African countries

Five reasons why many African countries choose to be “neutral”

In early March, the United Nations General Assembly vote on a resolution calling on Russia to immediately cease its military operations in Ukraine.

Out of 193 Member States, 141 vote in favor of the resolution, five voted against, 35 abstained and 12 did not vote at all. Of the 54 African member states, Eritrea voted against the resolution, 16 African countries including South Africa abstained, while nine other countries did not vote at all.

In total, about half (26) of Africa’s 54 member states have chosen the path of neutrality in one form or another.

So why didn’t African countries vote overwhelmingly to support the resolution?

I believe that the decision of several African countries to remain neutral and avoid condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine was taken on issues directly related to the conflict as well as on broader security, economic and political considerations. .

There are five main reasons: these include skepticism towards the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its motivations; the growing dependence of some countries on Moscow for military support over the past decade; growing dependence on wheat and fertilizer imports; and the feeling that this is a return to the Cold War.

African countries have based their decisions on strategic calculations of how the conflict will affect them rather than the humanitarian catastrophe resulting from the conflict. This contrasts with the European Union, which was able to converge and take a unanimous position on the conflict.

The driving arguments

First, some African countries, including South Africa, view NATO as the aggressor with its eastward expansion. This, in the opinion of these countries, constitutes a threat to Russia. The President of South Africa recently blamed the organization for the war in Ukraine stating:

the war could have been avoided had NATO heeded the warnings of its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region.

This is not the first time that African countries have been skeptical of NATO activities. In 2012, the former president of Namibia (another country that abstained in the vote) argued that NATO to spill of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya must be condemned and rejected by all right-thinking Africans.

The invasion of Libya and the subsequent assassination of Gaddafi resulted in destabilization in North Africa and the Sahel. The result is that NATO has become quite unpopular in several African countries.

Second, over the past decade, several African countries such as Libya, Ethiopia, Mali and Nigeria have developed important military alliances with Russia. Several African countries have depended on Russia to fight insurgencies. This ranges from hiring Russian private military contractors such as the Wagner Group to directly importing weapons.



Read more: Growing instability in Mali raises fears over the role of a Russian private military group


Russia’s lack of emphasis on respect for human rights has prompted many African countries to form military alliances with it. For example, in 2014, when the United States refuse to sell certain arms to Nigeria due to gross human rights abuses recorded in the fight against Boko Haram, Nigeria has turned to other countries, including Russia and Pakistan, for arms supplies .



Read more: Sanctions on Russia will affect arms sales to Africa: the risks and opportunities


In 2021, Russia signed military cooperation agreements with Nigeria and Ethiopiathe two most populous countries in Africa.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute believes that Russia sold 18% of the total weapons it produced in Africa between 2016 and 2020. Some of these military alliances have existed since Soviet times and are deeply rooted.

Third, several African countries depend on Russia for wheat and fertilizers. This deepened economic ties. Figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development show that African countries imported wheat from Russia and Ukraine worth around US$5.1 billion between 2018 and 2020. A quarter of African countries depend on the two countries for a third of their wheat consumption.

Russia represents 16% of world wheat productionand 13% of fertilizer production. African countries, already reeling from the impact of COVID-19, are skeptical about severing any trade ties.



Read more: Russia’s war with Ukraine risks further pressure on fertilizer prices


Furthermore, the perceived lack of support from the West during the COVID-19 pandemic has alienated many African countries from their traditional Western allies in Europe and America.

Fourth, some African countries see conflict as a proxy war between the United States and Russia, reminiscent of the Cold War and therefore do not want to get entangled in the conflict.

The Cold War brought untold hardships to several African countries as happened when most of the countries in Africa gained independence and had to align themselves with one of the blocs. Several civil wars monitoring. It therefore seems fair to some African countries to remain neutral at this stage.

In addition, China, a major ally of several African countries, towed this line. As a result, some of its allies in Africa have chosen the same path.

Finally, there is a growing perception in several African countries that traditional Western allies only care about their own economies and peoples, and would only help them if it is in their interest or fits the liberal agenda.

For example, ever since the impact of sanctions against Russia began to drive up commodity prices, the United States has turned to Venezuela while the UK shot to Saudi Arabia to increase oil production and reduce burdens on citizens at home.

There was no mention of how African countries are being affected, or how to help countries on the continent whose economies are struggling. It brings back memories of the nonchalant support received from the West during the pandemic. And it further reaffirms the need to be neutral – or, in some cases, not to be dictated to.