The discrimination African refugees fleeing Ukraine faced is a recurring reminder for those who believe in a post-racial world that anti-black racism is alive.
Recent global events involving Africans at the Ukraine-Russia border and previously in Wuhan China, the United States of America, and Saudi Arabia have raised two critical questions for Pan-Africanism: first, what is the role of Africa, the African Union (AU), and African leaders in tackling normalized and globalized systemic anti-black racism? Second, is there an urgent need for a complete overhaul of global multilateral systems and global governance to reflect contemporary reality? Implied in this are the collective agency and transnational solidarity of all persons of colour, Africans, and Afro-descendants. Against persistent patterns of anti-blackness, African inertia, and excessive complacency in the face of serious attacks on Blacks, communal agency and transnational cohesion have become even more crucial. These critical tasks require concerted and deliberate efforts on several fronts and are urgent and long overdue.
On 25 May 2023, the AU will be marking its 60th anniversary. This is no small feat; it marks two generations of African liberation. At its inaugural summit in 1963 the AU (then the Organisation of African Unity) was faced with five key tasks: decolonization and liberation; unification and integration; socio-economic transformation; development and self-determination; and defining Africa’s role in the world. Hence, the poignant resolutions establishing the OAU Coordinating Committee for the Liberation of Africa in May 1963; and the OAU’s first Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government held in July 1963 that condemned apartheid and colonialism. Moreover, the ensuing continental efforts to pursue a social agenda, an economic agenda, a cultural agenda, and a broad unification and integration agenda. These were meant to assure Africans and Africa equal humanity following centuries of subordination through slavery, colonialism, and apartheid.
Sixty years later Africans are still Frantz Fanon’s ‘wretched of the earth’. Militarized, financialized, and digitalized globalization has not addressed global anti-blackness and white supremacy, nor has it tackled patriarchy. If there is a queue for human hierarchy the assumption in the world is that Africans, Afro-descendants, black peoples, and people of colour must be at the back. The recent murder of George Floyd, the doomsday prediction on the likely impact of COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, and the Russo-Ukrainian war have dramatized the intractable global crisis of anti-blackness and racism generally.
THE CONTINUED STIGMATIZATION OF BLACKNESS
Humanitarian crises whether man-made or caused by natural disasters often create intense suffering and societal divisions and, therefore, call for a show of extraordinary humanity and solidarity. When the war in Ukraine broke out Africans and Afro-descendants were as outraged at Russia’s act of aggression and stated as much from different policy, political, social, and economic vantage points. They expressed equal humanity through their solidarity. However, as many fled the advancing Russian troops to safety across the Polish border, something tragic began to unfold. A recurring reminder for those who believe in a post-racial world that anti-black racism is alive. But more poignantly that white supremacy is on the rise including in mainstream media.
Like déjà vu, the world watched as Ukrainian police denied Black and Brown people (mostly international students)the automatic and unconditional entry into Poland—a right granted to everyone else who was fleeing from the war in Ukraine. Some African students reported being shoved off the trains leaving for Ukrainian borders to make way for supposedly more deserving white folks, while others were harassed, ‘beaten with sticks and slapped, having their jackets torn, being forced to go to the back of long queues’ by armed security officials. The scenes captured on social media were both horrendous, heart-breaking, and infuriating.
More than 60 years earlier James Baldwin had argued that you cannot be a Black person in America and not live in perpetual outrage. Even so, Ukraine was not the first time in a crisis, that Black people and other people of colour have been treated differently. There were similar shocking incidents against Africans in China in the wake of the COVID-19pandemic when some Africans were forcefully screened for the virus, and forced to self-isolate in hotels while other Africans were evicted from houses that they were renting by their landlords and denied services and goods. These seemingly sporadic incidents of anti-blackness must be viewed as related to the global apartheid that defined and continues to define Northern responses to crises including COVID-19.
In the antebellum south of the United States and within the apartheid and colour bar systems in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique, Black people were referred to as the ‘great unwashed’, backward, uncivilized, impish, etcetera. This stigmatization and criminalization of blackness sadly remains a phenomenon in both the global North and South. Such that the imposition of travel bans by the global north after the discovery of the Omicron variant by South African scientists was and is, in fact, ‘travel apartheid’.
A COMPLICIT INTERNATIONAL MEDIA
Systemic racism has a critical ally in a complicit international media that either invisibilizes Black suffering or suggests that the injustices consistently visited upon black bodies are secondary to defeating the Russian threat. Racism and white supremacy existed before and will most likely continue after the Ukrainian crisis. It will take much more than Twitter outrage and sanguine statements by the African Union and some African countries.
The fact that Ukrainian refugees—and other Europeans—were being welcomed into Poland and migrant-hating Bulgaria without any conditions demonstrates the depth of the problem. It also shows the extent to which anti-blackness has been normalized globally because even amid a humanitarian crisis there is time and space for discrimination against Africans and other persons of colour. For instance, in Moldova, the private sector proactively sought to help Ukrainian refugees with the telecommunications company Moldcell offering them free call minutes, SMS, and free internet connectivity valid for five days.
