At a United Nations Security Council emergency meeting on Feb. 21, as Russia prepared for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kenya’s U.N. Ambassador Martin Kimani affirmed that “we must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.” Praised around the globe, his speech led many to assume that, in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, African states would largely stand with Ukraine and the West, and against Russia. The assumptions were based not on moral conviction alone; many African countries receive substantial assistance from the United States and Europe, while others rely on both Ukrainian and Russian wheat and other agricultural commodities exports, which are disrupted by the conflict.
The U.N. General Assembly vote that followed on March 2 on a resolution to condemn the Russian invasion, however, tells a different story. The vote’s results were clear, and the silence of many African leaders deafening: Nearly half (48 percent) of the 54 African states decided not to take a stand against Russia. That is, 17 countries abstained from the vote (Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe), eight did not vote (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco, Togo), and one voted against the resolution (Eritrea).
A more recent General Assembly vote on April 7 that resulted in the suspension of Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, garnered even less support from the continent. Only 10 states supported the punishment (Chad, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sierra Leone). Nine countries voted against (Algeria, Burundi, CAR, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Mali, Zimbabwe), 24 abstained (Angola, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Egypt, Eswatini, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda), and 11 did not vote (Benin, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Somalia, Zambia).
This should be a wake-up call for the United States. American leaders cannot simply take for granted that partners in Africa — even democracies — will follow Washington’s lead or easily accede to pressure to do so. Despite the claim that the March 2 U.N. vote was proof that democracies would rally with the United States, several democratically-elected African leaders did not, and the April 7 vote received even less support across the continent and worldwide.
The war in Ukraine is exposing the limitations of U.S. diplomacy towards Africa, but also the short-sightedness of its broader engagement with the continent, a relationship dominated by foreign aid, to the detriment of foreign investment. Europe’s search for alternatives to Russian energy supplies is a stark example that demonstrates how insufficient investment in Africa’s energy sector translated into a missed opportunity for the U.S. and its allies.
The Factors of Aid, Investment, and Ideology
African leaders are divided with respect to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and their interests and relations with the United States and Russia, while still somewhat rooted in the Cold War era, are much different today. In that sense, it would be a mistake to assume, because of their history with colonization and a desire to discourage strong states from bullying smaller ones, that African countries would naturally align with the United States and condemn Russia.
That may be true in some instances, as Kimani’s impassioned speech showed. But many African countries, including the biggest recipients of U.S. assistance, are unlikely to automatically take a strong stance against Russia. For instance, South Africa, the United States’ largest African trade partner, and recipient in 2020 of more than $1.1 billion of U.S. assistance, also has significant ties with Russia. President Cyril Ramaphosa explained his country’s abstention from the March 2 vote by saying “ the resolution did not foreground the call for meaningful engagement,” and he called for “dialogue between the parties.”
To be sure, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index, most of the African countries that did not vote to condemn Russia’s actions are considered authoritarian, suggesting political and ideological alignment surely played in favor of Putin’s Russia. But ideology alone cannot explain the vote results. Twenty-three percent — almost a quarter — of the countries that did not side with Ukraine scored above the Democracy Index average and are considered hybrid regimes or flawed democracies (Madagascar, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Morocco). Notably, the index also characterizes the United States as a flawed democracy.
On the other hand, a number of hybrid regimes that scored below the average on the index, and two authoritarian countries, did vote in favor of Ukraine. That is the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which scored the lowest across the continent on the index, and Somalia, considered by other indexes as “not free.” Anecdotally, in 2014, during the U.N. General Assembly vote to support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, several authoritarian countries voted in favor of Ukraine, while several flawed democracies voted against. Clearly, factors other than ideology must be taken into account to fully understand the positions of African countries in 2022.
Growing Ties with Russia
Africa’s growing ties with Russia, some of which are decades-long, explain the position of some of the region’s leaders. But their decisions also may reflect their frustration with how Western powers, including the United States, engage them — with what African leaders often see as arrogance or purely self-interest or with strict conditions they see as insulting. In short, the U.N. vote was illustrative of African leaders’ desire to strategically balance their relations with Russia and the United States, based on their own interests, as they did during the Cold War with the Non-Aligned Movement.
Certainly, the European Union (EU) and the United States have historically been the biggest economic and security partners of the region. The EU is the continent’s largest trading partner, with 33 percent of total African exports going to Europe, while African imports from the EU represented 31 percent of total African imports in 2020. The EU also provides large amounts of assistance, like the United States, which has been pouring billions into the continent through development, humanitarian, and security sector aid. The United States also has a significant military presence on the continent. Yet, a number of African countries benefiting from these substantial streams of cooperation, such as CAR, Uganda, and South Africa, decided to not heed U.S. and EU calls to vote in favor of Ukraine.
Of course, Western powers are no longer the sole major players on the continent. Through arms sales, military equipment donations, the provision of military training, and the presence of paramilitaries like the Wagner Group, Russia has been steadily establishing itself as an alternative security partner. According to a SIPRI report, in the period 2016-20, Russia was the largest arms exporter to sub-Saharan Africa.
