Is Africa nonetheless ‘neutral’ a 12 months into the Ukraine conflict?

Harare, Zimbabwe – An imposing Russian warship armed with a robust Zircon hypersonic missile, a handful of Chinese naval destroyers, and a bunch of frigates and provide vessels docked on South Africa’s coastal shores final Saturday.

The coterie of Russian and Chinese maritime firepower, which might simply carry a poorly geared up African nation’s navy to its knees militarily, can be spending days on parade in deliberate tri-nation naval drills off the coast of Durban within the nation’s east.

A 12 months in the past, it might have been onerous to think about South Africa – which has adopted a publicly “neutral” stance on the conflict in Ukraine – opting to host such an occasion with Russia whereas the latter invaded its neighbour.

“[The position of ] neutrality can cost,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned in an interview with Bloomberg final March. “And fortunately, we’re not alone in all this, there are many others that have chosen the same path. The benefit in all this is that we can talk to both sides.”

The previous guard of African politics shared the identical sentiments.

“We don’t believe in being enemies of somebody’s enemy,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has dominated since 1986, mentioned in July final 12 months after internet hosting Russian international minister Sergey Lavrov when he toured African nations to rally help for the conflict in Ukraine.

At a continental degree, it was the same tune.

Of the 35 international locations that abstained from voting in an important United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) decision final March condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 17 had been African.

“We do not want to be aligned on this conflict, very clearly, we want peace,” Senegal’s President Macky Sall, the then-chairperson of the African Union (AU) mentioned.


Fast ahead to a 12 months later and with no finish to the conflict in sight, it appears many African nations are holding their impartial place.

During a UNGA vote final week demanding that Moscow withdraw its troops from Ukraine and finish the preventing, 32 international locations abstained – 15 of them African.

South Africa, which is holding its joint naval drills with Russia in the identical week because the anniversary of the conflict, was among the many abstentions.

Piers Pigou, the International Crisis Group’s senior guide for Southern Africa, mentioned the continent’s stance on neutrality has not shifted.

“The problem, of course, is the optics of [South Africa’s naval engagements at] this time. It’s astonishing that they wouldn’t have known sometime in advance that the timing of this thing would be awkward. But they don’t seem to care too much about that,” Pigou informed Al Jazeera.

“It means they are doubling down on a position they say is non-aligned but certainly gives the impression to many people that they are partisan.”

This Handout Photo Taken From Video Released By Russian Defense Ministry Press Service On Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, Shows The Admiral Gorshkov Frigate Of The Russian Navy In Richards Bay, South Africa
The Admiral Gorshkov frigate of the Russian navy in Richards Bay, South Africa, the place it participated in naval drills with Russia, South Africa and China, February 22, 2023 [Russian Defence Ministry Press Service via AP]

And optics are proving to be the whole lot.

“The United States has concerns about any country … exercising with Russia as Russia wages a brutal war against Ukraine,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary mentioned final month when responding to queries on South Africa’s naval drills with Russia.

This got here on the identical time that the US plans to introduce a invoice that may compel Washington to punish African international locations who help and abet what it sees as Russian “malign” actions on the continent.

Called the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, which is anticipated to change into legislation quickly, it seeks to counter what the US considers to be Russia and its proxies’ hostile affect on the continent.

The laws “is causing a bit of controversy with the potential to punish countries trading with Russia”, Pigou mentioned, including that it’s “the big pebble in the shoe at the moment”.

Diplomatic appeal

However, on the African continent, the place Washington struggles diplomatically, Russia seems to be succeeding.

Foreign minister Lavrov, who final 12 months met leaders of Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Eritrea, South Africa, Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia on a sequence of journeys to the continent, has been capable of appeal diplomatically.

Of the 4 states he first visited in July, three – Congo, Ethiopia and Uganda – selected to abstain on the UNGA assembly in October when requested to vote to sentence Russia’s makes an attempt to annex Ukrainian areas.

Outside of the Ukraine battle, Russia has additionally been making huge in-roads in different components of Africa, together with Sudan, Central African Republic, and Mali the place the Wagner group, a mercenary organisation linked to Moscow, is concerned within the preventing whereas some Western navy forces, such because the French military within the Sahel, have made the choice to depart.

Other African international locations have fostered hyperlinks with key Russian allies. Zimbabwe, as an example – which has had frosty relations with the West since Robert Mugabe’s insurance policies of land seizure and redistribution to the Black majority had been put in place – performed host final month to Russia’s largest ally, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukanhesko.

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Riding on historical past

Russia has historic ties with the continent relationship again to the Soviet Union, which supported many pro-independence actions in Africa at a time of Western political dominance.

During apartheid in South Africa, the Soviets provided funding and paramilitary coaching to the liberation motion that grew to become the governing African National Congress (ANC) after democracy in 1994. In Zimbabwe, it supported the African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) when the occasion fought a settler Rhodesian authorities from the 1960s till independence in 1980. And in Angola, it supplied navy help to the Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA), from the 1960s till independence from Portugal in 1975 on the peak of the Cold War.

