A Great Rumble? Reimagining African Willpower in the Russia-Ukraine Crisis

The Ukraine crisis has ultimately presented African countries with a critical question: are there both morally and economically beneficial alternatives to aligning with Russia in Africa’s quest to grow beyond with the West?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 marked the return of a raw global power play—one backed by on the ground military forces. It is quite historic that Vladimir Putin who served as a KGB agent during the lifespan of the Soviet Union is at the helm of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine today. However much the invasion of Ukraine resembles a replay or resumption of the Cold War, the uniqueness of this era—from pandemic to global recession—is replete with potential shocks that will reverberate in the domestic and foreign affairs of African countries and elsewhere.

The Ukrainian crisis, beyond signalling the dawn of a tumultuous era, presents Africa with a chance to assert itself in the global arena, and chart newer and more beneficial courses for the continent’s economic development. And yet economic development cannot be Africa’s only concern given the humanitarian crisis those in Ukraine are facing; especially as Russia turns a blind eye on civilian deaths in its effort to annex Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis has ultimately presented African countries with a critical question: are there both morally and economically beneficial alternatives to aligning with Russia in Africa’s quest to resolve years of unfavourable relations with the West?

AFRICA-RUSSIA ROULETTE

Under the aegis of the Soviet Union, Russia’s efforts in the anti-colonial struggles of many African countries have earned Russia sympathy from corners of the African academic and political circles that are interested in expanding trade with Russia (although not at the expense of the much-needed Western/Chinese investments in Africa). Meanwhile, recent moves by Russia in Africa suggest that Russia is employing a subtle alternative to gaining influence in Africa—military contracts. In a 2022 Foreign Policy article, for instance, Nosmot Gbadamosi has explained that ‘Russia has been expanding its military support in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mozambique with advances in Mali in fighting rebels and jihadist insurgents.’ Russia is making moves to acquire more influence in Africa’s internal affairs, under the cover of providing military aid. Such unconventional means to extending influence in Africa portends severe consequences for the citizens of the targeted countries. This is because military aid typically does not translate to the development of transparent institutions that can spur efficient bureaucracy and civil society.

European heavyweights and partners (China and the US, for instance) have a combined Foreign Direct Investment in Africa totalling $172 billion. This group has managed to diversify trade in Africa over time, and as the main partners of African trade, they stand in the way of Russia’s economic expansion in Africa. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has inadvertently provided pretext for the West to clip Russia’s growing global influence. Already, the West has issued sanctions on Russia’s foreign assets, but the efficacy of these economic sanctions must be questioned.

If anything, sanctions may only push Russia to utilize more aggressive tactics in subduing Ukraine, in order to save face. Failure to ‘win’ the conflict with Ukraine will be damning for Russia, particularly in light of the West’s disapproval of the invasion, and Russia’s struggle to build global relevance and dominance since Putin assumed office in 2000. Consequently, imposing more sanctions along with the reported talks of the European Union granting Ukraine membership (a move Russia is against), besides being provocative, would hinder any chances of diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine, and with Europe as a whole.

Additionally, there is the possibility that Russia may be baiting the West into a prolonged war—pretext to more incursions into Europe. If the sanctions on Russia are not removed anytime soon, Russia’s isolation from the rest of the world, as Nosmot Gbadamosi again posits, ‘could push it closer to countries such as Mali, which has been ostracized from much of Africa; the Central African Republic; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world’s largest producer of cobalt, a mineral essential for electronic products and vehicles.’

We may begin to see a strong and increasing build-up of strategic partnerships between Africa and Russia, in light of changing geopolitical dynamics, with Russia offering to encourage more of its economic partners to invest in Africa. The possibility of such partnerships should challenge the West, particularly Bretton Woods institutions, to reconsider their distanced demeanour towards Africa’s rising debt burden. And as several African countries, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, still have ties with their ‘former’ colonial powers, more Western investments could be eased into such economies to forestall the rise of an African Union-Russia bloc.

A NEW WORLD ORDER?

Experts around the world have debated the possibility of a Third World War emanating from the Russia-Ukraine War. While from a historical perspective, this possibility is undeniable, the suggestion of a nuclear war breakout is likely exaggerated. Additionally, suggesting a rapid re-ordering of the global axis of power i.e., Eastern powers such as Russia and China overtaking the West as the world’s most powerful bloc since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is equally very speculative. A review of the 2020 bilateral trade trends shows that such speculations are unfounded:

Russia risks losing $337 billion in export revenue if the Ukrainian crisis evolves into a world war situation. Russia’s export value pales into insignificance when compared with Europe’s export value totalling $6.5 trillion. With this significant gap in world export value, one could argue that Russia would choke under Western sanctions. But to say this is to assume that Europe will have it easy, too. Imposing sanctions on Russia also has disadvantages for Europe. For example, it could result in the closure of the Nord Stream which Russia supplies and which powers 40 per cent of Europe’s gas. Even China risks a shakeup in its $2.6 trillion export value by allying with Russia.

