On February 2, the United Nations General Assembly convened in an emergency session, the first in a quarter of a century, to consider the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At the end of the debate, the states in the General Assembly voted to adopt a resolution condemning Russia’s conduct as an unlawful act of aggression “in violation of Article 2 (4) of the (United Nations) Charter” and demanded Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” 141 countries voted in favour of the resolution, five voted against and another 35 abstained.
27 African countries voted in favour of the resolution, including Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria. 17 of the 35 abstentions were African countries – that’s nearly one-third of the membership of the African Union and about half of the abstentions. They include Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
Four countries joined Russia in voting against the resolution. One of them, Eritrea, is African.
The breakdown of the African vote has naturally set tongues wagging about Africa’s position in this Russia-Ukraine war. Governments in many of the African countries that abstained have been severely criticized by their citizens for doing so. Surprisingly, much of this criticism takes place without any clear articulation of how the conflict impacts Africa. That, surely, should be where the conversation should begin.
Addressing the Security Council one week earlier on the same conflict, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, took the philosophical path in an impressive takedown of colonialism and its aftermath in Africa but failed to say much else to define an African interest in the war.
This appeared to have emerged two days before the vote at the General Assembly, when the Chairperson of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union and Senegal’s President, Macky Sall, issued a joint statement with the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in which they both confessed to being “particularly disturbed by reports that African citizens on the Ukrainian side of the border are being refused the right to cross the border to safety.”
They failed, however, to take this any further and the statement petered out into a whimper, merely urging “all countries to respect international law and show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity.” They could not even utter a minimal offer of assistance or strong advocacy to alleviate the crime of racist exceptionalism, which has emerged as a dimension to the war specifically targeting Africans and persons of African descent.
The full extent of the racialized dehumanization unleashed by this war will take some time to unravel but the snippets that have emerged are shocking in their horror. A report by the Brookings Institution published the day after the General Assembly vote spoke about “Black people who, even during a life-and-death situation, have found themselves running into racist barriers to their safety and freedom.”
It reported that black people were being “refused at border crossings in favor of white Ukrainians, leaving them stuck at borders for days in brutal conditions. Ukraine stated they would first allow women and children on trains and transport out of the country to flee the Russian invasion. However, it seems they meant Ukrainian and European women and children. Videos show Black people being pushed off trains and Black drivers being reprimanded and stalled by Ukrainians as they try to flee. There are even reports of animals being allowed on trains before Africans.”
The following day, the BBC reported that “[t]he Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused a mass exodus of civilians, including thousands of international students from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Ukraine was home to over 76,000 foreign students, according to government data from 2020. Nearly a quarter of the students were from Africa, with the largest numbers coming from Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt.” University World News validated “disturbing tales… . of African students and their families being denied access to transportation afforded to native Ukrainians.” The Irish Timesexplains that ‘[r]oughly 20 per cent of Ukraine’s foreign students are African, including 4,000 Nigerians.” London’s Daily Mail, an unlikely lover of Africans, described the treatment of Africans in this war as “shockingly racist.”
Many will wonder how African students ended up in Ukraine, a country whose annual GDP is worth less than one-third of Nigeria’s, for instance. A major theatre of the battle for the hearts and minds of the world during the Cold War was in human development and skills because “as Asian and African countries made the transition to independence after the Second World War, the development of education and the training of their elites were widely recognized as indispensable preconditions for building prosperous nation-states.”
In January 1960, the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union established the Peoples’ Friendship University “to educate a Soviet-friendly intelligentsia and foster a Soviet-Third World alliance.” In February 1961, they renamed the University the Patrice Lumumba Friendship University, after the martyred first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The leader of the Soviet Union at this time was Nikita Kruschev, who built his early life Yuzhovka, Ukraine, a country he governed under Josef Stalin, later becoming the head of its Communist Party. When he was overthrown in 1964, Kruschev was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev who came from Kamianske, also in Ukraine. Between them, these two sons of Ukraine who ruled the Soviet Union for nearly 30 years from 1953 to 1982, laid the foundation for the African educational exchange with the former Soviet bloc, including Russia and Ukraine. The destruction of education in Africa by the continent’s own rulers turned what should have been an educational exchange into an educational export.
The relationships with Africa, of course, pre-dates this recent dimension. Arguably the best-known Russian playwright, Alexander Pushkin, great-grandson of Abram Gannibal, was of African descent. Isabel dos Santos, reputed to be Africa’s richest woman, is the daughter of Tatiana Kukanova with former Angolan president, Eduardo dos Santos. One of the many blacks who has had to flee Russia because of this war is Joel Bolomboy, the Congolese-Ukrainian-America basketball star who was on the roaster of CSKA Moscow.
The response of African governments must be assessed in the light of these racialized atrocities targeted against Africans and persons of African origin. While all of this goes on, South Africa’s government, which abstained on the General Assembly resolution, “told its science agencies not to make public comments about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.” The Nigerian government took the Pentecostal route, essaying that “as a nation, we are proud of those educated in Kyiv and Kharkiv and other cities and centres of learning who have returned to Nigeria to perform great service for our nation and our people. Without the generosity of spirit of the Ukrainian people that would never have been possible. We pray for those directly affected by this conflict.”
Between the Pentecostal prayerfulness of Nigeria, the pusillanimity of South Africa, and the manifest Pilatism of the African Union, the continent’s leadership offers neither ideas on geo-strategic impact of the war on the continent nor succour to the Africans caught up in it. This is far from surprising.
South Africa, with a long history of metastasised Melanin-phobia lacks the standing anymore to condemn what is happening to blacks in Ukraine without being reminded of the log in its sovereign eyes. Nigeria, which endures an epidemic of massacres of its own citizens unacknowledged by its government, can hardly muster a voice abroad against what it tolerates at home. My colleague, Alex de Waal, accuses African governments of double standards in relation to the crisis in Ukraine. He could even more easily have accused them of consistent indifference towards their own people.
African citizens on the continent, taking a cue from their own governments, fixate on events in Ukraine and Russia when a majority of the major humanitarian crises in the world unfold in Africa or against Africans.
Following the lead of the African governments, the world is happy to tolerate the dehumanisation of the Africans caught up in the war in Ukraine. They don’t need me to remind them that Article 3 of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention guarantees access to the humanitarian facility of refugee protection “without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.” Under Article 2(1)(a) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, ICERD, “[e]ach State Party undertakes not to sponsor, defend or support racial discrimination by any persons or organisations.”
Since African governments have decided not to endow their own people with love, the rest of the world has chosen that Africans will not get the benefit of international law. That just about sums up the lot of Africans in this war.
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is a lawyer and teacher.