Since the beginning of the so-called special military operation in February 2022, Africa has been under immense pressure to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Those doing the pressuring even argue that “if Africa has ambitions to become an important global player, including in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), it has to take positions on non-African affairs”. However, the safest way to ensure that Africa becomes an important global player is not to dance to the tunes of others, but rather to defend Africa’s interests in words and deeds.
Before the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago, African presidents had a standard answer whenever asked if they were pro-East or pro-West: “I am pro-Zimbabwe; pro-Nigeria; pro-Saharawi; pro-Whatever…”. The answer was that predictable, but western journalists still asked the question. They stopped asking after 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. At the time, the Non-Aligned-Movement (NAM) –- arguably the world’s largest political/ideological bloc –- suddenly lost relevance.
Then in February 2022, stuff happened and citizens from all over the world who had never heard of Ukraine were required to choose between Ukraine and Russia. This time, being non-aligned is not an option, so say those with a direct stake in the fight.
Last week saw two events, which are worth noting, happening in Kampala – Uganda. First, Russia’s foreign affairs minister Sergey Lavrov was in town, as part of a multi-nation diplomatic mission to garner support for his country in the said conflict. The visit was widely reported, as expected.
The second not-so-widely reported event in Kampala was a party to see off a group of 13 post graduate students who had won the prestigious Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters Degree scholarships in nine western European countries. During the event, EU Ambassador to Uganda Attilio Pacifici sternly warned Uganda against sitting on the fence in the Russia-Ukraine conflict in a speech read for him by Belgian Ambassador Rudi Veestraeten.
The ambassador(s) unequivocally read Uganda the riot act, saying the country must take a stand and state which side they support. As if explaining to a slow learner, they told Uganda that they wouldn’t stay on the fence if Congo invaded Uganda simply because there are Congolese who speak the same language as some communities in Uganda…that since the conflict in Europe is because some people in Ukraine speak Russian, Uganda must come out and condemn the invasion. For the men from Brussels to choose Congo as an example in a situation of aggression rouses a chuckle from anyone keen on history, at this time when a mere tooth of Congo’s first independence leader has just been returned for burial, sixty years after he was brutally murdered and his body immersed in acid as a punishment for seeking economic and political justice for his people from Belgium. It is just funny!
The ambassadors are of course within their right to state the position of the governments they represent, much as the Russian foreign minister is doing his job seeking (diplomatic) support for his country. But hey, the Africans can also have their own opinion, and it could probably matter more to them than the opinions they are being persuaded to share.
Those defunct African leaders who used to automatically say that they were pro their countries and didn’t have to choose between NATO and Warsaw or between USA and USSR had a point after all (even if in practice most of them had a side). The Africans of today should choose to support Africa in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
In fact, what the African presidents SAY about Ukraine and Russia is not as important as what they DO about the present and future effects of the conflict on the well-being of our people. After all, politics and diplomacy are about shifting positions and making statements that suit the occasion.
For instance, not many Africans were proud to see and hear the African Union’s top leaders pleading with the Russian leader to ease the flow of food supplies to avert a humanitarian food crisis on the continent. But if diplomacy required that the leaders be seen and heard begging, so be it. But what matters more is what the leaders are doing about ensuring that Africa, which has the largest available arable land on the planet, does not have to beg for food from anybody. Instead of flying to Moscow to ask for food, an African president should call up a brother colleague on the continent, and together they should figure out how to ensure that no African dies of hunger.
African presidents should also avert situations where some citizens are dying by the hundreds of hunger while other citizens within the same territorial boundaries are crying out over lack of market for their surplus food which is rotting away. In some instances, the places where people are dying of hunger can be a mere two or three hundred kilometres from where their compatriots are crying over rotting food. In other words, African leaders wouldn’t need to fly across the world to Moscow to ask for food for our people if we were not failing to preserve the food we have. Africans should be able to handle such simple emergencies like moving food from areas of plenty and wastage to areas of hunger and need.
For Africans to argue who is right and who is wrong between Russia and Ukraine is a good intellectual exercise. But an even better and worthwhile exercise is to figure out how to rapidly increase food output in Africa.
With abundant tracts of fertile land, abundant water resources, abundant warmth and abundant manpower, raising food output in Africa can be done in a matter of two to three months for many crops, and chicken! If you plant maize or beans or sunflower or soybean in Africa, it will be ready for harvest before a shipment by sea from Moscow arrives in your country.
So Africans can tell the powerful outsiders what they want to hear for the sake of diplomacy, but they should also take simple steps to enhance their food security.