Russia’s War with Ukraine: Five Reasons Why Many African Countries Choose to Be ‘Neutral’

Jerri-Lynn here. This post lays out five political and economic reasons why African countries have chosen to be ‘neutral’ on the issue of Russia’s war with Ukraine. More than half of all African countries either abstained, voted no, or didn’t vote at all on the March United Nations General Assembly resolution demanding Russia immediately stop its military operations in Ukraine.

By Olayinka Ajala, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Leeds Beckett University. Originally published at The Conversation

In early March the United Nation’s General Assembly voted on a resolution demanding Russia immediately stop its military operations in Ukraine.

Out of 193 member states, 141 voted in support of the resolution, five voted against, 35 abstained and 12 didn’t vote at all. Of the 54 African member states, Eritrea voted against the resolution, 16 African countries including South Africa abstained, while nine other countries did not vote at all.

In all about half (26) of the 54 member states in Africa chose the path of neutrality in some form.

So why did African countries not vote overwhelmingly to support the resolution?

I believe that the decision of several African countries to stay neutral and avoid condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine was made on issues relating directly to the conflict as well as broader security, economic and political considerations.

There are five key reasons: these include scepticism towards the North Atlantic Treat Alliance (NATO), and its motives; growing reliance among some countries on Moscow for military support past decade; growing dependence on wheat and fertiliser imports; and a sense that this is a return of the Cold War.

African countries have based their decisions on strategic calculations on how the conflict will affect them rather than on the humanitarian catastrophe arising from the conflict. This is in contrast to the European Union which has been able to converge and take a unanimous stance on the conflict.

The Driving Arguments

First, some African countries including South Africa see the NATO as the aggressor with its expansion eastwards. This, in the view of these countries, constitutes a threat to Russia. The president of South Africa recently blamed the organisation for the war in Ukraine stating:

the war could have been avoided if NATO had heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region.

This is not the first time African countries have been sceptical of NATO’s activities. In 2012, the former president of Namibia (another country which abstained from the vote) argued that NATO’s overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi should be condemned and rejected by all right thinking Africans.

The invasion of Libya and the subsequent killing of Gaddafi resulted in destabilisation in North Africa and the Sahel. The result is that NATO has become quite unpopular in several African countries.

Second, in the last decade, several African countries such as Libya, Ethiopia, Mali and Nigeria have developed significantmilitary alliances with Russia. Several African countries have depended on Russia to combat insurgencies. This has ranged from hiring private military contractors from Russia such as the Wagner group to direct arms imports.

The lack of emphasis on adherence to human rights has shifted many countries in Africa to building military alliances with Russia. For instance, in 2014 when the United States refused to sell certain weapons to Nigeria due to gross human rights abuses recorded in the fight against Boko Haram, Nigeria turned to other countries including Russia and Pakistan for arms supply.

In 2021, Russia signed military cooperation agreements with Nigeria and Ethiopia, the two most populous countries in Africa.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that Russia sold 18% of the total arms it produced to Africa between 2016 and 2020. Some of these military alliances have been in existence since the Soviet era and are deeply entrenched.

Third, several African countries depend on Russia for wheat and fertilisers. This has deepened economic ties. The figures from the UN conference on trade and development show that African countries imported wheat from Russia and Ukraine worth about US$5.1 billion between 2018 and 2020. A quarter of African countries depend on the two countries for a third of their wheat consumption.

Russia accounts for 16% of global wheat production, and 13% of fertiliser production. African countries are already reeling from the impact of COVID-19 are sceptical about cutting any trade links.

In addition, the perceived lack of support from the west during the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted many African countries further away from their traditional western allies in Europe and America.

Fourth, some African countries see the conflict as a proxy warbetween US and Russia, reminiscence of the Cold War and so don’t want to get entangled in the conflict.

The Cold War brought untold hardship to several African countries as it happened when most of the countries in Africa were gaining independence and needed to align with one of the blocs. Several civil wars ensued. It therefore seems right to countries to some stay neutral at this point.

Furthermore, China, a major ally to several African countries has towed this line. As a result some of its allies in Africa chose the same path.

Finally, there’s an increasing perception in several African countries that traditional western allies only care about their own economies and people, and would only assist if it is in their interest or falls within the liberal agenda.