The Ukrainian crisis has brought back into public discourse global double standards in the racialized treatment of people fleeing the same warzone. It has confirmed a long-standing public secret that the right to life, livelihood, security, and mobility of Black bodies is always contested or negated. It is not a coincidence that Black peoples, Afro-descendants, and people of colour generally are often unwanted, unwelcome, and perceived as a threat by the West and the rest. The Ukrainian police and soldiers who were preventing Africans from boarding trains to escape the warzone until all Ukrainians had boarded showed the often unstated—but believed—hierarchy of unequal humanity. These soldiers and police officers acted as they did because they have been taught that Africans—or Black people generally—trying to flee tragedy are not worth saving. This is not only a gross human rights violation, but a slap in the face given the solidarity that African states have shown towards Ukraine during this crisis. Starting with the now-viral speech by Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations- Ambassador Martin Kimani who passionately called out Russia’s neo-colonial ambition to forcefully reintegrate people divided by past empires. One wonders what the UNSC has to say about the crude anti-black racism exhibited by the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.
THE GAPING HOLE IN THE HEART OF MULTILATERALISM
During World War II, African countries like Tanzania, Zambia, and South Africa provided refuge for thousands of East European refugees, including the Polish estimated at 19,000. Perhaps Eastern Europeans have forgotten the reciprocal solidarity between our two regions dating back to the First World War.
The Russo-Ukraine war is a big deal because it smacks of imperialistic nostalgia by a once powerful Russian imperial state. Most Africans condemned the war in principle because it amounts to a denial of Ukrainian humanity and sovereignty by undermining well-established international norms and practices regarding the peaceful resolution of conflicts, coexistence, and preventive diplomacy in modern international relations. We deliberately eschew invoking the idea of international order as this has become a weaponized term employed only when and if it suits the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Unilateral, arbitrary, or strategic national self-interest and not preventive diplomacy actuated the United States of America, Russia, and the United Kingdom’s interventions in Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The irony is how these powerful nations would readily turn a blind eye to gross human rights violations if and when committed by their allies or regional proxy regimes. The gaping hole in the heart of multilateralism is duplicity, dishonesty, self-interest, and unequal representation.
Time and space constraints do not allow for us to fully explore whether Russian claims on NATO’s encroachment and alleged Ukrainian hostility and instability justify its invasion of a neighbouring sovereign country. Nor is it our intention to analyse the protests by the Russian public against the war versus the propaganda of the political elite or the Putin-led Kremlin. It is not necessary to interrogate whether indeed this war is an attempt to consolidate power in the quest for nostalgic imperialistic ambitions by Vladimir Putin.
The snippets filtering through highly polarized global media suggest that once again the bodies of women and girls are at the coalface of the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine. The pandemic had already devastated Ukrainian households and disproportionately affected women and girls. The war will exacerbate the gender inequalities as well as deepen the intersectional and structural inequalities in (and around) Ukraine.
More poignantly, sanctions against Russia and Russian firms with widespread investments in developing countries will severely affect the developing countries socially and economically, yet they are ‘bystanders’ in the conflict. Any deepening of economic and social crises amid the COVID-19 pandemic will most likely lead to social instability and insecurity. The punishment meted out against Russia will have immediate ripple effects on all continents. The complexity of the historical relationship between Ukraine and Russia is a microcosm of similar equally complex relationships between and among other nation-states in Africa, Eastern and Central Europe, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. How the Ukraine-Russian crisis unfolds or is handled or mishandled sends overt and covert messages across different geographies.
A DECISIVE TURNING POINT?
The memories of World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and imperialism are still fresh in Africa. Therefore, this war is not far from home so to speak. Whilst the Cold War was cold in the West and most of the East, it wasn’t so in Africa, parts of Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America, which were on either side of the Cold War, demanded alignment and sponsored proxy wars that resulted in arrested development and unbearable human carnage in the global South.
Now, Africa once again finds itself juniorized in multilateral platforms and relationships. Ideally, the just-ended European Union-African Union summit should have marked a decisive turning point in the relationship between these two continents. African leaders should have negotiated harder in the interest of African migrants, the African diaspora, and African citizens. The issue of this war should have been fully reflected upon. One would have expected African leaders to have collectively negotiated for the entry of African students and people into Poland and neighbouring countries. Alas, they talked about everything else except what really matters to the citizens of Africa. In the absence of a collective or even concerted African leaders’ evacuation strategy, the responsibility of government and the African Union is now assumed by others. While it is commendable that countries like Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and others went in to rescue their citizens, it is deplorable that there was no nimble and timeous collective, united, and decisive AU position or process. Similar lethargy was exhibited in the face of the attacks on African students and people in Wuhan, China, and the blockage of migrants from entry into Europe.
