I almost joined the chorus blasting the African delegation for example that recently travelled to Eastern Europe to negotiate a peace deal (see here, and here). Led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, seven countries—Zambia, South Africa, Uganda, Egypt, Comoros, Senegal, and DRC—three presidents—travelled to Russia and later Ukraine to deliver an African peace deal in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. However, a cross-section of Africans and folks from elsewhere ridiculed the mission as “mere photo ops,” and others questioned the audacity of the African leaders to think they had any clout in this conflict. Contrasted against the ongoing conflict in Sudan, other commenters wondered why instead of prioritizing home, these leaders thought Ukraine-Russia was more urgent. Thus, when the delegation was met with barely disguised racism and ignominy, especially in Poland and Ukraine, several voices felt this was deserved poetic justice. (The comments of Prof. PLO Lumumba’s tweet that complained about Polish racism capture these angry sentiments really well). I almost joined in because the points of disagreements—especially lack of clout and trust, and Sudan being more immediate—are powerful contentions.
Indeed, it is agreeable that a similar or even more powerful delegation—of presidents, prime ministers and high-ranking officials—ought to be sent to Sudan or Somalia for urgent mediation. There is absolute need to respond to conflicts on the African continent with equally strong delegations and urgency. Pan-Africanism cannot be simply rhetoric. As I argued last month, our exploiters—from Europe, the United States, Russia and China—see Africa as a country—one single piece of bread to be swallowed in one single gallop. This imposes upon actors on the continent, the urgent imperative to see ourselves as one single body where if one part is rendered vulnerable, all of us have to feel the pain and vulnerability and work tirelessly to heal that part of the body. As the Baganda have said, a fire burning house is akin to tearing down entire neighbourhoods.
However, seen from a different, more hospitable vantage point, the Ukraine-Russia conflict is as urgent. I am not jumping onto the cliché of increased food and fertiliser prices as a result of the war. The cost of living on the continent was high and deteriorating before the Russia-Ukraine war and will remain pernicious after the war. Because there are other reasons that explain these costly livelihoods. The vantage point I’m proposing is one where the African continent has to be seen as a pugilist, overwhelmed by punches from a powerful monster, finds itself having to punch back anyway.
Thou shall not be conscripted
Ever since the conflict in Eastern Europe started, African leaders have been under immense pressure and threats from NATO member states to take sides with them and chide Russia for invading Ukraine. But while Russia’s crime of aggression ought not to be denied, the blatant hypocrisy and double standards of these NATO states are too much to ignore.
African in their good, childlike natured-ness have been looking on in absolute wonder. When? How now? As South African leaders, the ANC Secretary General, Fikile Mbalula and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) President, Julius Malema challenged BBC’s Steven Sucker, on separate occasions. Africans have not stopped wondering when the crime of aggression became this serious with all the dead bodies and ruins in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Central African Republic, Yemen and several other places. In Syria for example, the United States still occupies territory and is openly stealing Syrian oil and wheat. Just the same way as British Petroleum stole $15b of oil from Iraq after the invasion.
It is against this context that the African political elite find themselves in a pickle against a seemingly stronger friendship with Western Europe and the United States—both with a strong criminal recent history. What better way to wade off this hypocrisy-laden pressure in a pretentious and egregiously self-interested Western world? It is not just proposing a peace deal whose chances of success are next to zero, but the ability to quietly claim your non-alignment. To paraphrase Secretary General Fikile Mbalula, the Africans can now proudly claim, “We chose peace, and neither of you equally conflicted fellows.”
Lessons from Bandung
I want to return to the Bandung Conference of 1955 in Indonesia where, among other things, non-alignment as a policy was agreed. With the Cold War between USSR and the United States already smouldering in the seams, the subaltern intellectuals of the time—from already independent countries or those on the road to independence—agreed on a policy of non-alignment. Look neither left nor right.
About two decades later, with the Cold War in full blast, the movement almost completely lost its political grip—but not its intellectual appeal. It could not hold. The leaders of the subaltern world were thrown into sheer pandemonium. They were either killed for their non-aligned positions or forced into taking sides because the other force was supporting a rebel movement in a proxy war to destabilize their countries. Thus, the non-aligned movement was dismembered, politically. It is important to emphasise that with the defeat of the USSR, came a dominant regime of economic order: the deception of free market economics continues to be ruinous to this day. As is visible everywhere from Congo to Somalia, the defeat of the USSR, and the rise of a unipolar world, did not make fortunes any better for Africa. Instead, it opened the door for more egregious policies from a single power and through structural adjustment programmes, the mandibles of the Western world are still locked firmly into the skin of the African continent sucking blood without end.
Evidently, while the USSR is guilty of sponsoring proxy wars itself, causing equal damage to the African continent, it represented a balance of power in the world in which subalterns also could exercise their agency to a certain extent. This balance enabled them some leverage. Indeed, throughout the Cold War, several countries with or without conflict actually pursued progressive economic policies—such as nationalisation—which uplifted the lives of their nationals.
Against the above, the rise of China (and Russia again) offers African leaders—still in a subaltern position, but with a little pride left in them as sovereigns— an opportunity to reclaim the old glories of being non-aligned. It enables leverage in this emerging ‘balance of power.’ While it is undeniable that relations with China, Russia, Turkey, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund are all exploitative, competition among exploiters is welcome. To consider bids from two or three equally exploitative suitors somehow empowers the coveted bride. No wonder, late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi often openly took pride in taking loans from China and not the Western world.
Thusly, with these two or three bulls fighting with Ukraine-NATO on the one hand, and Russia-China on the other, both of them friendlier (but exploitative) suitors to the continent, it is only prudent for the African states to pursue a neutral position: non-alignment. But with non-alignment being fiercely attacked by the Western world (Ukraine-NATO), these Africans have had to be more proactive about this entire thing. Realising that they could push for a peace settlement—however unsuccessful—becomes a welcome window for respite.
Surely, the Africans knew they stood almost no chance of securing victory in this peace mission. But the symbolism of the gesture is as powerful as it can be stretched. Now, Africans can actually proudly take the stance of not being interested in being conscripted into war. They can forcefully, and rightly say, we presented a peace deal, and they’ll actually have evidence to show for it. This painful peace mission ought to be understood as a restatement of their non-aligned position, and Africans can now breathe.