For instance, since the impact of sanctions on Russia started driving up commodity prices, the US has turned to Venezuelawhile the UK has turned to Saudi Arabia to increase oil production and reduce the burdens of citizens at home.

There has been no mention on how African countries are affected, or how to help countries on the continent whose economies are struggling. This brings back memories of the lackadaisical support received from the west during the pandemic. And it further reinstates the need to be neutral – or in some cases not to be dictated to.

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  1. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, J-LS.

    In addition to what you correctly write, the sight of border and other security officials hauling off or preventing non whites and mixed race couples from boarding trains west from Kiev or at the western border went around like wild fire in Africa and India and did not go down well.

    Talking heads highlighting that this is terrible because it’s a war in Europe and Ukrainians feel so close or are like them suggested that the lives of others don’t matter.

    Western suggestions that countries not sanctioning Russia are immoral, as per some Daily Telegraph and Atlantic Council types late last week, provoked much laughter and anger.

    It’s not just Africa and India. A recent exchange, before Ken Salazar’s ill judged intervention, on a Mexican’s Twitter feed was illuminating. The AMLO sympathiser explained Mexico’s stance and added that, outside the west, the war is partly observed through a colonial lens. Some European commentators responded about LGBT alphabet soup rights in Russia. Others in Latin America, Africa and Asia suggested that food and shelter were more important to them than identity politics.

    Over the week-end, it was suggested by a(n Indo-) Mauritian former finance minister and deputy PM that India could negotiate commodity supplies from Russia with countries that have an Indian diaspora. There has been some hint of that in Indian government circles, another exercise of soft power after the vaccine roll out.

    Doordarshan and CGTN are broadcast in Mauritius due to Indian and Chinese diasporas dating to the 18th century. The difference with bloviating Anglo-American and French channels is breathtaking and no longer lost on a population that used to have a colonial cringe, but is now morphing into colonial contempt. This goes as much for the EU as it is for NATO.

    One hopes Thuto and David and commentators in south Asia chime in.

    1. Thuto

      Thank you Colonel

      During his state visit to Kenya, Obama tried to lecture Uhuru Kenyatta on gay rights when the two held a joint press conference, to which Uhuru calmly retorted that the Kenyan people have not indicated to him as their president that this issue matters to them, and his responsibility is to address those concerns that are crucial to the wellbeing of his people, not those that Americans and Europeans say should matter.

        1. Oh

          In reality, the west has no values; only pretence of values and virtue signaling. I’ve never seen the US do anything to Israel for their abuse of the Palestinians, except blame the victims.

    2. Tom Stone

      The unconscious and overt racism of the western media has been something to see,and the utter cluelessness and strident virtue signalling of the PMC here in Sonoma County has been unprecedented.
      Seeing big “Black Lives Matter” signs side by side with “We stand with Ukraine” signs in Sebastopol….
      I broke out laughing the first time I saw this.
      There are perhaps a dozen African Americans in “Woketown” which has a population of a little more than 8,000 within city limits.
      And hundreds of BLM signs.

    3. B1WHOIS

      Colonel Smithers, as to what you said about how the westerners sound to the Indians, it’s quite breathtaking and a little bit hilarious to watch this debate on Indian TV from Friday. It’s more like a debate cage match actually. Anyway, one Western debater after another picks up the same talking points and can’t really go beyond them. Meanwhile the debaters from Russia and India provide actual analysis and logic. The contrast is remarkable:

      India’s Foreign Policy Becomes The Focus As Russia Reaches Out To PM Modi | Arnab Goswami Debates

      I’ve been following these debates for a couple of weeks, and they are often useless crap, but since this subject matter focuses on India specifically, this one is far more interesting to watch.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        A small plug for my latest India post – which I published earlier today – discussing last week’s botched U.S. attempt to bully India into going along with its Russia sanctions program. Needless to say, Indian ministers weren’t impressed.

