As tension between Russia and Ukraine continues, some strategic steps have been taken globally to address the situation. Continuing with our Russo-Ukraine conflict series, this is the first in three (3) series which analyses the veracity of the claim that African countries have failed to take a definite stand against Russia's military operations in Ukraine and provides some context regarding Africa's approach to conflict.
Her gaze is steadily fixed, a black woman gapes in awe at the item in her grip, as if dazed by its existence. The item is a Kalashnikov rifle, and our subject is an unidentified visitor to the Russia-Africa Summit held in 2019. With this as its featured image, the ensuing Associated Press article makes the claim that “Africa [has been] mostly quiet amid widespread condemnation of Russia”.
The article, the latest in a flock of Western media reports, argues that many African countries have failed to take a definite stand against Russia’s so-called “strategic military operation” in Ukraine. This paper will first interrogate the veracity of that claim and will subsequently examine the rationale behind Africa’s approach to the conflict.
A Muted Response?
These claims have largely been based on isolated remarks by some African leaders and figures close to them. For instance, many sources have referenced Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s comments that the Russian invasion should be seen in the context of Moscow being the centre of gravity in Eastern Europe as evidence of African support for Russia. Much still has been made of a tweet by his son, Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba who ostensibly expressed his support of the Kremlin’s actions.
Nonetheless, the broader African response, to the extent that such a categorisation can be made, has been far less incendiary and has in fact been complementary to the position of the West on this matter. Evidently, the joint statement by the African Union and the AU Commission on the day of the invasion demanded that the Russian Federation “imperatively respect international law, the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Ukraine”.
Moreover, the majority of African states have upheld this position in the United Nations. In the wake of the invasion, the United States and Albania co-sponsored a draft resolution in the Security Council which called for the immediate cessation of Russian military operations in Ukraine. Contrary to the claim of inertia, all three African representatives on the Security Council: Gabon, Ghana and Kenya numbered part of the 11 countries who voted for the adoption of the resolution with China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstaining and Russia expectedly exercising its veto power to kill the resolution.
The picture subsequently painted at the Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly however fell short of the united front Africa showed at the Security Council. Of the 141 who voted to adopt UNGA Resolution ES-11/1 (A/RES/ES-11/1) of 2 March 2022, which called out Russia and Belarus for acts of aggression in Ukraine and demanded the immediate withdrawal of troops from Ukraine and the reversal of the Kremlin’s decision to recognise self-declared People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, 28 of the 54 African countries voted in favour of the resolution, 17 countries abstained, a further 8 were absent and Eritrea was the sole African country to vote against the resolution.
Further, following continued Russian operations in Ukraine, Resolution ES-11/2 (A/RES/ES-11/2) was adopted on 24 March 2022 reiterating the demands of the previous Resolution ES-11/1 and calling for the protection of civilians notably students who were fleeing the conflict. All African countries held their ground save Togo which abstained after previously being absent. It was only at the introduction of Resolution ES-11/3 (A/RES/ES-11/3), which stripped the Russian Federation of its seat in the Human Rights Council, that the resolve of African countries began to falter with notably Egypt, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, who had voted in favour of the two preceding resolutions, switching to abstinence with Gabon voting against ES 11-3.
Ukraine has recently become an attractive destination for foreign university students due to its European standard education at relatively lower costs. It is estimated that about a quarter of the 80,470 foreign students enrolled in universities across the country are African"
Admittedly, Africa’s showing at the United Nations does not match up to the aspirations of a bloc that aspires to be a bastion for global peace and stability. Yet, the inability of Africa to present a united front on this matter should not be misinterpreted as a lack of interest in advocating for rights or, as the US Defence Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies claims, that “African citizen and sovereign interests have given way to Russian priorities”. Instead, one must look to how the invasion has impacted the continent, jointly and severally, to understand the reticence of African countries to take drastic measures in the wake of the conflict.
Brown Eyes, Coarse Hair
Gifty Naana Mensah, a 23-year-old Ghanaian medical student, had been studying in Ternopil, Western Ukraine for five years with no trouble. It was only when Gifty was fleeing Ternopil for the Polish border in the aftermath of Russia’s attacks that she was made to understand the worth of her African life when juxtaposed to others. She reports being stranded on the Ukrainian side of the border for two days on little water and no food and being denied entry into Poland by Ukrainian border officials who allowed Ukrainian citizens to pass freely. Gifty’s story is only one of the tales of horror told by many an African and Asian student fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.
Ukraine has recently become an attractive destination for foreign university students due to its European standard education at relatively lower costs. It is estimated that about a quarter of the 80,470 foreign students enrolled in universities across the country are African with Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt accounting for some 16,111 students. From stories of physical abuse to those of being trapped in the biting cold for days, the plight of the African students fleeing the conflict has been deplorable. The BBC reports that in the run-up to the conflict, several Ukrainian universities declined the request of African students to move their classes virtual to enable them to leave the country and threatened punitive action should the students leave.
Unfortunately, despite the continuous patronage of African students in Ukrainian universities, allegations of systemic racism against Black students are rife and predate Russia’s invasion. The treatment of African students came to a head in 2011 when a Nigerian student, Olaolu Sunkanmi Femi, was arrested and detained for months without a fair trial on charges of attempted murder after he defended himself and a friend from a racist attack by five Ukrainians. His prolonged detention spurred protests across the country and brought renewed attention to the racist treatment of immigrants in Ukraine which had previously drawn condemnation from UNHCR.
More recently, the narrative surrounding the invasion itself and the mass exodus of Ukrainians into neighbouring countries has itself been marred by racial undertones. After the invasion, several news reporters expressed shock that Russia had invaded a “relatively civilised, relatively European country…where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen” and “not a developing third-world nation”. This suggests that conflict and its ramifications are somehow endemic to Africa and the Middle East, despite being ahistorical, has prominently influenced the response to the crises, particularly when it comes to refugees.
The UNHCR estimates that some 6.2 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the conflict making it the biggest refugee crisis anywhere since the Second World War. Yet, the reactions from neighbouring European countries to Ukrainian refugees have been markedly different to that of refugees fleeing crises elsewhere. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the European Union scrambled to implement a hitherto unused Temporary Protection Directive which exempts Ukrainian refugees from standard EU asylum protocols and virtually bestows European citizenship rights upon them for up to 3 years. Even Hungary’s nationalist president, Victor Orban, has relaxed his hard-line approach to immigration and has opened the country’s borders to over 600,000 Ukrainian refugees, distinguishing these “refugees” from migrants, who he has previously referred to as poison.
In view of the above, the priority of African governments has been to get their citizens who have been embroiled in this conflict to safety and to figure out what steps to take for the continuation of their studies elsewhere. This has meant that African countries have been cautious not to make any rash decisions which could draw the ire of Russia since there are almost 10,000 more African students in Russia than they were in Ukraine before the crisis especially when opportunities available for Ukrainian refugee students to continue their education in third countries are not extended to African students as well.
Sam Kwadwo Owusu-Ansah | Lead Research Analyst, Transnational Policy | firstname.lastname@example.org
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