Africans and the Russia-Ukraine War

By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

On February 2, the United Nations General Assembly convened in an emergency session, the first in a quarter of a century, to consider the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At the end of the debate, the states in the General Assembly voted to adopt a resolution condemning Russia’s conduct as an unlawful act of aggression “in violation of Article 2 (4) of the (United Nations) Charter” and demanded Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” 141 countries voted in favour of the resolution, five voted against and another 35 abstained.

27 African countries voted in favour of the resolution, including Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria. 17 of the 35 abstentions were African countries – that’s nearly one-third of the membership of the African Union and about half of the abstentions. They include Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

Four countries joined Russia in voting against the resolution. One of them, Eritrea, is African.

The breakdown of the African vote has naturally set tongues wagging about Africa’s position in this Russia-Ukraine war. Governments in many of the African countries that abstained have been severely criticized by their citizens for doing so. Surprisingly, much of this criticism takes place without any clear articulation of how the conflict impacts Africa. That, surely, should be where the conversation should begin.

Addressing the Security Council one week earlier on the same conflict, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, took the philosophical path in an impressive takedown of colonialism and its aftermath in Africa but failed to say much else to define an African interest in the war.

This appeared to have emerged two days before the vote at the General Assembly, when the Chairperson of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union and Senegal’s President, Macky Sall, issued a joint statement with the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in which they both confessed to being “particularly disturbed by reports that African citizens on the Ukrainian side of the border are being refused the right to cross the border to safety.”

They failed, however, to take this any further and the statement petered out into a whimper, merely urging “all countries to respect international law and show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity.” They could not even utter a minimal offer of assistance or strong advocacy to alleviate the crime of racist exceptionalism, which has emerged as a dimension to the war specifically targeting Africans and persons of African descent.

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