Africa Should Stand Behind Ukraine’s Call for Peace

Crucial voice: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with the leaders of several African countries in Kyiv in June 2023. Image: UPI / Alamy

Supporting Ukraine’s peace initiative is not only the right thing to do for those Africans who value sovereignty and the rule of law, but it is also in their own self-interest.

On 15–16 June, leaders from countries around the world gathered in Switzerland to seek a way to bring peace to Ukraine, now in the third year since Russia’s invasion. A summit communiqué has been drafted which is guided by key UN resolutions, to which 82 state (and six multinational) signatories representing more than 60% of global GDP have so far signed up.

Ukraine is to be lauded for this initiative, which is aimed at building global momentum towards a peaceful resolution of a conflict that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions, the majority of them women and children. The commitment to upholding international law, including the UN Charter, is essential to finding a resolution to this conflict.

Just 12 of 55 African countries – Benin, Cabo Verde, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Sao Tomé and Principe, Somalia and Zambia – have signed up. Those Africans interested in peace should join them. Moreover, it in their self-interest to do so.

Africa should wholeheartedly endorse the sentiment expressed in the following statement from the communiqué:

‘We reaffirm our commitment to refraining from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, the principles of sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all states, including Ukraine, within their internationally recognized borders, including territorial waters, and the resolution of disputes through peaceful means as principles of international law.’

The violation of territorial sovereignty by force is to be opposed by all who value the rule of law, international agreements and the right of countries to co-exist in peace. Africa’s experience of colonisation makes it acutely aware of the damage such aggression causes to societies and people. Even when the guns fall silent and peace is made at the negotiating table, the trauma of oppression persists, sometimes over generations.

Africans have a voice to use and rich experience that they can bring to bear. They should not relegate themselves to the role of mere spectators in this global drama

There is a particular self-interest in sovereign protection for Africa, where many countries lack the means to be able to govern colonial borders and some the means to be able to govern their own territories. As Martin Niemöller, the German theologian, famously said about the risks of not speaking out:

‘First they came for the Communists. And I did not speak out, Because I was not a Communist; Then they came for the Socialists. And I did not speak out, Because I was not a Socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists. And I did not speak out, Because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews. And I did not speak out, Because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me. And there was no one left, To speak out for me.’

The statement from the summit goes further than sovereignty by addressing the critical issue of global food security. The impact of the invasion of Ukraine on the costs of basic foodstuffs has been felt by African countries, many of which are presently enduring droughts and low harvests of their own.

Africa is today home to the majority of the world’s poor. The continent’s per capita income is just 15% of the global average, while the number of sub-Saharan Africans living in poverty has risen to 490 million, representing more than 40% of the continent’s people and two-thirds of the global total.

Deliberate attacks on ports and vessels that are involved in the transport of essential foodstuffs must be condemned. We cannot live in a world where the starvation of distant peoples becomes weaponised by aggressors seeking to take territory by force.

In addition, the call for the safeguarding of nuclear energy and nuclear installations is of paramount importance. Africa has no nuclear weapons, but it is likely to suffer immensely in the event of a nuclear war.

Africans must also lend their support to the statement’s call for compassion and human rights: ‘All deported and unlawfully displaced Ukrainian children, and all other Ukrainian civilians who were unlawfully detained, must be returned to Ukraine.’

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The ending of this war, as well as the unchecked military aggression in Sudan and the terrible conflict engulfing the Middle East, is of the utmost concern to Africans.

There are other costs, not least in the diversion of aid from African conflicts and humanitarian needs, and the militarisation of foreign policies towards the continent. The states that have signed the communique so far are among the most generous contributors to African development, having provided more than $30 billion in aid to Africa since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

The foreign minister of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, has said rightly that:

‘War must be won both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Ukraine can learn from Africa in how to make and win the peace. And we can support each other in backing a fair and just international system in which military might is not automatically right.’

There is no balance to be struck between good and evil, whether in Africa or in Ukraine. The African leaders who seek to avoid making this choice and who preach whataboutism in so doing do not represent the interests of more than two-thirds of the continent’s people who prefer democracy to any other form of government. To the contrary, these leaders admire Vladimir Putin precisely because he offers an authoritarian model for them to follow.

There is an African proverb which says that when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. When powerful forces go to war, it is poor people especially who get hurt. But Africans have a voice to use and rich experience that they can bring to bear. They should not relegate themselves to the role of mere spectators in this global drama.

Africans can stand up for themselves by supporting peace in Ukraine.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Tendai Biti

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Dr Greg Mills

Senior Associate Fellow and Advisory Board Member

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Bobi Wine

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