  2. Thuto

    The language of diplomacy is usually stripped of crudeness so don’t expect to see this reason, which is on par with and in some cases even trumps the “official” ones, doing the rounds:

    Africans have been hit like a ton of bricks with the realization (not that we haven’t always suspected) that the moral outrage of the so-called international community vis a vis war is reserved exclusively for countries where white people are the victims. When the darker skin peoples of the world have the horrors of war visited upon them, vapid condemnations and “concerns about the situation” statements are all we ever hear from the west, and we know if it was one of us being attacked, that’s all the “help” we would get. Here in South Africa, the white-with-token-blacks official opposition party, which is nostalgic for apartheid SA and represents colonial white interests under the veneer of “non-racialism”, has broken ranks with the official government position and nailed its colours to the Ukrainian mast, even going as far a emblazoning the Cape Town city hall with blue and yellow. This by the way is the same party that opposes the official government position on Israel vis a vis its occupation of Palestine, so the masks are falling off and the hypocrisy is being laid bare, and we as Africans are by and large refusing to be corralled into a condemnation frenzy that would never be mobilized on our behalf.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Agreed. When those reporters came right out in the open and started to talk about blue-eyed, blond haired refugees, we saw the western elite mindset at work-

      ‘A one-time BBC TV journalist now with the Al Jazeera forgetting that he was with a news organisation based in Doha went so far as to say on air: “These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a state of war…They look like any European family that you would live next door to.” And a CBS journalist at the start of the invasion and the aerial attack on Kiev said: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for years. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European…city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen”.’

      Seriously, WTF? It is the 21st century and we are heading back into the 19th century way of thinking.

      1. Thuto

        A few days into the invasion, when Russia had barely laid a glove on Ukraine, Von Der Leyen was already calling this the most brutal act since WW2, saying how “war had come back to Europe”. All humans everywhere desire to live in peace, and war should be abhorred no matter where it occurs and who its victims are, but the sanctity of life, in so far as the elite western mindset is concerned, is a quality reserved for a superior caste of homo sapiens, I.e. those that look like them. For the rest of us, well, western elite indifference is what we’ve come to expect.

        1. The Rev Kev

          It’s strange when people talk like this. I mean when Von Der Leyen said it was ‘the most brutal act since WW2.’ It’s like they completely forgot Yugoslavia and Europe’s part in it’s destruction via NATO. As if it never happened.

        2. ChrisPacific

          Yes, there were a few non-white American commentators who collated examples of this from the media. It was quite shocking how blatant and pervasive it was. Once they were pointed out there were the usual apologies and retractions, but it was clear which one was the gut reaction and which one was appropriately sanitized for public consumption.

    2. Tom Stone

      Remember the “Gunwalker” program when Loretta Lynch and her Boss Eric Holder were in charge of the DOJ and their underlings conspired to sell thousands of guns to the Mexican cartels?
      We don’t know how many guns,because “National Security”
      However we do know that thousands of Journalists, Mayors,Prosecutors and activists were murdered by criminals using those guns.
      And it was and is “No big deal”.
      Because the people who were murdered were Mexican and did not matter.
      If this had happened in Canada…
      Racism is so deeply embedded in US and western European Culture that it is invisible even to the “Woke” most of the time.

    3. Kouros

      “For instance, in 2014 when the United States refused to sell certain weapons to Nigeria due to gross human rights abuses recorded in the fight against Boko Haram, Nigeria turned to other countries including Russia and Pakistan for arms supply.”

      But US, UK, Canada had no problems selling arms to KSA and UAE in their war against Yemen, which is beset by human rights abuses…

  3. David

    I think this has a lot to do with Libya, in fact. What many African states really resented and feared was not just the fact of the NATO intervention there (which cut across African Union attempts to resolve the problem), but what this implied for the future. I was in several African countries around that time, and the message from government contacts was the same everywhere: none of us is safe now. And of course the consequences of Libya, notably the destabilisation of the region, have impacted very largely on African countries.

    It’s also important to realise how weary African governments have become with endless moral lectures by western governments, and donor-funded programmes which undermine the independence and capabilities of their own systems. This is often trivialised (as here) by the assertion that it’s all about “human rights”, which Russia and China are happy to ignore, but the reality is much more complicated. The West’s moral agenda in Africa, for all that it is incoherent, often poorly-informed and sometimes internally contradictory, is backed up with a great deal of money and power, and has created interest groups in Africa who are happy to toe the neocolonial line as required. The Russians and the Chinese (and for that matter the Turks and even the Brazilians) simply don’t bring that kind of moral baggage with them, nor, in general, do they demand political obedience and support subsequently.

