How Africa Surprised the West During the War in Ukraine

How Africa Surprised the West During the War in Ukraine

To the surprise and concern of the United States and Europe, the predominant response of Africa to the war in Ukraine has been neutrality and growing support for a multipolar world.

On March 20, Russian president Vladimir Putin met with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Moscow. The meeting, at which the two leaders “reaffirm[ed] the special nature of the Russia-China partnership,” may be a crucial moment in the emergence of the new multipolar world that is challenging U.S. hegemony.

But while the United States and its European partners watched and worried about the meeting with Xi, Putin was busy shuttling between that meeting and a conference where representatives from more than forty African countries attended. The conference was called Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World.

The African response to the war in Ukraine surprised the United States. The well-attended conference demonstrated that African countries were not abandoning Russia despite the war. Not one country in Africa has joined the U.S.-led sanctions on Russia and the dominant stance of the continent has been neutrality. The United States expected strong support from Africa and strong condemnation of Russia. Instead, it saw neutrality from most, a lack of condemnation of Russia from many, and the blame being placed on the United States and NATO by several.

At the conference in Moscow, Putin was warmly greeted by the delegates. Putin called the conference “important in the context of the continued development of Russia’s multifaceted cooperation with the countries of the African continent” and said, “[t]he partnership between Russia and African countries has gained additional momentum and is reaching a whole new level.” He promised that Russia “has always and will always consider cooperation with African states a priority.” The tone was very different from what Africa hears from the United States and Europe. The effect has been very different too.

The representatives of many of the African countries attending the conference on Russia and Africa in a multipolar world joined Putin in the call for that new world. The representatives from South Africa and the Congo said their countries support a multipolar world, as did the representatives from Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe, Mali, and more.

“To the surprise of the United States,” Alden Young, professor of African-American Studies at UCLA, told me, “Putin finds a receptive audience when he talks of multipolarity in Africa.” He says that the idea “resonates independently of Russia.” African countries realize that U.S. hegemony can be just as easily weaponized against them. 

There is a deep dissatisfaction with unipolarity in Africa. Young says that African states feel “marginalized” and that they are “frustrated with their inability to have a larger voice in international organizations.” As South Africa has seen with the Russian and Chinese-led BRICS, perhaps the only important international organization in which an African country has an equal voice, multipolarity offers an alternative. 

The Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World conference was a preparation for the second Russia-Africa Summit to be held in Russia in July. Olayinka Ajala, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Leeds Beckett University, told me that “the main focus of Russia and China at the moment is to get African countries to support the proposed BRICS currency and this will be a major topic in the upcoming conference.” He added, “With a population of over 1.2 billion, if Russia and China are able to convince African countries on the need to ditch the dollar, it will be a huge blow to the United States.” Liberation from the hegemony of the U.S. dollar is a mechanism for the liberation from U.S. hegemony in a unipolar world.

Russia’s new foreign policy concept, released in March, promises that Russia “stands in solidarity with Africa in its desire to occupy a more prominent place in the world and eliminate inequality caused by the ‘neo-colonial policies of some developed states.’ Moscow is ready to support the sovereignty and independence of African nations, including through security assistance as well as trade and investments.”

“Russia,” Young says, “has its finger on the pulse and is responding to demands that are popular in the vast majority of the world. The Biden administration was out of touch: they thought these weren’t grievances.”

Africa’s answer of neutrality is not the continent declining to take a position. It is the powerful new stance that you do not have to choose a side in a world where you can partner with many poles, in a world where you don’t have to fall in behind the United States in a unipolar world or choose between blocs in a new Cold War.

The United States exerted intense pressure on Africa to support U.S.-led sanctions. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told African countries that “if a country decides to engage with Russia, where there are sanctions, then they are breaking those sanctions.” She warned them that if they do break those sanctions, “They stand the chance of having actions taken against them.” Nonetheless, not one African country has sanctioned Russia. Her threat had the opposite effect, Ajala told me: It “has done nothing but strengthen the resolve of African countries to remain defiant in their position.”

Ajala reports that South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has said that “his country has been pressured to take a ‘very adversarial stance against Russia.’” Ramaphosa not only repelled that pressure and insisted, instead, on negotiations, but blamed the United States and NATO. He told the South African parliament that, “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.”

In July 2022, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken traveled to South Africa to warn Pretoria away from cooperating with Russia and to win U.S. support. It did not go well. In September 2022, President Joe Biden met with Ramaphosa in an attempt to persuade the country seen as leading African neutrality and the refusal to condemn Russia. That did not go any better. South Africa has rejected joining U.S.-led sanctions on Russia and has abstained from voting against Russia at the United Nations. On January 23, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in South Africa for talks aimed at strengthening their relationship. In February, South Africa, ignoring criticism from the United States and the EU, held joint military training exercises with Russia and China of its coast. Ajala says that navy exercise “has been of concern to Western countries, especially the United States.” The South African National Defense Force said that the drills are a “means to strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.”

Along with Russia, China, India, and Brazil, South Africa is a member of BRICS, an international organization intended to balance U.S. hegemony and advance a multipolar world. Egypt, Nigeria, and Senegal were recently welcomed as guests at the BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting. 

On June 3, 2022, Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, was accompanied by African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat on a trip to Moscow. This defiance of Western isolation of Russia was especially worrisome for Washington and the West because Macky Sall is not only the president of Senegal but was, at the time, the chairman of the African Union. According to Ajala, Washington and the West have wondered whether Sall’s stance should be interpreted as representing the stance of Africa as a whole.

There are many reasons for Africa’s predominantly neutral stance and defense of a multipolar world. Not least is that Africa finds it hard to buy into America’s message of Russia as the historical villain who dismisses international law and disrespects other countries’ sovereignty while America is the hero who protects them. 

In April, South African foreign minister Naledi Pandor complained that “This notion of international rules is very comfortable for some people to use when it suits them, but they don’t believe in international rules when it doesn’t suit them ... If you believe in international law truly, then whenever sovereignty is infringed, it must apply … We use the framework of international law unequally depending on who is affected.”

Africa remembers colonialism and neocolonialism; Africa remembers U.S. coups, as Zambia’s opposition leader just reminded the United States.

Putin reminded his audience at the conference that “Ever since the African peoples’ heroic struggle for independence, it has been common knowledge that the Soviet Union provided significant support to the peoples of Africa in their fight against colonialism, racism and apartheid.” He then provided the update that “Today, the Russian Federation continues its policy of providing the continent with support and assistance.”

His receptive audience agreed. A representative from South Africa remembered that “Russia has no colonial heritage in Africa and no African country sees Russia as an enemy. On the contrary, you helped us in our liberation, you are a reliable partner.” A representative from the Republic of Congo remembered that “Relations between Russia and Africa became special during the period of struggle for independence, when the Soviet Union was the main force supporting the national liberation movements. Thus, the USSR became the defender of the oppressed. Then it was the USSR, and now it is Russia taking a special place among the friends of Congo in difficult times.” A representative from Namibia said that his country would always be grateful to Russia and appreciate its support.