Africa’s dilemma in the Russia-Ukraine crisis
Samir Bhattacharya, research associate at Vivekanada International Foundation, New Delhi
On February 24, as Russia began its air and missile assaults in Ukraine's Donbas area, it escalated into a full-fledged war. Most western countries condemned the attack, and economic measures were imposed. Following the failure of economic sanctions to persuade Russia to withdraw its soldiers, United Nations convened an emergency meeting of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the first such meeting in 40 years.
On March 2, the UNGA in New York voted on a resolution calling for the withdrawal of the Russian military from Ukraine; 141 countries out of 193 voted in favour of the resolution criticising Russia during the summit. However, 24 out of 55 African countries declined to join the resounding vote denouncing Russian aggression, indicating a lack of unanimity among African countries. Ghana, Kenya, and Gabon holding the rotating UN Security Council (UNSC) seats, all voted in favour of the proposal. Out of 23, 17 African countries abstained. Six more African countries have decided to be absent from voting. And Eritrea was the only African country to vote against the resolution, joining Russia and three other firm Russian supporters: Belarus, Syria, and North Korea. A similar text has previously been submitted in the UNSC, with 11 countries supporting it, but it was rejected due to Russia's veto.
Most African countries abstained or opposed the resolution, citing inadequate diplomatic mechanisms and calling for direct involvement among stakeholders. The reasons for this egregious silence against Russia, on the other hand, are numerous. The historic relationship between Russia and Africa may be traced back to the Cold War days' connection with the erstwhile soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a prominent actor in Africa for the entirety of the Cold War. In order to obtain an ideological advantage over the West, the Soviet Union financed many post-colonial African movements demanding self-determination and freedom. Many countries received technical, educational, and financial help as well as military assistance from the Soviet Union after they attained independence.
Notwithstanding the Soviet Union's legacy, Russia's outreach to Africa has remained abysmally low ever since Soviet Union's collapse. This was owing to mostly Russia's faltering economy and international sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe. However, in recent years, Russia has bolstered its influence in Africa by employing an unusual mix of diplomacy, weaponry, and mercenaries. In reality, Russia's latest admission could be linked to its necessity in the aftermath of the tough sanctions imposed during the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Putin's administration increased its involvement in Africa as it sought new markets and diplomatic aid as part of this strategy.
It was in this backdrop Russia hosted the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit in 2019. The event, which took place in the Russian city of Sochi, drew 50 African countries and 43 African heads of State, making it a tremendous diplomatic success. President Putin signed off $ 20 billion in debt due to Russia by African countries after the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, along with intentions to raise Russia's commerce with Africa to $40 billion per year. A second Russia-Africa summit is planned for late 2022 in St. Petersburg.
Russia is a crucial arms supplier and one of the most effective defence purchase partners. According to SIPRI data, Russia delivered 30% of weaponry imports by countries in Sub-Saharan Africa between 2016 and 2020. Compared to that, China contributed only 20%, France 9.5%, and the United States 5.4%. Ethiopia, Uganda, and Angola are African countries that significantly rely on Russian military weapons. Both Ethiopia and Uganda are currently fighting ongoing military battles and are highly reliant on Russia to help them defeat rebel forces. Other nations, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Kenya, and Rwanda, also rely on Russian weapons to varying degrees.
An increasing number of African countries have engaged with Russian mercenaries and purchased ever-larger quantities of Russian armaments in addition to arms imports. The Wagner Group, a corporation tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close confidant of Putin, is the leading employer of Russian mercenaries in Africa.
The Wagner Group provides counterinsurgency and counterterrorism training as well as military hardware to African countries. In return, Russia gains mineral resource concessions, commercial contracts, and access to ports and airbases. In recent years, Wagner mercenaries have participated in civil wars in Libya and Mozambique. They are currently providing protection to the president of the Central African Republic. In January, Wagner fighters first appeared in Mali as part of a pact to confront Islamist terrorists, which enraged France, the former colonial ruler. Officials from France have stated unequivocally that cooperation with the Wagner Group is incompatible, and France declared its decision to remove its forces from Malian land in February 2022.
Africans make up about 20% of international students in Ukraine. Several reports emerged of Ukrainian border guards refusing African students their right to leave the country. The accusation of racism and prejudice against the Ukrainian soldiers have drastically reduced African sympathy for Ukraine.
Following the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the US and European nations imposed a slew of sanctions on Russia. Despite being geographically distant from the conflict, the African continent is concerned about the spill-over effect and subsequent economic sanctions, which will significantly impact different African countries. The surge in oil, gas, and wheat prices is the war's most visible and tangible result.
Price increases have different consequences depending on whether a country is a net exporter or importer. As Europe becomes less reliant on Russian gas, it may turn to African countries searching for alternative energy sources. Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Libya are among the oil-producing countries that will benefit from increasing oil prices. Similarly, gas-producing countries will also gain, particularly if their output can be increased.
The Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline route countries of Nigeria, Niger, and Algeria resolved to cooperate shortly before the war. They signed the 'Declaration of Niamey' on February 16 to enhance their natural gas exports to European markets. However, most African countries do not produce oil and are net importers. The worldwide oil price increase will result in rising prices of petroleum and associated products, as well as a significant increase in transportation costs in these countries.
Similarly, the war will compound the woes of most African economies, which are already struggling from the pandemic's effects. Because both Russia and Ukraine are essential suppliers of wheat and fertiliser in Africa, the war will undoubtedly impact food security across the continent.
Last but not least, Africa is concerned about its energy and power supplies, with electricity pricing and reliability being major factors restricting the region's industrial productivity. On the continent, companies such as Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec, and Rosatom provide options for reliable electricity and power delivery via nuclear energy development. These projects may be postponed or abandoned entirely due to the present crisis, generating severe concerns about the continent's energy security.
As the world scrambles for a way to stop the war, Africa's position remains divided, with some criticising the Russian aggression and others implicitly supporting Russia. Furthermore, the way several African countries acted in the Ukraine crisis to keep the balance between Russia and the West surprised the West. In the Russia-Ukraine crisis, African countries appear to be treading carefully in order to protect their national interests while also defending the rights of Africans stranded in conflict zones. Despite their differences in opposing Russian aggression, they were unanimous in condemning discrimination against African individuals requesting humanitarian assistance. Russia's isolation from the rest of the world is expected to bring it closer to African countries in the future.
(Samir Bhattacharya, research associate at Vivekanada International Foundation, New Delhi)