Why African Countries Had Different Views on the UNGA Ukraine Resolution, and Why This Matters

On March 2, member states of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), in its 11th emergency session on the Ukraine crisis, overwhelmingly voted in support of Resolution A/RES/ES-11/1, titled “Aggression against Ukraine.” This resolution, although not legally binding, was a powerful affirmation of the moral authority that the international community has in its arsenal to pressure the Russian Federation to halt its invasion of Ukraine.

Although the resolution was supported by 141 member states across all regions, an infographic by Development Reimagined was widely circulated and showed that African countries were split in their voting, with 28 countries voting in favor, 1 voting against, 17 countries abstaining, and 8 not participating at all. Why were African countries so divided in their vote? And does this matter to the rest of the world?

Source: Development Reimagined.

To understand the reason, it is important to closely examine the historical foreign policy stances that different African countries have taken within the United Nations and the broader international system, as well as the precedents around the use of abstention in international law. By doing so, the rationale behind the voting decisions of many African countries becomes clearer and it is possible to classify the African countries’ voting positions into four core groups.

Against: Understanding Russia’s Concerns

In the first group are African nations that have developed robust economic, social, political, and military ties with Russia over a long period, as well as those that believe Russia had some valid security concerns in choosing to take action against Ukraine—concerns that were not reflected in the UN resolution. Eritrea, for instance, is the only African nation that voted against the resolution. Often ostracized and considered a pariah state by many high-income countries, Eritrea has criticized the UN Security Council, particularly for the imposition of mandatory sanctions. Hence, Eritrea`s vote against the resolution was a way of not only opposing the status quo but also showing sympathy and support to Russia. Eritrea’s neighbor, Ethiopia, also falls within this group as it has historically good relations with Russia, dating back to Russian volunteers during the Battle of Adwa in the late 1800s. The unreserved military support accorded to Ethiopia at the time of Somali president Siad Barre’s aggression against the territorial integrity of Ethiopia and the recent Russian support against pressure in the UN Security Council from the United States and others on the ongoing civil war in Tigray certainly influenced Ethiopia to simply not participate in the vote.

Abstained for “Neutrality”

In the second group are African countries that have strong ties with Russia but chose to abstain rather than vote against the resolution because they believe that Russian invasion contradicts the fundamental principles—particularly self-determination—of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM ), of which every African country is a member except for South Sudan and the self-governing territory of Western Sahara. NAM principles also include non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state as well as avoidance of the use of force, and it is these principles that drive the abstention as an indication of neutrality. Uganda is a good example in this regard. Uganda chose to abstain in the vote, citing that as incoming chair of the NAM, “neutrality” is essential. Abstaining is a key expression of this form of neutrality—it explicitly enables the vote to proceed and does not block it (as withholding a vote or voting against might do).

Interestingly, the approach taken by this second set of countries can be seen as similar to China, which also abstained from the resolution and from an earlier similar vote in the Security Council. Having forged strategic ties with Russia to the extent that their relationship is being considered a “new axis,” China has a long record of promoting a non-interventionist stance, even on issues of vital global significance. China is also an observer of the NAM, which in itself matters, as China positions itself a natural ally of developing nations.

Abstained to Push Mediation and Dialogue

The third group of countries chose to abstain, not because of ties with Russia, but because they did not agree with the contents of the resolution and wanted to push for greater dialogue and reconciliation as opposed to condemnation. South Africa fell into this camp and explained its position in a statement, expressing its disappointment in the resolution’s inability to create a conducive environment for mediated dialogue. South Africa’s statement also alluded to a lack of transparency during consultations and negotiations over the draft resolution—both disappointing and highly problematic in multilateral settings. Zimbabwe also later explained its position by underlining the complexity of the situation and the harmful impacts of sanctions against a member state, urging the international community to instead facilitate dialogue for a durable solution.

In Favor: Concerned for Ukraine’s Self-Determination

The fourth and final group of countries chose to vote in support of the resolution as, despite being NAM members, they strongly believe in the principle of self-determination and will support that cause when given the opportunity, particularly in light of the historical injustice committed against Africans during the colonial era. The countries that stand out in this respect, Kenya and Ghana, voted in favor of the resolution and made statements citing Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, which opposes a breach of the sovereignty of a member state. In a widely praised speech made on February 22, the Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, stated that “Kenya, and almost every African country, was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing,” underlining the significance of safeguarding Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Ghanaian ambassador to the United Nations, Harold Adlai Agyeman, in his statement to the Security Council before the UNGA emergency session, stressed the importance of discharging the solemn obligation of member states under the charter to preserve and maintain global peace and security, condemning Russia's aggression as a violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity.

How should African stakeholders and the international community interpret the existence of these four camps?

First, abstention does not signify some sort of “cop out”; it is instead a well-thought stance reflecting the intricacies surrounding the national interests of a country on a given issue.

Second, among the diverse positions, none of the groups of African countries voted in support of the resolution for the same reasons as the United States or most European countries, despite, for instance, evidence of EU influence in some countries such as Madagascar. The fact is, African countries do have their own foreign policies, although they can of course be further strengthened and coordinated, for instance through the African Union.

The position of African countries on Ukraine and other global issues is nuanced and complex but important to understand, as it can help other countries strengthen their own foreign policies.

Hannah Ryder is a senior associate (non-resident) of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and CEO of Development Reimagined. Etsehiwot Kebret is a policy analyst at Development Reimagined.

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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Hannah Ryder
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program

Etsehiwot Kebret

Policy Analyst, Development Reimagined