Though its economic relations remain modest as compared to the continent’s main trading partners, Russia has also increased its trade and economic investments with African countries, and in 2019 launched its first Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum. President Vladimir Putin has also capitalized on critiques of Western political, human rights, and other economic conditionalities to assistance, openly criticizing that strategy days before the start of the first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019. In short, despite the fact that Russia, just like Western actors, pursues its interests in strengthening cooperation with Africa, and in spite of the reported destabilizing effects Russia has across the continent, Russia is benefiting from a relatively good perception by at least some of its African partners. And Russia is not associated with the West’s failures to meet the continent’s — or its own — expectations in addressing instability and enabling prosperity, nor does it have a history of colonization with the continent as does Europe.
Though this perception may not last in the long-term, and although the relative success of the 2019 Russia-Africa summit can be debated, the presence of 43 of Africa’s 54 heads of states at that event demonstrates that a number of them value their ties with Moscow and appreciate Russia’s approach to cooperation. Despite the clearly problematic nature of some of its engagement, Russia is deemed in some quarters of the continent as less paternalistic ― less imperialist or neo-colonial ― and less self-serving than the United States and its Western partners. For instance, while Russia is expanding its economic exchanges with the continent on the one hand, the United States is struggling to extend its relations with African states beyond aid and towards more economic partnerships. Indeed, in 2019, Africa accounted for only 1.4 percent of U.S. global trade and only 0.7 percent of U.S. foreign direct investment.
In contrast, both Ukraine and Russia export agricultural commodities to the continent, and several African countries are particularly dependent on Russian wheat exports. Moreover, according to the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, Russia is the “the world’s largest fertilizer producer.” The current war therefore portends food shortages, and food, fertilizer, and oil price spikes that could lead to a major food crisis in several African states, and these effects may last for years. This situation can further explain the limited support of African leaders to the two U.N. votes on March 2 and April 7, as they must navigate the conflict’s economic, social, political and security consequences, while protecting and advancing their own interests and relations with their key economic partners.
Overall, while Russia’s economic power nevertheless remains small by comparison to that of the United States or the EU, the respective perceptions of these three trade partners by their African counterparts is what matters.
Approach to Cooperation
All these elements could demonstrate a growing sense of fatigue with Western forms of engagement with the continent, which, coupled with a more-present Russia, could explain why many African states have, so far, decided not to take a strong stance against the Kremlin with regard to the war in Ukraine. The U.N. General Assembly votes showed that the United States is currently unable to build a wide diplomatic coalition with the continent, which represents a significant 28 percent of General Assembly members.
Even more strikingly, the question of whether Africa could become an alternative to Russia’s gas exports for Europe has highlighted how the United States and its Western partners are unable to recognize economic opportunities upstream. It has become clear that African countries lack the necessary infrastructure to rapidly answer European energy demands. Whereas Western powers are now contemplating the opportunity to invest in this sector in Algeria, Angola, Nigeria, and Tanzania, China has been investing massively. The United States cannot simply be reactive about such matters and wait for wartime to adjust. It must foresee opportunities for mutually beneficial economic cooperation well before a crisis if it wishes to remain an attractive partner. For now, the U.S. approach to partnerships in Africa has proven shortsighted.
To be sure, there must be a coherent engagement strategy that efficiently capitalizes on U.S. resources, which are not unlimited. But the United States continues relegating African partners to the background of U.S. foreign policy. The legacy policies from the U.S. global war on terror have prioritized a strategy of engagement with a select few where the United States sees a potential terror threat, and focused primarily on security and development efforts. But initiatives in the security sector have failed to demonstrate sustained impact, while development efforts have also not yielded the profound transformations they aspire to enable. In parallel, meager economic investments and limited trade numbers illustrate that broader partnerships could be pursued to ensure dividends for all in the long run.
U.S. leaders should realize that they need to rebalance U.S. strategy towards Africa, with meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships that are not simply opportunistic and self-serving in the short term. That means that the United States should stop treating African states as countries needing only its assistance and aid — something researchers are increasingly calling out in a movement to “decolonize aid” — but rather as diplomatic, economic, and security partners. From appropriate support to address violent crises, to trade and diplomacy, the United States must recognize that a strategy of limited and paternalistic relationships, and exchanges primarily oriented around countering violent extremism, do not serve its interests and has enabled others to fill the void.
While the United States remains stuck in old ways of doing business, other actors — Russia, China, Turkey, India — are taking the opportunity to explore multiple avenues of engagement. There are indeed many promising sectors for cooperation, including tech and telecommunications, health, banking, clean energy, agriculture, and infrastructure. If this means that African states can benefit from a wide range of partnerships, this also means that the United States is perceived as less of a strong partner than it hopes to be, with less leverage to rally diplomatic and economic support in times of need. To change this dynamic, U.S. leaders should change their approach to developing countries and start viewing them as full-fledged players on the international scene, and build with them meaningful and mutually beneficial relations that will support prosperity for all.