Western journalists reporting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could not hide their shock that a war had broken out in a “civilised” European country rather than in a developing country in “Africa or the Middle East”. Similarly, African diplomats at the United Nations (UN) were just as surprised to find themselves a voting on a resolution condemning a semi-proxy war on European soil between Russia and the West.
Africa had its fair share of proxy wars during the Cold War as the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) played out their ideological differences in lands far away from their own citizens. The first proxy war was in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from 1960-1965 where the USA and USSR battled for access to high-grade uranium deposits. USSR supported the government of the first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, who was overthrown and assassinated by the USA-backed dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.
The longest proxy war was fought in Angola from 1975 to 2002 between the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) supported by USSR and Cuba while the rebel faction, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), was backed by the USA and South Africa. The war spilled over into Namibia (1966-1990) where the USA continue its allegiance with South Africa Defense Forces (SADF) while USSR supported the South-West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), which later formed the first free government.
Why is this background important? Historical political ties and a country’s foreign policy are key to understanding how countries vote at the UN General Assembly (GA). We have analysed how and why selected African countries voted in the UN GA resolution condemning the Ukraine invasion on Wednesday 2 March 2022 – the first emergency session at the GA since 1997. The resolution covered 16 points including deploring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demanding an immediate withdraw from the sovereign territory and reversing the independence recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The votes were as follows:
Countries: Benin, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Chad, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Mauritius, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, São Tomé & Príncipe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tunisia, and Zambia.
Nearly all countries in Africa, except South Sudan, are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) whose principles include respecting sovereignty and the right of each nation to defend itself. Non-aligned countries also vote in line with what they believe is right for the circumstances under consideration and discount other factors that may be at play. This explains why more than half of African countries voted in favour of the Ukraine resolution.
Nigeria’s vote could jeopardise its military and economic agreements with Russia. The two countries signed a military technical cooperation agreement in 2021 with Russia agreeing to support the fight against Boko Haram insurgents. Russia also agreed to supply military equipment and weapons after the US went cold on a $1b deal. Russia also agreed to complete a $8b steel plant during the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019.
Countries: Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
The NAM principles also include the recognition of the movement for national independence, settlement of all international disputes and promotion of mutual interests and co-operation. Cuba abstained after criticising the resolution for lacking balance and addressing the concerns of both Russia and Ukraine. Many African countries that abstained chose to be neutral to avoid taking sides between Russia and Ukraine (+ NATO).
Most of these countries have a long history with Russia. Russia supported the Africa National Congress (ANC) with financial and military support during the apartheid struggle and the two countries are part of the BRICS group of leading emerging economies. While other countries have developed close ties in recent years. Mali kicked out the French Army and is rumoured to be fighting insurgents with the help of the Russian private military company, Wagner Group, which rivals the American Academi (formerly known as Blackwater). The Wagner Group reportedly also has operations in Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, and Central African Republic.
Approach: Foreign-policy stance
Eritrea was the only African country to stand by Russia and veto the resolution along with Belarus, North Korea, and Syria. Eritrea established stronger political ties with both China and Russia after the country was sanctioned by the United States in September 2021 for its role in the Ethiopian civil war. News that Russia will bypass SWIFT by tapping into the Chinese financial system will also strengthen Eritrea's rationale to stay close to Moscow. Russia has also been in discussion with Eritrea to open a naval base that would protect Russia crude oil shipments that pass through the Suez Canal (Russian crude accounts for 24% of the total volume).
Countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco and Togo
Approach: see no evil, hear no evil
Morocco was noticeably absent during the UNGA vote. The kingdom would have most likely abstained to reflect the warm relations with both Russia and the West. Morocco was the first Arab state to establish political ties with Russia. However, the unresolved issue of Western Sahara, which has been a disputed territory since 1963, would have made it difficult for Morocco to vote either way. Ethiopia, like Morocco, has its own issues with disputed territories and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called for a diplomatic end to the conflict. Togo’s absence can be explained by the reports many current government officials studied in USSR or Russia.
It is worth noting that the UN GA resolutions are non-legally binding and may not necessarily translate into any action. Therefore, countries need to be weigh the consequences of their votes carefully.