Last week, a delegation of African leaders from South Africa, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia traveled to both Kyiv and Moscow to try to negotiate a peace deal for the war in Ukraine. The deal was unsuccessful, with both Russia and Ukraine rejecting the prospect of a ceasefire. But the attempt nevertheless raised questions about the role of African nations on the world stage — and drew increased scrutiny of their policies toward the conflict.
“My view is that African countries have decided to be part of this process probably because Russia now wants a deal, but it does not want to give the credit of having secured a deal to the West,” says Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono. “It would rather give it to Africa.”
The past decade has seen Russia expand its influence substantially on the continent, which has put many African countries in an awkward position as they try to preserve their ties to both the Kremlin and the West. The ostensibly neutral South Africa especially has come under intense criticism for its continued friendliness toward Russia.
“We are facing a moral crisis when it comes to neutrality at a time like this,” says South African journalist Redi Tlhabi. “We cannot morally justify this as a country that needed other nations to support our fight against apartheid.”
“We are facing a moral crisis when it comes to neutrality at a time like this.”
“The problem that we have in Africa is that most of our dictators on the continent tend toward countries like Russia and China because they’ve been cornered,” Chin’ono says. “They do not want to do certain things that require trade with the West. For instance, issues of human rights. Russia doesn’t care about human rights. China doesn’t care about human rights.”
Not all African nations have been so hesitant to rock the boat, however. “I’m grateful that countries like Kenya have decided to do the right thing and not go gung-ho and be seen to be supporting an aggressor in this war,” Chin’ono says.
“They are in the minority,” Tlhabi adds. “But they are voting. They are taking the chances and they’re taking a human rights based foreign policy stance.”
Part of the problem, Tlhabi says, is that Western criticisms of Russia often come off as hypocritical given their own history of brutality in Africa and their continuing support of dictators on the continent. “There’s a lot for which we can criticize the West,” she says. “But then we need to decide as nations, to what extent are we hostages of history?”
The stakes are high. Though the continent may be miles from the fighting, the war has hit Africa hard. Both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of food, and as a result, the war has left many nations that relied on that food facing alarming shortages.
“If a deal is struck, food can start coming in in huge quantities, as it used to,” Chin’ono says.
Produced by Joshua Martin and Sabrine Baiou