    History is important too. The Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent China, provided support and funding to the various liberation movements in Africa from the 1960s onwards whereas western countries often sided with the colonial powers. Whilst the long-term results of this support are equivocal (Africa is still stuffed with Russian-made weaponry from the era), the fact is that the West has made few friends by its activities in Africa since the end of the Cold War, and there’s certainly no reason of principle why African countries should be expected to take an anti-Russian position now.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, David.

      It’s not lost on Africans and others that, often and due to donor pressure, western NGOs engage in finger wagging about certain issues that are of little concern to people trying to survive.

      I forgot to mention that some Africans and Indians study in Russia and sometimes return with a spouse, so there are ties of blood and exchanges of information that bypass western channels. It’s similar in Syria.

      1. David

        And so do “African” NGOs, which are virtually all funded by western donors; often the usual right-thinking suspects like Canada, Sweden, Germany and the EU. Even the reputable ones are obliged to pursue an agenda that their donors can support, and in turn, this is often because the donors themselves have to defend their projects to their own Parliaments. So everybody wants safe, virtuous projects that won’t start a fuss in donor capitals and won’t get anyone into trouble.

        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, David.

          You’re right.

          I was thinking of the private donors, often tax dodging foundations.

    2. Carolinian

      I think this has a lot to do with Libya

      Actions have consequences? This Ray McGovern strikes me as interesting. He says the fundamental miscalculation by Biden’s junior diplomats was the belief that the Russia/China bond was superficial an could be broken.

      What Did Xi Know and When Did He Know It?

      Given the critical importance of how united Russia and China really are when push comes to shove, this question seems of transcendent importance – not least for any assessment of President Putin’s frame of mind. Is he still cool, calculating? Or does the invasion of Ukraine suggest the opposite; that he has lost it? Among the Chinese specialists from whom I seek counsel, there is resistance to the thought that Putin forewarned Xi (perhaps during his Feb. 4 visit to Beijing) of his plan to invade Ukraine shortly after the Beijing Olympics. Many experts on China are reluctant to conclude that Xi was told in advance, and that he gave Putin a waiver from Westphalia, so to speak.

      Clearly, the implications are serious. In my view, were Putin not to have been assured of Xi’s support, he would have been unhinged to attack Ukraine on Feb. 24. In other words, were Putin to have blindsided Xi, that would bespeak dangerous recklessness.

      In other words of course he told Xi.

      Clearly you can extend the same miscalculation to much of the third world who fail to see us as the shining city on a hill. By this calculation the real problem is not so much Biden, the addled figurehead, but his Hillary acolyte advisors who cling to the Clinton theory–going back to the 90s–that post Soviet Russia is a mere gas station primed to be yet another poodle while our real enemy is China. Perhaps Putin’s polite talk about “our partners” encouraged this.

      If I may rant, the Clintons were a great disaster for this country and, with all their talk about being wonks, an object lesson in the danger of credentialism. They compensated for electoral weakness by cultivating intellectual vanity–the West Wing thing. Call it hubris indeed and in this new millenium we are reaping the result.,

      1. Kouros

        He told Macron and Schultz that Russia is going to recognize the independence of the two separatist republics prior to doing so. So, it is likely that Xi was given an even more detailed brief on what’s in the store…

      2. lance ringquist

        we can never recover till nafta billy clintons disastrous policies have been reversed. as robert scheer has said, should we be surprised by today, nafta billy had 30 years to spread his type through every nook and cranny of power in america.

        “According to Grayzone journalist and editor Max Blumenthal, Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer’s guest on the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” part of the backlash Bernie Sanders is currently experiencing as he attempts to transform the Democratic Party dates back to Bill Clinton’s presidency.

        “[Bill and Hillary Clinton] set up a machine that was really a juggernaut with all this corporate money they brought in through the Democratic Leadership Committee,” says Blumenthal. “It was a very different structure than we’d seen with previous Democratic candidates who relied heavily on unions and the civil rights coalition.

        “And that machine never went away,” the journalist goes on. “It kept growing, kind of like this amoeba that began to engulf the party and politics itself. So that when Bill Clinton was out of power, the machine was passed to Hillary Clinton, and the machine followed her into the Senate. And the machine grew into the Clinton Global Initiative.”

        Speaking of his personal experience with the Clintons, Blumenthal tells Scheer he once met Chelsea Clinton and thought of her as an “admirable figure at that time” who had undergone humiliation and bullying on a national scale as she went through an “awkward phase” as a child. His memory of the child he once met made what followed all the more devastating to watch, Blumenthal laments.

