injustices for centuries and knows too well the pain and humiliation of being brutalized by selfish outsiders. Russia's unprovoked aggression against Ukraine raises questions about whether a shift in the global balance of power will preclude an end to the rules-based system and reminds us that “smaller” (less powerful) countries, like the majority in Africa, will constantly be at the mercy of the powerful. The immediate concerns, however, are whether the war will spill out of control and how it will affect the global economy already battered by Covid-19, which left African economies with a bloodied nose. The absence of a clear voice of opposition to the Russian aggression from the continent, with the exception of the Kenyan government, is worrying.

Musa Balarabe Musa, Population and Development Specialist, Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria (@babs_musa)

What role can NATO play in the crisis? Can Biden respond in ways that previous U.S. presidents have in Iraq, Libya, and Syria? What is the difference between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s occupation of Palestine? The U.S. level of commitment to saving Ukraine will determine if there is going to be another world war. But does the United States have the capacity to contain the nuclear threat? What stops Biden from employing the same machineries of NATO to reduce crises in Africa and the Middle East? When it comes to Africa, none of the countries have the political, economic, or military relevance to be directly involved, especially with the rise of armed conflict and serious economic crises within the region.

Joel Okwemba, Director, Centre for International and Security Affairs, Kenya, and Member of the CSIS Africa Policy Accelerator 2022 Cohort (@JoelOkwemba)

Africa’s current borders were born out of compromises and negotiations, gives and takes. This happened through dialogues, conferences, and long tables backed by intense consultations—vertically and horizontally. The engineers of the first African governments steered clear of the East-West divides, choosing to be “nonaligned” in unison with other free nations across the developing world. Even then, they facilitated conflict management within non-African countries. A modern example of African conflict management is the late Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian national and former secretary-general of the United Nations. This, together with our own internal “subnational” diplomacy that has held together the social fiber of 3,000 nations in 54 countries, should provide great lessons for the largely homogeneous Western societies. The choice to be nonaligned was anchored in the wisdom of our ancestors through the leaders.

Regarding Ukraine, the African Union should be prompt in saving lives. First, its embassies in Ukraine, together with philanthropic financing from African billionaires, should work to help Africans in Ukraine and Russia travel back to Africa. This in itself would be an act of diplomacy as it would necessitate talks with both sides, thus creating an atmosphere of restraint from the warring parties. It would also create a channel to share our ancient wisdom passed down through generations, of the internal “subnational” diplomacy and how we’ve maintained unity since the first Homo erectus—“Turkana boy.” As of now, we, Africans, in action and speech, should remain nonaligned—as the founders insisted.

Gilles Yabi, Founder and Director, WATHI, Senegal (@YabiGilles)

The ongoing war in Ukraine is obviously a tragedy. It reminds us all that war, whether it takes place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, or Ukraine, on European soil, causes the same destruction and death. In Africa, we are also stunned by this invasion of Ukraine by Russia, decided by Vladimir Putin. This is unjustifiable, as were the interventions of the United States and NATO in many countries, sometimes under false pretenses and in flagrant violation of international law.

It is time for policymakers in the United States to realize that the defense of democratic values and freedoms that NATO countries would like to embody is not consistent with real political practices often marked by cynicism and the projection of power abroad guided by the pursuit of economic interests and political control of foreign countries at the cost of instability, violence, and the extraction of strategic natural resources. Africa will be paying a huge price for climate change, a major consequence of the way in which Western countries have substantially improved their standard of living over the last century by drawing unsustainably on the planet’s resources. The threat to international peace and security is also primarily posed by the same world powers, starting with the United States, whose defense budgets remain colossal. It is time to put the issue of the arms race back on the international diplomatic agenda and to include every state in this discussion. In the new world, which is more interconnected than ever, even the most powerful and wealthy are no longer protected from war on their soil. It is time to listen to all voices around the world and to invest in multilateralism.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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