“Loyalty to Russia based on its support, as the Soviet Union, during the struggle for independence has been strong,” Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics on the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), famous to Al Jazeera. “Thus the posture of neutrality – [is] in a way wanting to have it both ways.”

When it involves Ukraine, Chan mentioned African states should choose sides as an alternative of being seen to be supporting Russia whereas additionally being cosy with its foes.

Three superpowers

The Ukraine conflict has uncovered African nations’ failure to diplomatically navigate their means by an unfamiliar political order, Chan argued.

“This has certainly engendered a three-way struggle for influence in Africa – with the West only now taking seriously the challenges posed by both Russia and China,” he informed Al Jazeera.

In each the bipolar political order – a interval dominated by Russia and the US – and the unipolar political order that adopted the collapse of the Soviet Union, making the US the only superpower, the selection was easy – both Russia or the US. Now, nevertheless, it’s a selection between three powers: the US, Russia and China.

“Africa will find it increasingly difficult to map a balanced path that weaves successfully between three superpowers,” Chan mentioned.

It’s a view echoed by Ronald Chipaike, a lecturer in peace and governance on the Bindura University in Zimbabwe.

“Africa hasn’t benefitted much from its neutrality in the conflict, just as it didn’t benefit much during the Cold War,” he mentioned, including the continent will solely reap “fringe” advantages equivalent to saving Africa from “direct confrontation with either the West or Russia”.

Although the AU purports to be impartial, when Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made diplomatic overtures final April for a video convention with African leaders by way of the AU, to rally them to Ukraine’s facet, the request was pushed again a number of instances, and solely occurred in June – 10 weeks after his first request.

Even then, solely 4 heads of state attended whereas the remaining despatched emissaries.

“This shows that African countries seem to have a soft spot for Russia and it puts the whole neutrality issue into question,” Chipaike informed Al Jazeera.

Holding Placards With Pro Russian Slogans, Demonstrators Gather In Bangui On March 5, 2022 During A Rally In Support Of Russia.
Holding placards with pro-Russian slogans, demonstrators collect in Bangui, Central African Republic on March 5, 2022, throughout a rally in help of Russia [File: Carol Valade/AFP]

Food safety issues

Amid altering political and diplomatic posturing by leaders, on the bottom, the availability chains lengthy disrupted by the conflict are nonetheless but to normalise. Africa is bearing the brunt of meals shortages and inflation given its heavy reliance on imports.

African international locations, which import 50 % of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, noticed costs soar 71 % final March.

Although the meals state of affairs has considerably improved as extra grains go away Black Sea ports and reach African international locations, issues are removed from again to regular on the continent.

Now, costs are a lot greater, eroding buying energy for a lot of Africans.

Of the 24 international locations that desperately want meals help that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) have recognized as starvation hotspots, 16 are in Africa, resulting from world provide constraints, the conflict in Ukraine, COVID-19 and local weather change.

Additionally, a poor rice season final 12 months will have an effect on Africa, a joint assertion of FAO, WFP and the International Monetary Fund in early February mentioned.

Before the conflict, about 283 million individuals had been already “suffering from hunger” in Africa, based on the African Development Bank.

Africans on the entrance line

Apart from meals, Africa has additionally needed to cope with the racial undertones of the battle.

When the conflict broke out, African college students in Ukraine reported quite a few episodes of racial abuse and discrimination on the borders as they tried to cross in the direction of security into neighbouring international locations alongside European refugees who had been usually welcomed with open arms.

On the opposite facet of the battle traces, the state of affairs for Black Africans is precarious in numerous methods.

Last 12 months, a Zambian scholar was killed in Ukraine whereas preventing for Russia.

The scholar, Lemekhani Nyirenda, who had no navy background, was deployed to the entrance traces by the Russian mercenary group, Wagner. It stays unclear how Nyirenda, who was serving a nine-year sentence in a Russian jail for a drug offence, ended up in Ukraine; nevertheless, Russian authorities mentioned he had been pardoned earlier than becoming a member of the conflict.

Another Tanzanian scholar, Nemes Tarimo, additionally died in Ukraine after being recruited from a Russian jail the place he was serving a seven-year sentence for a drug offence.

At the most recent UNGA vote on Thursday – the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Zambia joined 140 different international locations in supporting the decision calling for the conflict to finish, whereas Tanzania did not register a vote.

At the identical time in South Africa, which has continued to abstain from UN votes on the conflict resulting from its dedication to neutrality, the naval drills with Russia pressed forward as deliberate, regardless of Western stress and criticisms in regards to the insensitivity of the timing.

“There is a difference between military and politics,” Lieutenant-General Siphiwe Sangweni, the chief of joint operations within the South African National Defence Force, informed journalists on Wednesday, defending the choice to carry the drills.

“Yes, there will be other countries who feel differently in how we have approached this, but … all countries are sovereign nations and have a right to handle things [as] they see fit,” he mentioned.

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