UN: Africa splits over Russian invasion of Ukraine

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Wednesday, 2 March 2022 23:20, updated on Tuesday, 8 March 2022 15:37
The results of a vote on a resolution concerning the Ukraine are displayed during an emergency meeting of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, Wednesday, 2 March 2022. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)/

Wednesday's UN vote on Russia's invasion of Ukraine split Africa in half, exposing deep rifts between countries that refuse to take sides between Russia and the West and others who view Moscow as the imperialist aggressor.

Updated 3 March 4:14pm Paris

The 54-member African bloc accounted for 17 of the 35 countries that abstained from voting on the General Assembly resolution calling on Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces” from Ukrainian territory. These include both democracies such as Senegal and South Africa, Russian-backed military regimes like Mali and Sudan and fragile states including the Central African Republic and Zimbabwe.

Another eight African nations ⁠— Burkina Faso, Cameroon, eSwatini, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco and Togo — did not participate in the vote.

Eritrea was the only African nation to vote “no,” joining Russia, Syria, Belarus and North Korea.

Meanwhile, another 28 African nations joined the rest of the world in delivering a lopsided 141 to 5 rebuke of Russia.

Earlier in the week, Eritrea joined just four other countries in voting to prevent the Human Rights Council from taking up the issue of Ukraine this Thursday. Cameroon, Gabon, Mauritania, Namibia, Senegal, Somalia and Sudan were among the 13 countries that abstained from that vote, which garnered a majority of 29 votes out of the 47 members of the council.

Gabon and Mauritania took a different stance on Wednesday and voted for the resolution condemning Russia, while the other five once again either abstained or did not show up to vote.

Taking sides 

Explaining his country’s decision to abstain in the General Assembly vote, Uganda’s envoy to the UN, Adonia Ayebare, took to Twitter after the vote to explain that Kampala has just begun serving as chair of the global Non-Aligned Movement for the next three years.

“As incoming Chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) NEUTRALITY is key,” Ayebare wrote. “Uganda will continue to play a constructive role in the maintenance of peace and security both regionally and globally.”

The movement dates back to the early days of the Cold War and the anti-colonial struggle. It still claims 120 member states worldwide, including every African nation except for South Sudan.

Not every African nation however agrees that refusing to take sides in case of a clear aggressor amounts to neutrality.

We rejected irredentism and expansionism on any basis, including racial, ethnic, religious or cultural factors.

Speaking to the Security Council last month, Kenya’s envoy to the UN Martin Kimani denounced Russia’s recognition of breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as stoking the “embers of dead empires” to create “new forms of domination and oppression.”

“We rejected irredentism and expansionism on any basis, including racial, ethnic, religious or cultural factors,” Kimani said. “We reject it again today.”

On Wednesday, Kenya joined the two other current African members of the Security Council, Gabon and Ghana, in voting for the resolution.

The General Assembly vote follows a previous clash last year between Russian and the 2021 African Security Council members Kenya, Niger and Tunisia over an Africa-led Security Council resolution tying climate change to terrorism. Russia vetoed the measure to avoid taking the climate discussion outside of the consensus-driven United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

On Wednesday, both Niger and Tunisia joined Kenya in voting to rebuke Russia.

Further complicating matters, the Russian invasion has created a refugee crisis for thousands of African students and workers, many of whom say they have been discriminated against by border officials in Ukraine and neighbouring countries as they try to flee.

Following an outcry from African governments and human rights groups, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Tuesday laid the blame squarely on Russia and vowed to address the situation.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected Ukrainians and non-citizens in many devastating ways,” Kuleba said on Twitter. “Africans seeking evacuation are our friends and need to have equal opportunities to return to their home countries safely. Ukraine’s government spares no effort to solve the problem.”

US takes notice 

The African votes didn’t escape the attention of officials in the United States, which is by far the largest bilateral aid donor to the continent.

“You matter. Africa matters. And we want you to join the rest of the international community,” Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee said in a media briefing with African reporters Thursday morning after the vote. “Because unity at this moment in time is the most effective way we can return to peace and stability.”

Phee said the US was “not asking you to choose sides” between Russia and the West but rather international principles including “sovereignty, territorial integrity, peaceful resolution of disputes, protection of civilians.”

“I want you to know that we in the United States are sensitive to the legacy of the Cold War, particularly in Africa,” she said. “The position and policy of the Biden administration has been to encourage more, not fewer choices for Africans. But Putin’s unprovoked aggression is an assault on world order.”

Russia for its part thanked countries representing more than 1/4 of the world population ⁠— including China and India ⁠— for abstaining despite what it described as a massive US lobbying effort at the UN.

Congress has also taken notice.

“Hey, #BurkinaFaso, #Cameroon, #Ethiopia, #eSwatini, #Guinea, #GuineaBissau, #Togo. Where were you?,” tweeted John “JT” Tomaszewski, who leads Africa policy for Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). The tweet was retweeted by several current and former US officials, including former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy.

Meanwhile, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield gave a shout-out to the countries that called out Russia.

“Thank you to all 141 UN Member States that made the choice to #StandWithUkraine,” she wrote.

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