Cold War resonates as African leaders resist criticizing Putin’s war | Africa

JTwelve hours after his forces attacked Ukraine last month, Russian government officials and senior soldiers in South Africa gathered at a comfortable residence in the city of Pretoria for a cocktail party to celebrate Defenders of the Russian homeland.

The host was the Russian Ambassador, Ilya Rogachev, and his guests included the South African Minister of Defense as well as the head of the country’s armed forces. Neither saw any reason to avoid the rally as many other nations’ officials did, nor to apologize afterwards.

Participation was “integral to the accomplishment of international defense affairs”, a government spokesman said.

Vladimir Putin with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019. South Africa‘s ruling ANC party has refused to criticize the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photograph: Sergei Chirikov/AP

The support of many African leaders and governments for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine – or at least the reluctance to condemn it – has appalled Western officials.

In the UN General Assembly resolution, 17 African nations abstained – almost half of all abstentions – and one voted against, condemning Russia for its “aggression” and demanding a withdrawal from Ukraine. , although a majority of African countries gave it their support. The resolution was adopted by 141 votes to 5.

Some observers have raised the possibility of a new strategic split across Africa, similar to that of the Cold War.

“It reminds us of the Cold War era and the divisions we saw back then. But… the objective reality of the international system is so different now that it raises a lot of questions about the commitment of some African countries to the post-Cold War order and its values,” said Priyal Singh, researcher at the Pretoria Institute for Strategic Studies.

Since then, the ambassador’s party – South Africa’s ruling African National Congress – has doubled down on its refusal to criticize Russia, saying it hopes to remain neutral and encourage dialogue.

Others on the continent have toed a similar line, calling for peace but blaming NATO’s eastward expansion for the war, complaining of Western “double standards” and resisting all calls to criticize the Russia.

That the new divide resembles the one that divided Africa decades ago is no coincidence. Many countries across the continent are still led by parties that were backed by Moscow in their struggles for freedom from colonial rule or white supremacy, analysts say. Although few among their young populations knew the bitter battles of the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, leaders of ruling parties in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique remember how weapons, money and Soviet advisers helped win freedom.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, the President of Zimbabwe, described Russia and China as “reliable pillars for many years” who “helped us in our fight for independence, but also…to defend our sovereignty against the sustained assault by our critics”, a reference to Western sanctions against Zimbabwe, imposed after human rights abuses under the regime of Robert Mugabe.

Vladimir Putin and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa at the Russia-Africa Summit in 2019.
Vladimir Putin and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa at the Russia-Africa Summit in 2019. Photograph: Sergei Chirikov/AP

Mozambique also abstained at the UN, arguing like others that it hoped to encourage dialogue to resolve the violence. The same goes for Algeria, once considered a “revolutionary” state close to Moscow.

In recent years, Russia has begun to exploit these historic ties, emphasizing the ties in public statements, at major conferences and during Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s repeated trips across Africa. Moscow has also pushed its agenda through covert social media networks that portray Moscow as siding with Africans against Western “imperialists”.

These efforts have focused on volatile parts of Africa, which Moscow sees as fertile ground for intervention, and have reaped significant rewards in places like the Central African Republic and Mali, where resentment of the former French colonial power was already deep.

“In the Sahel, there is a strong anti-Western feeling, an anti-imperialist tendency in public opinion and anti-imperialist means anti-American and anti-Western,” said Pauline Bax, deputy director of the Africa program at the ‘International Crisis Group.

Mali recently renewed ties with Moscow after a military takeover there, and the country’s new rulers have brought in Kremlin-linked paramilitary mercenaries to fight Islamic insurgents as French and Western troops retreat. The Wagner group is led by a businessman close to President Putin and is now said to have a presence in at least six African countries, including CAR and Sudan which have abstained from the UN. Boris Johnson announced sanctions against Wagner on Thursday.

