Nelson Mandela was once asked why he still had relationships with, among others, Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, the Cuban and Palestinian leaders who had been branded terrorists by Western powers. The revered South African statesman replied that it was a mistake “to think that their enemies should be our enemies.”
This stance has largely typified some African nations’ response to the Russia-Ukraine war. Across the continent, many appear hesitant to risk their own security, foreign investment and trade by backing one side in this conflict.
While there has been widespread condemnation of the attacks on Ukrainian civilians and their own citizens fleeing the warzone – from countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya – there has been a much more muted response from some key African nations.
Countries on the continent find themselves in a delicate position and will not want to get drawn into proxy battles, says Remi Adekoya, associate lecturer at England’s University of York.
“There’s a strong strand of thought in African diplomacy that says African states should maintain the principle of non-interference and so they shouldn’t get caught up in proxy wars between the East and the West. As some states did get caught up in proxy wars during the Cold War, for instance,” Adekoya told CNN.
One influential voice that has made it clear he will not make an enemy out of Russian leader Vladimir Putin is South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
While addressing his country’s parliament Thursday, he said: “Our position is very clear … there are those who are insisting that we should take a very adversarial stance and position against, say Russia. And the approach that we have chosen to take … is we are insisting that there should be dialogue.”
After initially releasing a statement calling for Russia to immediately pull its forces out of Ukraine, South Africa has since laid the blame for the war directly at NATO’s doorstep for considering Ukraine’s membership into the military alliance, which Russia is against.
“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.” Ramaphosa said in parliament Thursday.
Former South African President Jacob Zuma also earlier issued a statement saying Russia “felt provoked.”
“Putin has been very patient with the western forces. He has been crystal clear about his opposition of the eastern expansion of … NATO into Ukraine … and is on the record about the military threat posed to Russia by the presence of the forces … it looks justifiable that Russia felt provoked,” Zuma said in a statement issued by his foundation on March 6.
South Africa has strong ties to Russia and Ramaphosa has written about being approached to be a mediator in the conflict given its membership of BRICS – a group of emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
The ties between the two countries also date back to apartheid times when the former Soviet Union supported South Africa and the African National Congress party in their liberation struggles. “Those favors have not been forgotten,” said Adekoya.
South Africa was one of 17 African nations to abstain on the UN resolution demanding that Russia immediately withdraw from Ukraine on March 2. It took a similar stance during Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Nigeria and Egypt were among the 28 African nations that voted to condemn Russia, while eight others didn’t submit a vote. Eritrea was the only African country that outrightly voted against the resolution.
Zimbabwe’s foreign ministry said in a statement it was unconvinced that the UN resolution was driven towards dialogue, rather “it poured more fuel to the fire, thus complicating the situation.”
Many of the countries that abstained from the UN vote are authoritarian regimes. They see Putin’s unilateral decision to invade Ukraine as a show of power and ego that they can appreciate and align with, Yetunde Odugbesan-Omede, a political analyst and professor at New York’s Farmingdale State College, told CNN.
One of those who have spoken out prominently in support of the Russian leader is Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the influential son of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
His father has ruled Uganda with an iron fist for 36 years and there has been speculation that Kainerugaba is a would-be successor when the 78-year-old Museveni eventually stands down.
Kainerugaba tweeted that: “The majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine. Putin is absolutely right!”
Some African countries have also hesitated in speaking out against Russia because they want to “keep their options open if they face existential threats or some kind of revolution in their own country in the future,” said Adekoya.
“They saw Putin keep Assad in power in Syria because if not for Russia’s intervention, Assad’s regime would have fallen long ago,” he added.
Adekoya also pointed out that some of the muted response stems from what is perceived as Western hypocrisy.
Kenya’s UN Security Council representative Martin Kimani gave a powerful speech on the brink of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Kimani drew a parallel between Ukraine’s emergence as an independent state after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the experience of post-colonial states in Africa, criticizing Russian PresidentVladimir Putin’s buildup of forces and his support for redrawing Ukraine’s borders by recognizing the breakaway statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force,” he said, referring to Russia’s recognition of the two territories as independent states. “We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
During the speech, he also mentioned other nations on the Security Council who had breached international law and faced no sanctions. “He didn’t mention them by name, but he was talking about the US and UK who invaded Iraq in 2003 … and were never really held to account,” Adekoya said.
“There are many people in many parts of the world who would like to see other regions gaining strength and would like to see the end of Western domination of the world order, putting it simply … of course, no right-thinking person in Africa or anywhere in the world looks at what is going on in Ukraine now and thinks that it’s a good thing … but many people do see the hypocrisy,” he added.
Establishing stronger ties
In recent years, Russia has established itself as one of Africa’s most valuable trading partners – becoming a major supplier of military hardware with key alliances in Nigeria, Libya, Ethiopia and Mali.
Africa accounted for 18% of Russian arms exports between 2016 and 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) think tank.
Some analysts say the support or non-censure of Russia speaks to a wider sentiment in parts of Africa that Western policy positions do not always work in their favor.
“The message that Moscow is pushing is that if you are tired of the paternalistic way the West approaches you, we are going to be your security partners. It will be a relationship of equals,” Aanu Adeoye, a Russia-Africa analyst at Chatham House, told CNN.
Unlike many of its European counterparts, Russia is not a former colonial power in Africa and so has a wider scope of opportunity in making soft power moves that aim to challenge Western dominance on the continent.
The Soviet Union also had client relationships with many African states during the Cold War, and Moscow has looked to revive some of those ties.
Before the invasion, Russian state media outlet RT announced plans to set up a new hub in Kenya with a job ad that said it wanted to “cover stories that have been overlooked by other organizations” and that “challenge conventional wisdom about Africa.
Yet Africa has often been at the heart of the tussle for influence in the great power competitions between key geopolitical players such as the US, China and Russia.
Some countries are trying to leverage this position in a variety of ways.
Odugbesan-Omede explained that Tanzania, for example, has identified the current situation as a chance for its energy industry to profit. “Tanzania’s President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, sees this an opportunity to look for markets to export gas,” she said. “Tanzania has the sixth largest gas reserve in Africa. While some African countries will sustain some economic shock from the Russian-Ukraine fight, others are trying to weather the storm by looking for new avenues of profitability,” Odugbesan-Omede added.
Nimi Princewill and Lauren Kent contributed to this report