        “I’ve watched her grow into adulthood and become a complete kind of replication of the monstrous political apparatus that her family has set up, without really charting her own path,” he says.

        “She just basically inherited the reign of the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative. She does paid talks for Israel. Her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, he gambled on Greece’s debt along with Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs.

        “I mean, as a young person,” Blumenthal adds, “seeing someone of my generation grow up and follow that path, do nothing to carve out her own space — it just absolutely disgusts me.”

        1. Ludus57

          I can see certain parallels here with events in the Labour party in and since the Jeremy Corbyn years. Tony Blair’s New Labour was inspired/modelled on Bill Clinton’s New Democrats.
          After thoroughly undermining Corbyn and the majority of the party membership, leading to two general election defeats, they are in the driving seat again, on the gradual road to irrelevence and electoral oblivion.

    3. voislav

      Coming from a former communist country, this is something that people in the West forget. US, France, and UK supported many a dictator in Africa and fought hard to suppress popular movements over the years. Then we had more recent fiascos in Somalia and Libya, but also the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.

    4. Thuto

      The credibility of the west is in tatters, and you neatly weave together several strands that explain the erosion of trust it has suffered in Africa. This development is not lost on the powers that be in the US, the head of Africom (US military command for Africa) recently gave a presentation to congress outlining how the high water mark for US influence in the region is now in the past, with China and Russia identified as principal threats that need to be countered if America is to regain its preeminence. Of course, with the world order currently being rearranged in broad daylight, this now amounts to wishful thinking. The golden days of unfettered American access to shaping pro-US policy on the continent are not coming back, and the resolve of Africans to push back against any attempts to get us to subordinate our interests to US/European ones will only stiffen from here on.

      1. orlbucfan

        The CIA, NSA, War Department aka Department of “Defense,” etc. meddling, stirring up their usual brand of greedy, racist trouble, has been going on since the 1960s and even before then. Don’t forget such corporate “heroes” as Bill Gates and related vermin. I don’t blame the Africans one bit. I read about the assorted USA “shenanigans” when I was a teenager and budding political junkie. You reap what you sow. Amen.

    5. ChrisRUEcon

      > It’s also important to realise how weary African governments have become with endless moral lectures by western governments

      Exactly this! Apparently, a Kenyan government official went further – vis-a-vis the emerging dipolar world:

      “Every time #China comes, we get a hospital, every time Britain comes, we get a lecture.”

      (via Twitter)

  4. Synoia

    Where is, or was, the condemnation by the west of, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria?

    And I’m sure that’s nowhere a complete list.

  5. vao

    Since this is about Africa, one should mention Somalia — the country which the West contributed mightily to muck up.

    Reply to Synoia above.

  6. Judith

    I would guess that the the Global North preventing the Global South from either obtaining sufficient vaccines or producing vaccines during the pandemic has contributed to the distrust.

  7. Darthbobber

    It would be hard for Africans not to notice the considerable overlap between leaders of this “struggle for freedom” and the former colonial powers.

  8. Irrational

    Meanwhile all of the EU press I peruse is full of “global condemnation” of Bucha, but when you read the list it is EU and US. I wonder if we have decent intel and it is being ignored or if we do not have any intel. I fear we will be led to war or penury by our stupid elite.

    1. B1WHOIS

      On the Duran, where the Alex’s discuss, it is noted that the Russians left 3 days before videos started popping up about the supposed dead people in Bucha. Even the mayor of the city gave an address on Twitter saying the Russians had left and he didn’t say anything about dead people everywhere. And then two days later the video shows up. So it is highly suspicious if only for the reasons of timing.
      I haven’t been able to watch today’s Duran video yet, but they’re interviewing Scott Ritter, who has more knowledge of military procedures and so forth. Probably they discussed the thing at Bucha but I can’t say for sure:

    2. jsn

      I’ve read a lot about Russia losing the information war.

      Personally, I suspect the Russians are fighting it on an entirely different battlefield and wrote the West off even before the military start.

      The West is so bound by its solipsism it can’t even see its own self destruction. I expect it’ll be like a Covid wave, slow ripples of disruption until a giant wave rolls in. Might even hit with a Covid wave and a midterm vote to amplify effects.

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