Africa is pushed to take sides in the war in Ukraine

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When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Cameroon this week, he called out an entire continent for “hypocrisy”. Europe decisively identified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a war, he told a news conference with Cameroonian President Paul Biya on Tuesday, but much of the Africa did not.

“I have seen too much hypocrisy, especially on the African continent,” Macron continued, “and – I say this very calmly – some do not call it a war when there is one and say that ‘they don’t know who started it because they have diplomatic pressure.

The French leader’s remarks, which came on the second day of a three-country tour of Africa, showed a stark contrast to those of another current visitor to the continent: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The veteran diplomat kicked off his own four-nation tour of Africa on Saturday, singing the praises of Africa and the continent’s handling of the fallout from the war in Ukraine.

“We appreciate the thoughtful African stance on the situation in and around Ukraine,” Lavrov wrote in a column published in newspapers in Egypt, Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia, the four countries he is currently visiting. . “Although unprecedented in its scale, the pressure from beyond has not led our friends to join the anti-Russian sanctions. Such an independent path deserves deep respect.

These simultaneous visits by Western and Russian officials show a difficult reality for African nations. Many had sought to avoid taking sides in the war in Ukraine, with 25 of Africa’s 54 states abstaining in a vote condemning Russia’s invasion of its neighbor at the United Nations General Assembly in March.

But whether they like it or not, Africa has been drawn into the conflict. The most pressing issue has been economic, with many countries already rocked by the pandemic now facing a food crisis. African nations once relied heavily on Ukrainian grain – they are now facing soaring prices after Russia blockaded Black Sea Fleet ports. High oil prices, meanwhile, have increased economic pressure on many households.

Macron also addressed the issue of food prices during his visit to Cameroon, although he dismissed claims that he was traveling to the continent only because of the war in Ukraine.

“The European economic sanctions against Russia that are now affecting Africa are intended to stop Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty, not to punish Africans,” Macron said on Wednesday. “France will help African countries cope with the shocks caused by war by encouraging local investments in agriculture to increase food production.”

The American special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer, is also traveling this week to Egypt and Ethiopia, where he is to meet with leaders of the African Union. The State Department described the talks’ primary goal to provide US support for a diplomatic solution to a dam project that has put the two countries at odds over water supplies.

Last week, the United States announced a $1.3 billion “increase” in aid to countries in the Horn of Africa, highlighting the fallout from a huge drought in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. But there are fears that the current level of aid from Europe is not sufficient: Devex reported last week that an internal document from the European Union Delegation to the African Union saw “the EU losing the battle of hearts and minds in Africa to conflict. ”

African nations have been inundated with Kremlin-backed counter-information. In the column presaging the visit, Lavrov said the food crisis hitting Africa was partly due to Western sanctions against Russia, but also amounted to a global economic system that supported the West at the expense of others.

“I would like to point out that Western and Ukrainian propaganda speculation that Russia is ‘exporting hunger’ is totally unfounded. In fact, this is yet another attempt to shift the blame to others,” Lavrov wrote, adding that Russia would meet its obligations on “exports of food, fertilizers, energy and ‘other vital goods for Africa’.

Russia has recently sought to ally itself with Ethiopia, once a staunch partner of the West. The country now faces strained relations with the United States and Europe due to alleged human rights abuses during the Tigray war.

Russian officials have used the conspiratorial concept of a “golden billion” elite in the West to seek international support. In Addis Ababa on Wednesday, Lavrov delivered a speech to African Union diplomats at the Russian Embassy in the Ethiopian capital, where he offered an anti-colonial explanation for Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine and the international reaction that followed.

“I’m sure the overwhelming majority of countries in the world don’t want to live as if the colonial era (has) returned,” Lavrov said.

While Russia does not have the same colonial heritage in Africa, Moscow has a long relationship with many countries that dates back to Soviet support during the Cold War. Some countries that abstained in General Assembly votes on Ukraine may have done so on the basis of anti-colonial movements closely tied to the Soviet Union, an analysis has found.

Perhaps Macron’s strongest argument against Russia is his assertion that the country is “one of the last imperial and colonial powers”. Speaking in Benin on Wednesday, the French president said the invasion of Ukraine was “a territorial war, which we thought had disappeared from European soil. It is a war of the beginning of the 20th, even of the 19th century.

France, however, is coming to terms with its presence in West Africa, ending Operation Barkhane – a task force that tried to combat violent jihadist movements in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Macron said on Wednesday that despite the change, France remained “resolutely committed” to security in Africa.

Meanwhile, Russian mercenaries, notably the Wagner group, have extended their influence over much of West Africa. The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says eighteen countries now have a Russian mercenary footprint, with groups like Wagner backing the controversial 2020 coup in Russia that led France to withdraw from the country.

Contrary to what Macron claimed during his current visit to the continent, the majority of African nations condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations General Assembly vote in March. The day after the invasion, the three African representatives on the 12-member Security Council voted in favor of a motion to end the war. Russia, a permanent member of the council, vetoed it.

And even before that, Kenya’s Ambassador Martin Kimani gave a powerful speech where he compared Russian ambitions to retake Ukrainian land to the colonialism casting a shadow over his continent.

“This situation echoes our history,” Kimani said Feb. 22, echoing Macron’s later comments. “Kenya and almost all African countries grew out of the end of empire.”

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