Africa’s diplomatic response to Ukraine has been closely watched, as the invasion is pitting Russia – and Belarus – against not just Ukraine but also its allies, from as close as Poland and as far as Australia. And the United Nations (UN) has become the stage to platform every member nation’s position.
Africa’s three non-permanent members on the UN Security Council – Ghana, Kenya, and Gabon – had already condemned Russia’s actions in the lead-up to the invasion, with Kenya’s strongly-worded rebuke focusing on the inviolability of borders and the need for every sovereign nation to control its own fate.
The UN General Assembly vote of 141-5 highlights Russia’s isolation because so many countries from around the world have registered their displeasure with Russia’s assault on Ukraine. And this vote goes much further than the similar one following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when only 100 members supported the resolution.
Of the 35 total abstentions this time, 17 were from Africa – compared to 2014 when 26 did – but a few others such as Ethiopia and Cameroon simply walked out instead of making their positions officially known. And a few African countries – such as Mauritania, Kenya, Lesotho, and Mauritius – moved from abstaining in the past to voting in favour.
Russian ties with African countries growing closer
Those events of 2014 and the sanctions which resulted precipitated Moscow’s decision to seek out new international partners, and so Russia cast its eye on Africa. Since then, most of Russia’s efforts in Africa have focused on security and defensive alliances, supplying weapons to buyers with no strings attached and presenting itself as a bulwark against armed insurgents.
Among Russia’s foreign policy elite, 2022 has even been dubbed the ‘Year of Africa’ with the second Russia-Africa summit slated for St. Petersburg later in the year. And Russian ties with certain countries in Africa have become much closer since this pivot.
Following two coups which toppled both a democratically-elected government and its successor, Mali became isolated from its traditional allies in West Africa and a diplomatic rupture with France led to the withdrawal of the latter’s troops from the country. But Russia stood by Mali, voting against a UN Security Council measure seeking to support ECOWAS sanctions on Mali, and it is now probably Mali’s closest foreign ally.
As it did in 2014, Mali abstained this time along with the Central African Republic (CAR) which had voted in favour of the 2014 resolution but – eight years and a full-on invasion later – its unequivocal support then has turned to neutrality now as a sign of its new relationship with Russia and the enormous influence wielded by Moscow’s emissaries there.
Meanwhile Eritrea, a hermit nation in East Africa, was one of the five countries supporting Russia’s position while Nigeria voted for the resolution, not necessarily in support of Ukraine but in support of the spirit of respecting international law and that the fairly peaceful resolution of its own territorial dispute with Cameroon over Bakassi should serve as a model.
Although South Africa’s abstention was all but certain, its vote was closely watched as it was joined by the five other Nation Liberation Movement nations in southern Africa, whose default position is non-alignment. Explaining its abstention, South Africa said the resolution does not ‘create an environment conducive for diplomacy’ and called for dialogue to address ‘security concerns’ of the parties involved.
When Russian tanks first rolled into Ukraine, South Africa had urged Russia to withdraw in an initial condemnation which should be seen within the context of its foreign minister Naledi Pandor seeking to launch her country’s bid for membership of the UN Human Rights Council for the 2023-25 cycle.
But those remarks split the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and Pretoria forced the ministry to fall back in line. Since then, South Africa has been rather ambiguous in its statements about the conflict. If South Africa felt so strongly about the failures of the resolution as it was written, it should have voted against.
By abstaining, South Africa ignores the power imbalance between the warring parties and Russia’s clear aggression in its invasion of Ukraine, and its blanket call for dialogue can be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of Russia’s actions.
Another indication of South Africa’s true position beyond its abstention is that the Ukrainian ambassador to Pretoria failed to secure a meeting with South Africa’s foreign ministry officials in the days leading to the invasion. This was despite South Africa being the only sub-Saharan African country to maintain a resident ambassador in Kyiev.
South Africa’s preference for non-alignment
South Africa’s abstention appears at odds with its official position on other interventions. It is a vocal critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestine – often noting that power imbalance – and it opposed the NATO intervention in Libya. As a nation whose troops are ever rarely deployed to other sovereign nations outside of multi-party delegations, South Africa’s rather convoluted position on Ukraine is intriguing.
Two factors may explain what South Africa is trying to achieve. As a member of the BRICS alliance, South Africa – and the other members – see themselves as the world’s rising powers providing an alternative to the traditional dominant powers and, of the five BRICS members, only Brazil voted in favour of the UN resolution.