African leaders condemn Russia, but some remain silent as Moscow’s influence hits home

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine escalates, Moscow’s growing influence in Africa has led to divergent responses among the continent’s leaders.

Heads of state from around the world, including many from Africa, have lambasted the Russian attack over the last week, with the U.S., EU and U.K. imposing punitive economic sanctions.

However, political analysts told CNBC that while a united African voice in opposition to Russia would be a powerful one, a number of countries will be reluctant to publicly detach themselves from Moscow given their strategic military ties.

Over the past few years, Russia has built a number of military alliances with governments in African countries facing violent insurgencies or political instability, including Libya, Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mozambique.

The significance of these ties could now play a major role in how these countries respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For instance, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy leader of Sudan’s military junta, led a delegation to Moscow last Wednesday, while in the CAR capital of Bangui, a statue has been erected of Russian paramilitary personnel credited with quashing an armed rebellion in late 2020.

A draft United Nations resolution on Wednesday condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine and called on the Kremlin to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”

The resolution passed overwhelmingly with 141 nations voting in favor, but a host of African nations were among the 34 that abstained from the vote: South Africa, Mali, Mozambique, the Central African Republic, Angola, Algeria, Burundi, Madagascar, Namibia, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Eritrea, meanwhile, was one of only five countries to actively vote against the resolution, alongside Russia, Belarus, Syria and North Korea.

‘Dangerous nostalgia’
Some African officials were quick to denounce Russia’s incursion, however.

On Feb. 22, even before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Kenya’s UN Envoy Martin Kimani delivered a stinging rebuke to Moscow that highlighted the potential significance of the continent in the global discussion.

“Kenya, and almost every African country, was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris, and Lisbon with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart,” Kimani told delegates.

He said African nations chose to look forward rather than “form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia.”

“We chose to follow the rules of the OAU (Organization of African Unity) and the United Nations charter, not because our borders satisfied us, but because we wanted something greater forged in peace,” Kimani added.

Meanwhile, Harold Agyeman, Ghana’s permanent representative to the UN Security Council, said that Ghana stands with Ukraine in the wake of the “unprovoked” attack, and Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said that Nigeria is prepared to impose sanctions on Russia and will comply with any UN resolution.

Macky Sall, the current chair of the African Union and president of Senegal, along with Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, also last week expressed “extreme concern” at the situation. They called on Moscow to “imperatively respect international law, the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Ukraine.”

Military influence
Steven Gruzd, from the South African Institute of International Affairs think tank, said the fact that not all countries were as forthcoming with their rebukes was to be expected.

“Do not expect strident condemnations from those countries where there is a large Russian presence, especially from PMCs [private military contractors] like the Wagner Group – CAR, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, Libya,” Gruzd said. The EU sanctioned the Wagner Group – a paramilitary organization populated largely by ex-service personnel – in December after accusing it of committing human rights abuses in conflict zones and performing clandestine overseas operations on behalf of the Kremlin, a link the Russian government has denied.

Speaking before Wednesday’s UN vote, Gruzd also highlighted that South Africa was late to comment on the invasion.

The South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation first released a statement on Feb. 23 calling for peace and dialogue, without acknowledging Russia as the aggressor, before explicitly saying Russian forces should withdraw in a second statement the following day.

However, the second statement also suggested that Russia’s security concerns should be seriously considered, and President Cyril Ramaphosa on Feb. 25 urged the UN to do more to mediate.

Delegates at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum at the Sirius Park of Science and Art.
Delegates at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum at the Sirius Park of Science and Art.
Anton Novoderezhkin
In a statement at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, South African permanent representative Mathu Joyini again called for “diplomacy and dialogue” and emphasized the importance of the “peaceful resolution of conflict,” without naming Russia as the aggressor.

“We urge all parties to approach the situation in a spirit of compromise, with all sides upholding human rights, abiding by their obligations under international law and international humanitarian law,” she added.

Gruzd suggested the uncertain approach from South Africa was indicative of the awkward position the government is in, torn between “political affinity for Russia” and displeasure at the “clear naked and brutal aggression on a friendly state” by the Kremlin.

“So the statements have been muted and measured, compared to South Africa’s regular vitriol against Israel, for example,” Gruzd highlighted.

South Africa’s government and Department of International Relations have not responded to CNBC’s request for comment.

Gruzd also noted that other African nations have focused their messaging on the welfare and evacuation of their citizens in Ukraine, rather than issuing direct condemnation of Russia.

“A rule of thumb is the closer the ties to Russia militarily, economically and politically, the more muted African responses are likely to be,” he added.

Harry Broadman, chair of emerging markets at consulting firm Berkeley Research Group and former economic adviser for the Africa region at the World Bank, highlighted that Russia’s relationships in Africa are largely tied to ruling elites in countries with vast chasms between leaders and the general population.

“It’s a relatively small number of countries, but they all have one characteristic which is that they’re quite shaky and resource-oriented, or they have military leaderships at the very top,” he told CNBC on Thursday.

He suggested the African Union will have difficulty establishing itself as a “powerful entity” in opposing Russia, since Moscow’s strategy is not continent-wide.

“They’re picking off certain countries based upon the elites, based upon minerals, based upon military interests – it’s a very different strategy than what China has been doing,” he added. China, in contrast, has developed an Africa-wide economic presence through decades of loan financing and infrastructure investment.

The anti-colonial message
Kenya’s message at last week’s UN Security Council was widely praised for the parallels drawn between the anti-colonial struggles – and agreement that Africa’s borders be respected in the aftermath of decolonization – and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to roll back the years on Ukraine’s independence, prioritizing ethnic self-determination over territorial integrity.

“Africa’s voice in the UN General Assembly matters, with about 25% of the seats. If there is a strong, united push against Russia, this matters. International norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity are integral to Africa’s outlook,” Gruzd told CNBC on Saturday.

“If the continent chooses to, it can be a strong voice for these values in this case. The AU has come out with a terse statement opposing Russia. We need to see more of this.”

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