Bringing it home to Africa, Europe as an economic unit (following imports from Africa) netted nothing less than $155 billion into Africa’s economy. Compared to Russia’s $2.6 billion, a strategic alliance with Europe is necessary to avoid sacrificing Africa’s developing economy for Russia’s power flex. However, keeping Russia as an economic partner is equally important for building up nuclear power plants to fix the prolonged deficits in power generation in parts of Africa. So, a reshuffling of the world order could be possible but, there being potential downsides in all scenarios suggests we should expect a rise of rivals to Western power bloc rather than displacement of the West. The fact that Africa is richly endowed with minerals and human resource makes it a potential global power broker. So, Africa’s regional and collective blocs must not hesitate to drive their economic development gallantly, even if it entails continual embrace of FDI from the West and the East.

A GREAT RUMBLE

Though the Russia-Ukraine war seems distant from the African continent, it is already having a ripple effect on local African economies. Already, with the war still positioned between Russia and Ukraine only, prices of trade articles such as wheat, sunflower or oil crude have reached unprecedented levels. The war has resulted in short supplies of raw materials, exorbitant revenue from high oil prices and the like. Reshuffling of bilateral/multilateral trade agreements may soon be required as countries look to counterbalance a probable dip in the supply of goods from the Global North. Besides, this crisis could be an opportunity for local industries to flourish.

Only two countries are at war in the Global North. Intervention from the West into the Russia-Ukraine War can elevate the seemingly regional war to a total war which may then lock allies of both sides into webs of destruction. China openly allying with Russia, for instance, could result in disruptions in the supply of Chinese goods and services to Africa. On a wider scale, scarcity and erratic price changes of foreign goods may occur. In fact, global crises unparalleled in history may play out.

Also, presumably, with the East-West at war, a great distraction from happenings elsewhere, the war could encourage insurgent groups all over the world, particularly in parts of Africa already experiencing weakening institutions. For instance, in the wake of four successful coups already in Africa, coup attempts may increase in the region. Such a scenario would be advantageous for Russia (as its recent Africa-focused initiatives have suggested) with coups and conflicts providing opportunities for Russia to become a pivotal actor in African states. And in the event that widespread coups seem far unlikely, increase in state aggression is possible. In the run-up to Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election, Nigeria’s political climate is already buzzing with rumours of coup plotting. To prevent the breakout of coups, African democracies must organize to condemn coups and take internal restructuring and economic reforms towards social welfare seriously.

Wagner Group, a Russian military network, which is currently operating in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is reported to be in close ties with Mali where a coup happened in May last year. Arms deals are a trademark of Russia’s footprint in Africa. It is, therefore, not difficult to speculate why state aggression on citizens in these countries could be on the rise. Chris Ngwodo has argued that ‘For the foreseeable future, parts of Nigeria will oscillate between conflict and post-conflict phases of anarchy.’ The role Russian arms will play in this should not be underestimated, whether or not Russia is successful in its annexation of Ukraine.

If Russia is successful in its attempt to annex Ukraine, this could result in the re-drawing of international boundaries through conflicts in Africa and elsewhere. Through decades of post-colonial issues, Africa, which has had to confront the colonial origins of many of its borders, could follow suit. The Chad-Libya conflict over Aouzou strip (1955-1993), the Kenya-Somali war (1963-1967), the Somali-Ethiopian conflict (1964-1978), annexation of Western Sahara (1975), and the 1994 Cameroon-Nigeria conflict over the disputed oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula are some of the territorial disputes and annexation that redrew boundaries in parts of Africa, while leaving others intact. Though laid to rest, following Russian precedence, similar territorial skirmishes could resume. Even in resolving inter-state differences beyond border disputes, force may be the first resort instead of diplomacy.

While some African countries may identify opportunities in aligning with Russia, there are also risks and disadvantages they must be vigilant to. Russia has records of human rights violations, the most obvious being its invasion of Ukraine. In aligning with Russia, backlash could be devastating to parts of the continent still in need of humanitarian aid. The fact that the Russian government is fuelling a refugee crisis in Ukraine already postures Russia as more concerned with territory annexation than humanitarian issues. Aligning with such a power whose intention is to annex Ukraine at all costs is an invitation to international boycotts. In the same vein, it must be noted that, already, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR), Russia plays an advisory role in security intelligence. In using Russia as a wheel to development, African countries should not sacrifice their developing economies, global goodwill (no matter how rickety), national peace and security.

Furthermore, since Russia is not as concerned with promoting democracy, as it is with finding stable markets for its economy, African countries should draw bolder lines on their domestic affairs and foreign policy to avoid being the next theatre of proxy wars likely to result from foreign interests in Africa. Increasingly becoming the go-to place for minerals, Africa must not lose its willpower and hosting capacity and can preserve this capacity by initiating and chairing mutually beneficial bilateral agreements with diverse partners on the basis of regional blocs under the umbrella of the African Union.

So far, the diplomatic stance of African countries has been impressive in suggesting that Africa is not following Western dictates blindly; the subtle condemnation of Russia by some African countries, and neutral votes cast by some of them at the UN are evident in themselves.

A potential East-West war could have severe consequences for the world. African willpower must be called to bear on the dilemma of navigating what side, if any, to align with. To this end, neutrality, humanitarian and diplomatic gestures can be instrumental in guiding African countries through this tumultuous time

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