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Listening to Putin from Africa

"As the interview ran through its second hour, I started wondering why the Western world is always warning Africa about the threat of Russia"
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A few months into the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I received a call from a Western European journalist asking for a comment on how Africans perceived the conflict. For the most part, I kept saying Africans didn’t really care about this conflict especially given that Africa has a great deal of own local problems, and regional conflicts to deal with, among them: Somalia, DRC, South Sudan, Libya, Central African Republic. These conflicts affect the continent more directly with diseases, deaths, and refugee crises. Sudan was yet to happen. Whether it was rising food prices, the ordinary African, I argued, would be hard pressed to pin this to the Russian-Ukraine conflict. Because anyways, food and fuel prices had been rising before this conflict, with the reasons for this rise having everything to do with Western Europe and North America, not Russia.

As the interview was coming to an end, the interviewer threw me the bogeyman question: “From your assessment, are Africans not afraid of Russian colonialism? Because if the Ukrainian invasion were successful, Putin will have his eyes on the continent. His forces are already there,” she noted. The interviewer had noticed that while I had been quick to respond to the previous questions, I had paused a little longer before tackling this one.

“Can you say that again?” I asked, not because I had missed the question, but because I wanted the journalist to ponder the question a little more.

“I know, European colonialism, but aren’t Africans afraid of Russia now that Wagner Group forces are already in Africa?” I paused even longer.

***

I return to this encounter many months later because President Putin finally, in his own voice, spoke to the world for the first time since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began. This rare sit-down stirred a great deal of excitement across the Western world.  It was not soundbites at a press conference, but a lengthy sit-down with a journalist from the other side of the conflict: the United States. The entire world listened in. But before the conversation would even happen, there were calls to sanction the interviewer, journalist Tucker Carlson. And after the interview was broadcast, more voices sought to pour cold water onto the interview and the interviewer. British government broadcaster, BBC prominently offered to “fact check” what they condescendingly called “Putin’s nonsense history.” Tucker Carlson’s questions were chided as “softball questions.” And many other mainstream and smaller networks chimed in sanctimoniously.

Like many others, I had waited with bated breath to listen to President Putin. He is always spoken for, and portrayed as this or that by others. But listeners especially in Western Europe and North America have been denied the chance to listen to the man himself. Even Russian networks, from Russia Today to Sputnik remain tightly censored in countries that claim to be vanguards of freedom of speech. And as Tucker Carlson argued, why not sit down and listen to a man with whom your country is at war, where your tax dollars are being spent?

That which will kill a man is never afar

One of the key lessons from the interview was Putin’s insistence that context is always important in understanding things.  As the Israel war against Palestine has showed us, Western Europe and North America have a penchant for deliberately ignoring history and context. It is made to look like the Palestine-Israel conflict began on October 7, 2023; and the conflict in Ukraine began when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Putin took time to remind us of the absolute relevance of historicising events. Indeed, he would start this entire conversation by offering over 30 minutes of ancient and contemporary history. You might find this disagreeable, but events never happen in a vacuum.

The fine details of the Russia-Ukraine conflict might not matter much to an African listener and reader.  And while it is true that Putin did not reveal anything new, he challenged listeners – especially from the subaltern world – to think about the things that we know, and perhaps take them more seriously:

(a) If the grudge in Russia-Ukraine revolves around the security of Europe against Russia, on the one hand, and Russia faulting NATO expansion on the other, Putin told the world that Russia actually considered joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation so that all of Europe and Russia could be bound by the same code.  His overtures were rejected. Again, use this information as you need, but it is factually accurate.

(b) Most of the news consumed the world over is often propaganda, and no one beats the United States in propaganda since it controls almost all media in the world.  Again, the conflict in Palestine and the ways in which Western media often cover Africa is proof of this fact. They may be allegedly private businesses, but coverage of world events is closely linked with foreign policies of their countries, and as controversy over the Twitter files revealed, the influence now is extending to social media platforms.

(c) On the contentious $11bn gas pipeline running under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream II, which was blown up sometime in 2022, Putin urged that to understand what happened, one must bear in mind that there could be many people who are interested in blowing it up. However, one has to consider those with the capabilities to execute this move. There aren’t many, and Russia would never blow up its own pipeline. It could just switch it off. Renowned investigative journalist, Seymore Hersh told us that the US blew up the pipeline.

(d) The Russian-Ukrainian conflict would have ended a long time ago, had British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, not ordered the Ukrainian leadership to reject the peace deal on the understanding that they could defeat Russia on the battlefront. In other words, the era of proxy wars has not ended: while it is Ukrainian soldiers in the trenches, the commanders are in London and Washington. Ever wondered why the slogan, “We’ll fight Russia to the last Ukrainian” is not “We’ll fight Russia to the last European or American!”

(e) As a charge at democracy, and the often-prized elective politics, Putin reminded the world that it does not matter who was president in the United States. Power is rested in the hands of unelected officials who pursue their interests however grievous they are to the interests of voters. Putin called them the elites. No wonder, American foreign policy does not change all through the changes in presidencies.

Performing leadership

It is a trite but valid observation that leadership is not only done but has to be seen to be done. To this end, some leaders might appear to be doing leadership when doing the exact opposite. But be that as it may, the spectacle of leadership is often calming and reassuring to those being led. Indeed, besides the several talking points from this two-hour interview, Putin’s coherence, confidence, and calmness were unmistakable. However disagreeable, the impression that one was listening to a leader who had a clear sense of direction could not be lost. Again, however disagreeable, throughout the entire interview, President Putin came through as honest and sincere. You could tell from his entire demeanour and body posture. He smiled sometimes; and joked with his interviewer, throwing him some punches he had never anticipated, like when he told him that, since he (Tucker Carlson) studied history, he should be fine to listen to a little Russian folklore, and that he wanted to join the CIA, and that they thank God that CIA did not take him. That Putin often paused to think through the questions, and then selected his words carefully and used them diplomatically, was beautiful to watch in a world where we are accustomed to tough talk and empty soundbites from politicians.

As an African who has known a good number of long-staying autocrats who are never coherent on anything, I felt jealous. I have no problem with long-staying leaders but with the reasons and fruits of their long-stay. Consider that our autocrats are fond of giving cryptic, official, and formulaic responses to questions and that they are never afraid of outright deception. They are fond of denying responsibility for their failings.

As the interview ran through its second hour, I started wondering why the Western world is always warning Africa about the threat of Russia. What is Russia’s crime against Africans? The Cold War? Yes. But the Western world was an equal participant. And once the Western world won, they have never left. Russia was not at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. Currently, Russia is not a party to the colonialism of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as was displayed clearly via the 1980s and 1990s structural adjustment programmes. So, what is the content of the alleged Russian threat to Africa – that is worse than the benevolent ruins of our friends in the Western world?

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