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Ukraine: President Zelenskyy wants to address the African Union? Here is some advice

By Ovigwe Eguegu

Posted on May 2, 2022 08:11

Russia Ukraine War UN
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends a joint news conference with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, April 28, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

If President Zelenskyy wants to address the African Union, he will need to avoid the simplistic hectoring that characterises Western governments.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has requested to speak to the African Union. The announcement was made by President Macky Sall of Senegal, the Chairperson of the African Union for 2022.

If agreed, his address will take place in the context of the racism that many Africans experienced in attempting to leave Ukraine, three UNGA resolutions on Russia-Ukraine war that a significant number of African countries abstained from, and growing anxiety over the knock-on effects of the war and related sanctions.

Zelenskyy’s African Union démarche is significant because rarely – if at all – do European leaders care what Africans think regarding major geopolitical events. As such, this initiative indicates weariness over African opinion about the war, and a desperation to shape it going forward.

Zelenskyy’s speech will be building on earlier efforts by European and Ukrainian diplomats to garner support for Ukraine. In early March, Ukrainian embassies reportedly offered cash to citizens of some host countries to join its forces on the frontlines. This drew ire from the governments of Senegal and Nigeria who both released statements cautioning citizens.

More recently, Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa posted a video on twitter calling on South Africans to “stand-up for the people of Ukraine.”, while accusing the South African government of avoiding meetings with her. South Africa’s Head of Public Diplomacy responded and described the act as undiplomatic.

Nevertheless, some European and American pundits have fallen into the temptation of blaming China’s influence or Russia’s misinformation. This is not only an oversimplification but ignores the agency of African governments and people. It is a classic case of “othering”.

So how could Zelenskyy bring African governments more “on side”? Is this a realistic ambition?

So far, Zelenskyy has relied on well curated speeches that have a fine balance between appealing to emotion and logic, positioning solidarity with Ukraine as a means to uphold core principles of the UN charter. His speeches have been successful in Europe and North America where there is profound unity and unanimity in support of Ukraine’s cause. However, Africa is an entirely different context, and requires two key adaptations.

Treat African governments with respect and complexity

First, Zelenskyy must recognise the fact that the decisions African governments have and will be making regarding the war are shaped by vary long-standing foreign policies that fall into four distinct categories, ranging from seeing Russia as an ally (e.g. Eritrea), to prioritising self-determination and the need to avoid irridentism (e.g. Ghana). Decisions are also, of course, determined by what best serves short and medium-term national and collective African interests.

African countries are not alone in prioritising their interests. Europe has selectively rolled out sanctions on Russia, hence is still today importing natural gas from Russia. To bring down soaring gas prices, the U.S. imported record amounts of Russian oil in March.

Major powers like China and India have also stuck to their existing foreign policy stances on intervention and prioritise national interests despite pressure from others. China’s stance didn’t come as a surprise given Sino-Russia strategic partnership and their shared border. New Delhi argues its position – defined by its long-time membership of the Non-Aligned Movement – serves India’s national interests. India has even purchased oil from Russia at a discounted price.

It is also worth noting that for African countries neither Russia nor the Euro-American alliance is a great substitute for the other. Take security for instance. Russia cannot substitute for the enormous funds Europe and America commit to peace and development initiatives in Africa.

On the other hand, Europe and America have progressively become unfeasible partners for accessing military equipment to fight wars against terrorism, for instance. Russia can fill certain gaps – even for agricultural trade.

Zelenskyy must avoid the attempt by US and European leaders to paint Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “fringe behaviour” – because this framing suffers from two challenges.

Moreover, most African countries lack the financial capacity and extensive partnerships to quickly cut links with Russia or Ukraine, for example to secure alternative energy suppliers, not to mention the technological and economic structure to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy.

The upshot – Zelenskyy must indicate respect of African foreign policy and expect African countries to prioritise their own citizen’s interests.

Avoid moral grandstanding and specific victimhood

Second, in engaging with African governments, Zelenskyy must recognise that the swift, broad and concerted response from the Euro-American alliance to address the crisis in Ukraine differs greatly from their handling of existing, dire sites of conflict in Yemen, Palestine, and Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The contrast is too stack to ignore, even for the Director General of the World Health Organisation who said “Ukraine’s attention shows bias against black lives.”

In this respect, Zelenskyy must avoid the attempt by US and European leaders to paint Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “fringe behaviour” – because this framing suffers from two challenges.

First, it ignores the ample evidence of several countries and coalitions – including other members of the P5 – violating international law, sovereignty and territorial integrity of weaker states. Indeed, Africa has been on the receiving end of such violations – for example with respect to the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity when a multi-state NATO-led coalition illegally intervened in Libya – against the judgement of the AU’s own Peace and Security Council.

The Libya experience also provides a good explanation as to why the vote to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council – as Libya was in 2011 – was the least supported by African member states. It was not just because the suspension of Russia is more concrete than declarations, or that expelling Russia from HRC before a full international investigation sets a dangerous precedent. The hypocrisy is disturbing for many countries.

Second, the “fringe behaviour” framing ignores the relevance of NATO’s potential expansion, especially given lessons learnt from the Libya experience.

While the principle of indivisible security stressed on 14 March by China’s UN Envoy may not be popular, the wisdom behind it is not lacking in African political consciousness. Indeed, South Africa in explaining its UN vote on 2nd March 2022 noted that “It is understood that one of the root causes of the conflict is related to the security concerns of the parties. This should have been addressed in the resolution”.

Thus, Zelenskyy acknowledging that African governments have their own, valid interpretation of the underlying causes of the war as well as views on the route to peace and security will be crucial.

The question is, can Zelensky really do this in an address to African counterparts?

Certainly the task is too complex for a speech.

Rather than “addressing” African governments, a conversational attitude is perhaps more prudent. A respectful dialogue where Zelenskyy presents himself as ready to listen to African perspectives, take questions and suggestions from African equals, is likely to inspire the most constructive engagement from the African side.

However, even if a dialogue, positive outcomes for Ukraine cannot be guaranteed. But better understanding by all could at least help move towards a reformed international order.

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