Speaking a month before the conference, Ugandan foreign minister Jeje Odongo pointed out that “We were colonized, and we forgave those who colonized us. Now the colonizers are asking us to be enemies of Russia, who never colonized us. Is that fair? Not for us. Their enemies are their enemies. Our friends are our friends.”
There is a long-remembered history of American and European colonialism. In March, during a joint press conference, Democratic Republic of Congo president Felix Tshisekedi found it necessary to scold French president Emmanuel Macron, telling him, “This must change, the way Europe and France treat us, you must begin to respect us and see Africa in a different way. You have to stop treating us and talking to us in a paternalistic tone. As if you were already absolutely right and we were not.”
In a reversal of the official narrative, in Africa, with its history of colonialism, it is not hard to see the United States and Europe as the villain and Russia as the hero.
And, as blatant colonialism has been replaced by subtle neocolonialism, nothing has changed. Neocolonialism is colonialism imposed without formal rule. It is colonialism carried out, not by controlling a country’s territory, but by controlling its economy. In 1965, Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah said that “neo-colonialism is the worst form of imperialism.” He explained that “foreign capital is used for the exploitation, rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world.” A few months later, Nkrumah was taken out in a U.S.-backed military coup.
An International Monetary Fund senior economist who designed structural adjustment programs in Africa would later confess that “everything we did from 1983 onward was based on our new sense of mission to have the south ‘privatize’ or die; towards this end we ignominiously created economic bedlam in Latin America and Africa. . . .”
Nkrumah’s coup was nothing new. Africans also remember the coup in the Congo in which Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. As colonialism gave way to neocolonialism, coups gave way to contemporary coups. According to Nick Turse, since 2008, U.S.-trained officers have attempted at least nine coups in West Africa.
There are a number of other contemporary motivations for African neutrality. The most important is the support for a multipolar world. But many African countries also see the war in Ukraine as yet another cold war proxy war between NATO and Russia in which entanglement brings no benefit. Africa believes that, “while there are global implications, it’s primarily a Western problem,” Mvemba Dizolele, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Post. “Africans are used to being told when they have problems, they should find an African solution to their problem,” he said. “That’s part of the mind-set: Why is it that your problem has to be the entire world’s problem?”
Alden Young agrees. He told me that African countries have long felt neglected in U.S.-African relations. He said that Africa feels that the United States “only worries about Africa when it is important to other issues. Not Africa on its own terms.”
A senior official in the Biden administration told The Washington Post that “African leaders have made clear to White House and administration officials that they simply want an end to the war,” and they disagree with the United States and “oppose the idea of punishing Russia or insisting that Kyiv must agree to any resolution.”
Despite Washington’s reluctance to push for or endorse negotiations, in May, Ramaphosa announced that he had held phone calls with Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy who both agreed to separately receive a delegation of African heads of state to discuss a possible peace plan to end the war. Joining South Africa in the delegation will be Senegal, Uganda, Egypt, the Republic of the Congo, and Zambia.
There is also the matter of military ties. Several African countries are reliant on Russia for their weapons.
Though the mainstream media often stresses the military motivation, it is but one of many motivations. In addition to multipolarity, colonialism, and coups, the unattractiveness of involvement in a proxy war and military ties, there are a number of other contributing motivations.
Many African countries enjoy growing economic relations with Russia. “What is particularly striking,” according to Ajala, “is the position held by Russia to give support to African countries without interfering in local politics.” Young also points to the “transactional nature of Western help.” The Russian approach is very different from the West’s policy of dictating ideological alignment or economic or political structural adjustments that “privatized” the South and “created economic bedlam” in Africa. Young says “the veil that the United States does it better has collapsed.”
African countries have also complained of discrimination and neglect by the West. COVID didn’t help. While wealthy Western nations sat on their vaccine stocks or disposed of unused, expired vaccines, neglected African countries, who thought they could count on the West, turned to China and Russia. Putin reminded the Russia-Africa conference that “[d]uring the coronavirus pandemic, Russia was among the first countries to provide African states with large volumes of vaccines, test kits, personal protective equipment, and other medical and humanitarian cargoes.” Ajala says that the “perceived lack of support from the West during the pandemic further pushed African countries away from their traditional Western allies.” Africans tire, Young told me, of the United States wanting Africa to rally behind them when they didn’t help Africa on other issues.
With the onset of the war in Ukraine, Africa was again reminded of the discrimination. The continent was critical of the discriminatory treatment of Africans when it came to evacuation and safety. “Africans trying to escape Ukraine were being racially discriminated against,” Euronews reported. Africans were prevented from boarding buses and trains and experienced physical abuse. The International Journal of Public Health reports that the average time for people of color to cross borders is longer compared to Ukrainians. Once across the border they “find it more difficult to find temporary housing and assistance in European countries.” It also points out that European countries were “welcoming White Ukrainian refugees without hesitation” while “historically blocking entry to refugees of color from varying countries.”
The UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner noted “with serious concern” the reports of officials preventing Africans from crossing the Ukrainian border, denying Africans entry to busses and trains “until all white migrants and asylum seekers have been accommodated,” and denying “entry for people of African descent into some neighboring countries.” Several African countries condemned the discriminatory treatment, and the African Union and the African Union Commission issued a statement saying that they “are particularly disturbed” by the discriminatory treatment and that “Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach international law.”
The war in Ukraine has forced African countries to complain, not only of discrimination, but of neglect. Several African countries are dependent on Russia and Ukraine for wheat and fertilizer. The war has threatened their food security. So, they were greatly relieved by the deal signed in Istanbul by Russia and Ukraine to permit the safe export of grain from Ukrainian ports. But, as Putin reminded the delegates at the Moscow conference, “about 45 percent of the total volume of grain exported from Ukraine went to European countries, and only three percent went to Africa ... despite the fact that this whole deal was presented under the pretext of ensuring the interests of African countries.”
According to the UN, as of the earlier date of July 2022, 36 percent had gone to European countries and 17 percent had reached Africa. Though a little better than Putin’s statistics, the difference is unlikely to impress Africans. At that time, only a very small amount of food specifically shipped under the World Food Program had reached Africa. Reuters reported on March 20 that “the main destinations for grain shipped under the deal have been China, Spain and Turkey.”
Putin contrasted the West’s treatment of Africa with the “almost 12 million tonnes [of grain] ... sent from Russia to Africa.” In November 2022, Russia agreed to send grain to some African countries for free. Ajala says Russia’s willingness to donate grain to Africa “can perhaps be seen as highlighting the desirability of a neutral stance towards the war in Ukraine.” Putin promised African countries at the conference that if the grain deal is not extended, “Russia will be ready to supply the same amount that was delivered under the deal, from Russia to the African countries in great need, at no expense.”
This neglect and discrimination, together with aid and support, economic partnership free of ideological dictates, military ties, and a continuing history of colonialism and coups have encouraged much of Africa to withhold support for U.S.-led sanctions and condemnation of Russia. 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.