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Kenyan Writer: History Explains Why Much of Africa Chooses Neutrality Over West’s Support of Ukraine

StoryFebruary 23, 2023
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One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many African countries have tried to avoid strong denunciations or shows of support for either side in the conflict, walking a diplomatic tightrope even as the war has had a major impact on food and fuel prices across the continent. Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola says that neutrality is influenced by memories of Africa as a conflict zone during the Cold War, as well as a desire to chart foreign policies independent of former colonial European powers.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

As we continue our coverage of the first year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we look at its impact on Africa, where many countries are facing spikes in fuel and food prices while already coping with ongoing conflicts, as well as the climate crisis. This week Russia, China and South Africa are holding military exercises off the coast of South Africa.

Our next guest is Kenyan writer, political analyst Nanjala Nyabola. She is joining us now from London. In September, she wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs headlined “Africa’s Ukraine Dilemma: Why the Continent Is Caught Between Russia and the West.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us again. Nanjala, why don’t you talk about that, your thesis that Africa is caught between the West and Russia, and what that means, what Russia has done in Africa, and also the effect of the Ukraine war?

NANJALA NYABOLA: Thanks for having me back, Amy.

It’s a multilayered issue. First of all, I think it’s always important to establish from the top that Africa is a large place. It’s a complicated continent. And instead of there being one signal response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s actually been a complication. There’s actually been multiple responses to the war.

There are countries that have actively come out in support of Russia and are engaging diplomatically and militarily for various reasons. You look at the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and these are countries whereby not only has there been a retreat of democracy, but there’s actually been outright conflict for the last 10, 15 years, and it’s created a leadership vacuum and a political vacuum that Russian militia — Russian paramilitary groups or militia groups, like Wagner, have been able to exploit. So, these are mercenary groups that are providing military support and are basically holding up governments that are overseeing a state that has all but collapsed in everything but name. And this is really the countries that are providing the most diplomatic support or vocally coming out in favor of Russia in this crisis.

And then there are countries like Sudan and Uganda and Zimbabwe, which have found themselves on the wrong side of political interventions, whether we’re talking about sanctions against the military regime in Sudan, we’re talking about sanctions against the regime in Zimbabwe. And sort of you get the sense that they’re playing off Western countries and Russia against each other to try and get some kind of leeway, to try and get some kind of political room under a sanctions regime.

I think perhaps the most complicated country on the continent is the South African case, because South Africa doesn’t really need — is not facing sanctions, doesn’t really need the kind of political support that a country, say, like Zimbabwe or the Central African Republic might need. And I think to understand South Africa, we really have to understand the political history of Africa over the last — over the entire 20th century. And this is something that I think a lot of Western analysts grapple with because of the inability to contend with topics like racism, like colonialism, like imperialism and neoimperialism, because South Africa was the last African country to gain independence, and throughout the worst years of the apartheid regime, there was a lot of support coming from Western governments for the apartheid government. And it was indeed the countries of the East that provided the support that anti-apartheid activists, military required to stand up against the apartheid regime. And so, for someone like Cyril Ramaphosa and many of the senior representatives of the South African government, I imagine that there’s a slightly different interpretation of the history of relationships between all of these regions of the world, and it’s colored by this history that Western analysis finds itself incapable of providing because of this partial understanding of what African history looks like when you’re viewing it from Africa.

I would say the vast majority of African countries have embraced a more neutral tone and have refused to take sides, again because of recent political history. We’re talking about nation-states that are still navigating European access. When we think about, for example, the Mediterranean crisis, the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, and the subsequent militarization of the Sahel region, many African countries are having to navigate losing — effectively, losing sovereignty over their boundaries because of European politics, because of European security concerns. We’re talking about the, I think — and initially, the moral hazard of neoimperialism, I think, is what many African countries are struggling with, because it really is caught between a rock and a hard place, a choice between the last 10, 20 years, whereby the political relationship between Africa and Europe has really not been one of equals, has really been one of being consumed and being seen as a place that is only valuable for its natural resources, and being stuck with Russia’s neoimperialism in Ukraine, which also then has that political familiarity, albeit from a slightly more abstract position. And I think that’s why neutrality kind of appeals to a lot of African countries, because we don’t want to forget the recent history, we don’t want to repeat the recent history, even though there is a recognition that what is happening within Ukraine is fundamentally unjust.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nanjala, could you also — you talked about this also in your Foreign Affairs piece. If you could speak specifically — you’ve just spoken about South Africa and others. If you could speak also about Uganda more and also Cameroon, that are both — in the case of Cameroon, France, and in the case of Uganda, the U.S. — they have support from the U.S., but — from the West, but also are receiving military equipment from Russia. If you could talk about that, Russia now being the largest exporter of military weapons to Africa?

