How (not) to persuade Africa to support Ukraine and denounce Russia

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Monday, 25 April 2022 12:34
Russia's President Vladimir Putin makes a sign of the cross during an Easter service at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Sergei Fadeichev

The reluctance of some African leaders to condemn Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine has been the subject of a large number of column inches over the last month.

Journalists and commentators have lamented why the continent is not “standing with Ukraine” and warned that the war threatens to “divide Africa”.

The focus of these articles is understandable given the efforts of Western states to build a global consensus against Putin. Yet many of them misdiagnose the causes of African ambivalence, and so offer flawed – and in some cases deeply problematic – recommendations for how to build stronger pro-Ukraine solidarity.

An article published in the Spectator magazine on 16 April entitled “Russia’s Special Relationship” is a case in point. In the piece, Aidan Hartley, an author and entrepreneur best known for writing the Zanzibar Chest, seeks to explain “Why so many Africans are supporting Putin”.

But while Hartley is right to point out that condemnation of Russia’s actions has often been more muted outside of the “West”, his analysis is wide off the mark when it comes to what African governments have done, and why they have done it.

Worse still, the article’s reductive framing and hectoring tone are only likely to annoy and frustrate readers who are knowledgeable about the continent – and so undermine support for the causes that Hartley rightly cares about.

How (not) to learn the lessons of history

Hartley should be commended for trying to historicise the events his piece sets out to explain – something that has been all too rare in recent coverage.

The problem is that he gives us a reading of the past that is remarkably myopic for someone who grew up on the continent and wrote a memoir that has been described as a “masterpiece of autobiographical journalism”.

One of Hartley’s main arguments is that limited African support for Ukraine can be traced back to the fact that “Britain helped African countries become leftist regimes”.

These regimes apparently went on to bite the hand that fed them precisely because they were socialist, and so favoured the Soviet Union/Russia over the USA and the UK. Anyone who knows anything about Africa will be puzzled by this take, mainly because it is plainly wrong.

In some cases, Western states and financial institutions provided assistance to states led by African socialists, but they did not seek to create leftist governments, nor to sustain them. Instead, European and North American powers typically colluded with right-wing leaders in the silencing – and in some cases assassination – of left-wing voices. This intensified during the height of the Cold War when the UK and USA supported a set of venal and abusive dictators on the basis that they were essential allies in the struggle to prevent the spread of socialism on the continent.

Most famously, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to back sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa because the African National Congress was “a typical terrorist organisation” while the white minority government was viewed as a “bulwark against Soviet-backed communism”.

This interpretation of African history isn’t simply the view of a small group of left-wing radicals. It is clear from the public statements of figures like Thatcher, declassified CIA documents, and an official enquiry of the Belgian parliament which found that the country bore a “moral responsibility” for the assassination of the “pro-communist” first Prime Minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba.

Indeed, it is precisely the West’s willingness to sacrifice democracy and human rights on the altar of national security that helps to explain why many African states do not want to get sucked into the current confrontation. History has taught them that becoming pawns in an international conflict they cannot control generates few benefits and massive risks.

As Muthoni Wanyeki recently observed, the idea of being “non-aligned” is not new, unprincipled, or limited to African states. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of states seeking to avoid being tied to any particular power bloc formed in 1961 and consistently had well over 100 countries as members.

Moreover today, as in the past, “nonalignment may be a sensible strategy for individual countries as a way to preserve autonomy and avoid costly choices between major powers.”

Is anyone actually supporting Putin?

Hartley’s depiction of the preferences of African governments is also misleading. The majority of African leaders and people stand against imperialism and war and have no love of Putin.

Only 17 African governments – less than half – abstained in the vote UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s actions. Only one – Eritrea – voted against it, despite the fact that Russia provides aid and military support to a number of states.

In other words, a majority actually supported the West’s position, while others sought to sit on the fence rather than actively support Putin.

The same balance probably holds when it comes to public opinion in many countries, though we lack the survey data to know for sure. Many of my friends on the continent are suspicious of Western efforts to enforce a common front, not least because of the reports of racism in Ukraine and growing evidence that aid is being diverted away from equally urgent humanitarian causes in Africa. But this does not mean they support Putin, or that they are keen to see growing Russian influence in their own countries.

Against this backdrop, simplistic arguments that are highly critical of African governments without attempting to view recent events from their perspective risk polarising the debate in a way that will only alienate potential allies, the vast majority of whom hold pro-democratic and anti-war attitudes.

How (not) to make friends and influence people

Hartley’s article is a good example of how bad analysis and lazy journalism can play into Putin’s hands. By homogenising the continent and misrepresenting its history, his essay will only deepen suspicions that the West neither understands nor really cares about Africa.

This is especially true given that much of his invective appears to be motivated by the fact that “my family’s farms were expropriated without compensation in Tanzania.”

A personal grievance should never be allowed to stand in for evidence and analysis, precisely because this leads to bad advice. In Hartley’s case, he concludes by suggesting that African states – which have suffered some of the greatest injustices in global history – should be grateful to the West, and punished if they fail to comply with Western prescriptions: “if they don’t like what we represent and fail to see the value of western trade, investment and security – then they shouldn’t expect to share in its profits.”

The idea that one of the world’s most economically exploited regions has had anywhere near its fair share of world trade, investment and security, or that should be seen as a stick with which African governments can be hit to force them back into line, is equal parts perplexing and offensive.

It is also precisely the kind of blinkered and colonial attitude that fuels support for those who are seen to “stand up” to Western political domination. As ever, efforts to build and strengthen solidarity must begin with respect, humility, and mutual understanding.

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