The Ukrainian-Polish experience is a stark call to united and decisive action by Africa and Africans to tackle universalized systems of anti-blackness and racism. If nothing is done now, history will be on repeat play for another 60 years to come. As rightly noted by the very first OAU Summit on 25th May 1963, global governance needs a fundamental overhaul and decolonization in order to address the inequities and inequalities in international relations, multilateral systems as well as the racism and sexism that they engender. The overhaul is also necessary to better reflect today’s reality and the aspirations of universal equal humanity, equal protection, and equal value.
Africans and African leaders have hitherto suffered from excessive complacency assuming that equality in a globalized world and within the global multilateral system will be automatically achieved. History has proven this fallacious belief forlorn. Equality and equity in global governance and the multilateral system can and will only be won through struggle on many fronts. The complicity of so-called global media and its caricature of the Arab and African world as ‘uncivilized’ and the European as the opposite is a white supremacist view from the colonial era. The first terrain of struggle will be epistemology and narrative. Until Africans and the African Union leadership show self-confidence and self-belief, this denigration of blackness will continue unabated. The uncritical embrace of Western narratives, anecdotes, and caricature requires a strong and organized rebuttal.
The urgency of this task is best demonstrated by how consistently the coverage thus far has been bifurcated. On the one hand, is the portrayal of Ukrainian—and even Russians—as human, heroic, etcetera. On the other hand, Black and brown people and bodies are either portrayed as helpless, hapless, unwanted or a nuisance factor caught up in this conflict.
THE WAY FORWARD
African and Arabs should not repeat the mistakes of World War I, World II, and the Cold War by not calling out the unfair treatment of minorities by powerful Western and Eastern states, which in the past resulted in widespread war crimes, protracted war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. Silence in the face of injustice, atrocities, and systemic racism will only cause widespread suffering, deaths, economic decline, the violation of human rights, and further normalization of globalized anti-blackness. Not fiercely fighting for the Africans denied refuge will only reinforce the mentality that Black lives do not matter. Racisms and anti-blackness thrive as much in war as they do in inequitable and unequal multilateral systems.
Most importantly, Africa must collectively answer the alignment or non-alignment question. The Cold War was a sufficient lesson of the hazards of alignment in a volatile, unpredictable, and uncertain world. In the post-Cold War era, the myth of the death of ideology, and the basis of excessive African complacency have been sufficiently debunked. Cold War proxy wars cost Africa half a decade of development and billions in lost revenue. Africa and Africans need a new common sense to denounce international autarchy, global hegemony autocracy and duplicity, and proxy wars. We must refuse to be dragged into the conflict to serve the interests of powerful states.
But more importantly, this new common sense must put Africans at the centre of all of Africa’s international relations. AU leaders and African citizens must assert and demand respect for the basic human rights of all Africans and Afro-descendants, including the right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose Article 14 ‘grants the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution’.
Imperialism, white supremacy, and systemic racism must be systematically confronted to ensure a more stable international order where even UNSC permanent members can be held accountable for violating the UN Charter and International Law. The United Nations system established to protect human rights cannot and should not be weaponized by the UNSC. The Ukraine experience must be used to strengthen the international accountability mechanisms and institutions like the international criminal court to ensure that they are not weaponized by powerful states and that they do not serve any partisan agenda. Permanent members should not be allowed to entrench their impunity or selectively excuse systemic racism by their allies. Responsibility, mutuality, equality, and accountability should be the anchors of more just global governance and the multilateral system. Selective enforcement of norms is anathema to the global social contract.
African governments need to be at the forefront of advocating for the human rights of their citizens at home and abroad. Their failure to effectively communicate to their citizens in Ukraine on evacuation plans before tensions escalated to actual fighting is a reminder of how they too contribute to the narrative that African lives matter less, as many of them have previously been guilty of excessive use of force by security agencies, continued to trade with states that either exploit their citizens at home through unfair mining concessions or natural resource management pacts that disadvantage locals or remained silent when labour laws like Saudi Arabia’s kafala system hurt their citizens and even lead to deaths. Having failed to make timely evacuation plans, African leaders should proactively assist the stranded African students so that they can resume their studies in the shortest time possible by either collaborating with African universities or partner institutions abroad.
Lastly, given that the media plays an important role in influencing perceptions that have had real-life implications on who lives or dies and whose life is more valuable because of the portrayal of black people as threatening, there is an urgent need to hold the media accountable for the dehumanization of non-white bodies. Utterances by journalists that insinuate that certain communities are less civilized thus implying that their lives are less important should be called out to nip this mentality before it infects future generations.
While African countries having previously experienced colonialism stand with Ukraine as she tries to defend her sovereignty and ensure non-interference by a powerful neighbour with imperialistic ambitions, Ukrainian security agencies must also show basic human decency by not discriminating against Africans trying to flee the war⎈
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