NANJALA NYABOLA: Again, it’s a fracture that exists in many African societies between the citizens of the country and the governments that rule them. Both Uganda and Cameroon are run by governments, administrations that have serious human rights violations — have perpetrated serious human rights violations against their own people. These are governments that are not legitimate. Paul Biya is the second-longest-serving president on the African continent. Yoweri Museveni has been president for 38 years. There have been serious efforts to suppress democracy, to suppress freedom, to suppress rights. And within that fracture, the kind of — it’s the dependence on Western governments to prop up these regimes that kind of keeps them in place, that allows them to remain and to impose themselves on the people. And that creates a legitimacy gap, that Russia has been very able to exploit, because there isn’t that ability to put pressure on these governments. There is no domestic pressure that can be put on Paul Biya, for example, because the opposition is all — has stopped to exist in all but name. There is an ongoing conflict that he has been able to sort of paper over in the public consciousness. There hasn’t even been, you know, the same kind of multilateral response to the conflict in Anglophone regions of Cameroon that we’ve seen in other conflicts, including in Ukraine, even though the scale of death is significant, the scale of violence is significant. And so, these leaders are exploiting that democratic gap, that legitimacy gap, to be able to play these two sides against each other.

Uganda for the longest time was a favored country in the West, was a massive recipient of aid — and still is a massive recipient of aid, has participated in military training exercises with the United States as late as 2020. The United Kingdom provides a lot of military — provides a lot of development assistance — sorry — to Uganda. And yet, the Ugandan people have no — they cannot hold the president accountable. And so, it’s that democratic gap that makes it possible for these leaders to try and seek out ways to play off Russia versus the West, Uganda purchasing arms to use against its own people and also to impose itself in the conflicts in the region. This is really the challenge that is facing a lot of African people, that I think if you asked the citizens of these countries, you would definitely find a little bit more moral clarity and a little bit more empathy even, if you will, with the Ukrainian cause. But because they’re represented by leaders who don’t represent the will of the people, who have been propped up by Western governments for the better part of the last 40 years, there really is no way to get that legitimacy, except on the whims of — or to get that action — sorry — except on the whims of the leaders. And right now it is about political survival of those individual leaders, rather than there being some larger moral cause that is being pursued here. It’s really about surviving another five years, Biya surviving another five years, Museveni surviving another five years, another 10 years, and leaving their chosen successor in place.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: [inaudible] seconds, Nanjala, but could you also say, very quickly, the impact of the war in terms of food prices, fuel, etc., across the continent?

AMY GOODMAN: And we just have 20 seconds.

NANJALA NYABOLA: This is really the biggest issue, because it — the war coming at a time when there was already climate crisis. In East Africa, we’re going to see spiking food prices because of the climate crisis in Somalia. And this has been exacerbated by the fact that Ukraine, Russia, the largest grain exporters in the world, massive dependence also on food aid coming from the World Food Programme coming from Ukraine. And the loss of that, leading to a spike in food prices, I think, is going to culminate in a very difficult year — 

AMY GOODMAN: Nanjala Nyabola — 

NANJALA NYABOLA: — particularly for East Africa — 

AMY GOODMAN: — we’re going to have to end there.

NANJALA NYABOLA: — whereby the rains have failed for a sixth season.

AMY GOODMAN: I thank you so much for being with us.

NANJALA NYABOLA: And we’re facing —

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