Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resumed the West and Russia’s intense rivalry, echoing the Cold War era. In this conjuncture, many African countries find themselves in a familiar position of non-alignment, not wanting to be forced to take sides in a conflict in the global North. In particular, some African countries have played an important role in global diplomacy, specifically regarding their votes in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
While it might seem there are limitations to African countries’ support to Ukraine, there are several diplomatic areas that could prove beneficial between the West and Kiyv, with opportunities for a more substantial engagement with African governments.
For these diplomatic initiatives to be successful, they will need to build on African interests. One of these, which will be discussed below, could be the support for a safe maritime corridor.
Africa’s positioning in the global condemnation of the war
African countries were critical in solidifying the world’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though there certainly wasn’t an Africa-wide consensus on the matter.
Together, 141 countries voted a UNGA resolution to demand an end to Russia’s invasion in early March. Several weeks later, 140 countries voted in support of a Ukrainian resolution requiring humanitarian aid to the country. At a later vote, Russia was removed from the UN Human Rights Council: this time around, only 94 countries voted to remove Moscow whilst several others abstained from voting, though that was enough to trigger the removal process.
When looking at African votes, there were some important countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya, which flipped, voting to condemn Russia at the UNGA vote yet opting to abstain when it came to removing Moscow from the UN Human Rights Council. For many African countries, who value the principles of sovereignty and independence, it is one thing to vote against an illegal invasion but another to remove a country from an important UN council. Finally, no African states have joined the West in any sanctions.
Bringing Africa onboard
What might happen now in terms of engagement between the West and Africa regarding Ukraine? There are three factors the West should bear in mind when engaging with Africa.
First, African countries can be expected to condemn violence and illegal actions, but not Russia as a state. While it would be tempting to pressure them to sever security related agreements, including ties with Russia’s Wagner forces, these efforts are likely to be fruitless.
Furthermore, given the losses Wagner mercenaries are facing in Ukraine, there will likely be a diminished Russian footprint in security cooperation with African countries anyway.
Second, Western countries should engage African governments on principles supported by the latter; primarily, support for Ukraine’s sovereignty. For instance, while Rwanda has not been eager to be forced into taking sides, there could perhaps be room to engage Kigali Russia’s genocide in Ukraine. Rwanda’s condemnation on this matter could be an important source of legitimacy.
Third, and most importantly, the West should engage African countries vis-à-vis their own interests in the conflict. The invasion of Ukraine is not just an attack against Kyiv, democracy, or Europe: its impact will be global. The most tangible consequence for many African states will be the sharp increase of food prices and problems accessing wheat and other food staples grown and transited through Ukraine and Russia.
Maritime corridors and repayments
One specific example where the West and African countries can come together based on converging interests is the support for a safe maritime corridor that would ensure the transportation of food from Ukraine to the global markets. The International Maritime Organization has called for this, as well as René Kofod-Olsen, a leader in the shipping industry, who has prompted NATO to enforce a maritime transit corridor. International support towards such decision would be critical. Currently, NATO is not keen on implementing the corridor, though there is room for change. With pressure or some form of support from the global South, such a move could indeed be possible.
Moreover, this isn’t the only possible area of convergence where the West and African countries might converge to meet African interests. In the near future, Western countries will need to decide what to do with Russia’s central bank assets, which are currently frozen. Lawmakers in both the US and Europe are calling on the West to confiscate the frozen funds to help Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction process. This would likely fall into the ‘illegal but legitimate’ category as Russia is not in direct military conflict with the West. Developing countries who are significantly suffering from food insecurity could potentially be included in the list of recipients. As Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky stated: “Those monies that were blocked and frozen have to be used to rebuild Ukraine after the war as well as to pay for the losses caused to other nations”. While this has not been a major focus of discussion, hypothetically, it would be feasible for other countries to put in a claim on those funds to offset food security disruptions.
To conclude, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been underway for over two months, with no end in sight. The devastation will continue to grow and spread across the world. Though there might appear to be significant obstacles in diplomatic engagement with the West and Africa regarding the war, if engagement is focused on African interests there is still room for opportunities that can make a difference in minimizing the devastation suffered by Ukraine and its consequences worldwide.