On March 2, the U.N. General Assembly in New York was asked to vote on a resolution calling for Russian troops to withdraw from Ukraine "immediately, completely and unconditionally." One hundred and forty-one of the U.N.'s 193 members voted in favor of the resolution — a strong signal of the international community's condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The vote, however, made clear Africa's division on the issue. While 28 out of 54 African countries sided with Ukraine, the rest, bar Eritrea which voted against the resolution, either abstained or chose not to turn up to vote. Cameroon, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Burkina Faso, Togo, Eswatini and Morocco were absent. Algeria, Uganda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Mali, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Congo Brazzaville, Sudan, South Sudan, Madagascar, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa abstained.
On the wrong side of history?
This has generated fierce criticism, especially from intellectuals, diplomats and opposition politicians in South Africa. "The refusal to condemn this war puts South Africa on the wrong side of history," said Herman Mashaba of the newly formed opposition party, ActionSA. Mashaba says it is obvious that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a "violation of international principles of law" and accuses South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) of refusing to cut ties with Russia, a historical ally.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has since defended his government's decision to abstain from voting on the UN resolution. In a statement released on March 7, Ramaphosa said that the resolution failed to emphasize the role of peaceful dialogue in stopping the war, which is why his country couldn't support it.
Angolan political scientist Olivio N'kilumbu says many in the ANC are still loyal to Russia. "Some are of the opinion that the former liberation movement still owes the Russians a lot since the days of the Cold War, and now we Africans have to shut up about the Russian invasion," he told DW . Russian propaganda aims to "revive the old connections between the Soviet Union and liberation movements" in many African countries, including South Africa, he said.
Battle of words on Twitter
One example of this is a tweet from Russia's Embassy in South Africa, which thanked South Africans who had expressed their solidarity with Russia's fight against what the tweet refered to as "Nazism in Ukraine". Germany's embassy in South Africa quickly responded with a tweet of its own. "Sorry, but we can't keep silent on this one, it's just far too cynical. What Russia is doing in Ukraine is slaughtering innocent children, women and men, for its own gain. It's definitely not 'fighting Nazism'. Shame on anyone who's falling for it," says the German reaction, which ends with a statement in brackets: "Sadly, we're kinda experts on Nazism."
But Germany's response provoked some heavy criticisms from South African Twitter users. Some pointed to the Soviet Union's support for South Africa's apartheid liberation struggle while others sided with Russia's justification for the invasion of Ukraine or were critical of Germany's colonial history in southern Africa. One user writes: "Russia is only opposing NATO's advance into Ukrainian territory. The consequences of this expansion were clear and NATO decided to ignore them. This war was foreseeable and avoidable." Another user asks: "What did Germany do in Namibia?"
Africa's historic connection to the Soviet Union
Political scientist N'Kilumbu says that Russia's propaganda is also directed at other African countries, especially in the south of the continent, whose liberation movements had political and military support from the former Soviet Union. By abstaining from voting on the U.N.'s Ukraine resolution, countries like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia had this "historic friendship in mind," N'Kilumbu said. "Especially in Angola and Mozambique, there has been virtually no political change since the Cold War era. And that's why the umbilical cord that connects these countries to Moscow has never been severed," said N'Kilumbu.
The People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), for example, continues to maintain close ties with Russia's military, business and political elites, N'Kilumbu points out. "At the military level, we still have Russian instructors. Our military academy is Russian-influenced," he said.
Russian resources and weapons
In recent years, Russia has increasingly used this historic Soviet connections to expand its political, economic and, above all, military relations with African nations. In 2019, Vladimir Putin hosted a Russia-Africa Summit attended by 43 African leaders. Just one year later, Russia became Africa's biggest arms supplier.
According to a 2020 analysis by the peace research institute SIPRI, between 2016 and 2020 around 30 per cent of all arms exported to sub-Saharan Africa countries came from Russia. This vastly overshadows weapon supplies from other nations such as China (20 per cent), France (9.5 per cent) and the USA (5.4 per cent). This increased the volume of Russian arms shipments by 23 per cent over the previous five-year period.
Arming the Central African Republic
Nowhere on the continent has Russian influence grown as rapidly as in the Central African Republic (CAR). The intensified cooperation between the two nations began in 2017, when Russia delivered weapons, including Kalashnikovs and surface-to-air missiles, to the war-torn country for the first time. Since then, Russia has gradually increased its presence in CAR. In 2018, Russian military advisers were dispatched to CAR with the official aim of training local armed forces.
Meanwhile, numerous Russian companies have received licenses to mine gold and diamonds in the country while its President, Faustin-Archange Touadera, is now guarded by Russians. His main security adviser is Valery Sakharov, a former employee of Russia's domestic intelligence service, the FSB. Given Moscow's ties to the nation, it is unsurprising that a pro-Russia rally took place in the capital Bangui on Saturday, says political scientist Olívio N'Kilumbu. Demonstrators held up placards with slogans such as "Russia, CAR is with you" and "Russia save Donbas", a reference to a region in eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
'Wagner is in Mali'
Russia has also expanded its presence in crisis-ridden Mali. Rumors have been flying for months that Mali's military leaders are relying on the support of Russian mercenaries, allegations the junta has denied. But the United States has repeatedly called out the Malian government for working with Moscow. Africom, the U.S. military's Africa command, said that "several hundred" Russian mercenaries were in the country. "Wagner is in Mali," Africom announced in a Voice of America interview in January, referring to the shadowy Russian private military firm linked to a close ally of Vladmir Putin. Wagner mercenaries are also said to have fought in Mozambique, Sudan and CAR.
Political, historical and military dependencies
Guinean writer and intellectual Tierno Monenembo believes that many African states will never free themselves from Russia's grip, especially given their increasing reliance on Moscow's military prowess. Against this backdrop, he said, the decision by 25 African states not to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine is understandable. "In such a situation, it is difficult for African nations to take a stand," he said. "When you are small, when you are weak, if you're poorly armed and underdeveloped, you don't just get involved in a conflict between military superpowers. That's the business of the big players." He added: "There is a Fulani proverb that says: 'The chicken doesn't need to discuss the price of the knife. Whoever is in possession of the knife — that is who will cut the chicken's throat."