Sudan has also moved closer to Moscow in recent months. The country, where a military coup last year derailed a fragile transition to democratic rule, struck a big deal giving Russia a port on Africa’s eastern coast for 25 years. Eritrea – the only nation on the continent to vote against the UN motion – is a brutally repressive authoritarian state that Moscow has also courted.

Other Russian ties across the continent are strengthened by investments in mining, financial loans and the sale of agricultural equipment or nuclear technology. Rosatom, the Russian state company involved in the military and civilian use of nuclear energy, has sought to expand in Africa in recent years. Russia was the largest arms exporter to sub-Saharan Africa in 2016-2020, supplying almost a third of total sub-Saharan arms imports, up from a quarter in 2011-2015, according to the International Research Institute on the Peace of Stockholm.

Western officials were particularly disappointed with Uganda, which received huge sums of Western aid. A once close relationship with the United States and the United Kingdom has deteriorated due to the crushing of political dissent and Western pressure to recognize LGBT rights. Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, accused the West of interference in internal affairs.

Protesters outside Uganda's High Commission in London urging the president not to sign an anti-LGBT bill in 2015.
Protesters outside Uganda’s High Commission in London urging the president not to sign an anti-LGBT bill in 2015. Photograph: Dinendra Haria/Alamy

Influential son of Museveni and aspiring successor, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, said on Twitter that “the majority of humanity (which is not white) supports Russia’s position in Ukraine”.

Uganda’s UN representative says Uganda abstained in the vote on the UN resolution to protect its neutrality as the next chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of 120 member states of the Cold War era that includes almost all African nations. However Museveni made little effort to hide his sympathies, criticizing “Western aggression against Africa” ​​and describing Russia as the “centre of gravity” for the Balkans, like China in Southeast Asia.

Nicholas Sengoba, a columnist with Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper, said many authoritarian African leaders like Museveni were happy to see Putin “standing up to the big boys of the west”.

Analysts say more recent examples of what is seen as Western “neo-imperialism” are also influencing the reaction of many in Africa to the conflict.

“The Libyan crisis of 2011 and the NATO intervention there, the instability in the Sahel and other experiences mean that many countries accept the mistrust of Western domination and believe that we need a counterpoint global… Russia is considered representative of the former Soviet Union in this context. regard,” Singh said.

Reports that some African students were discriminated against by security guards and others in Ukraine as they tried to flee the conflict, magnified by social media, also sparked anger in Nigeria. and elsewhere.

But it’s unclear to what extent the positions taken by often elderly leaders reflect broader sentiments, especially among younger populations. The war in Ukraine has laid bare political, social and other divisions within and between countries.

In South Africa, populist left-wing economic freedom fighters hailed Moscow’s action to “avoid…a manifest and clear threat to the security of Russian territory and people by NATO forces, and in particular the United States”, while the centre-right Democratic Alliance projected the colors of Ukraine. flag in the provincial parliament of Cape Town, a city he leads, and said he joined “global condemnation of Russia’s attack on Ukrainian civilians, mainly women and children”.

A motorcyclist rides past Cape Town's City Hall, lit up in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, on March 2.
A motorcyclist rides past Cape Town’s City Hall, lit up in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, on March 2. Photo: Shelley Christians/Reuters

The anti-Western and anti-NATO stance of some on the continent risks overshadowing the initial stance against the invasion of Ukraine taken by the African Union, and the speech delivered by Kenya’s ambassador to the UN , Martin Kimani, who argued that since Africans themselves had endured imperialist violence for centuries, they should not tolerate efforts to change or impose borders by force.

“It is important to note that a majority of African nations voted in favor [of the UN resolution] and that regional and continental bodies such as the African Union or ECOWAS [a West Africa grouping] were quick to condemn Moscow,” Bax said.

A recent study found that the 27 African countries that voted for the UN resolution were mostly democracies and all Western allies, often actively involved in joint military operations. Most of those who abstained or, like Eritrea, voted against the resolution, were authoritarian or hybrid regimes.