National interests prevail as African leaders tread carefully on Ukraine crisis

Sunday March 06 2022

Ukrainians scamper out of a burning house that was shelled by Russian fighters in the city of Irpin, outside Kyiv, on March 4, 2022. African states have largely steered clear of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. PHOTO | AFP


African countries are treading carefully in the Russia-Ukraine war to protect their national interests even as they defend the rights of Africans trapped in war zones.

Available data indicate that most African countries source most of their military equipment from Russia and may not want to bite a finger that feeds them in the ongoing calls to condemn the war.

While African leaders have been vocal and united in condemning discrimination against Africans in the humanitarian assistance in Ukraine, they are cautious in the condemnation of the aggression by Russia.

Divisions among African countries were laid bare when United Nations member countries took a vote on the invasion of Ukraine by Russia during which some countries appeared to avoid taking sides.

Senegalese President Macky Sall, chair of the African Union and the African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat said they were “particularly disturbed” by reports that some Africans had been turned away at European borders while trying to leave the war-wracked country.

“Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach of international law,” the two leaders said in a joint statement on February 28. “In this regard, the chairpersons urge all countries to respect international law and show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity.”


But as most African leaders voiced their solidarity with Africans trapped in the war zone, some were absent when the UN General Assembly convened to vote on Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine.

Even President Sall’s Senegal was among 17 African states who abstained in the vote, signalling the importance of the political and military deals with Russia that they are wary of betraying. Russia’s well-known African allies Sudan, Mali and the Central Africa Republic all abstained.

Read: 17 African countries abstain from UN vote on Russia

Save for Kenya, Eastern African states have stayed away from vigorously commenting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the racism in its wake has angered Africans.

However, Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, son and senior adviser of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, tweeted this week in solidarity with Moscow’s move on Kyiv, stance officials dismissed as personal and not official.

Experts say the behaviour that has manifested since the tension between Russia and Ukraine began to boil over last December over Kyiv’s dalliance with Europe and the US, may have to do with fear of being roped into a faraway conflict. In many Africans’ view, this is a European problem and they are happy to let the Europeans deal with it.

This manifested at the UN General Assembly when a motion was tabled at the emergency meeting to condemn “aggression by Russia.” Seventeen African countries abstained while another six African countries did not take part in it at all.

Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Rwanda were among the 141 nations that voted “Yes.”

Ethiopia did not appear in the voting hall while the Sudans, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi abstained. Others were South Africa, Mali, Mozambique, the Central African Republic, Angola, Algeria, Madagascar, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Calls for restraint

A day after Ethiopia avoided the UN vote, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed issued a statement calling for restraint.

“Ethiopia has abundant lessons to share from its recent engagement in war. Our experience has shown the devastating consequence that war inflicts upon families, communities, livelihoods and the economy at large" Dr Abiy said.

Read: Ethiopia's Abiy calls for talks to end Ukraine crisis

His foe-turned-ally Eritrea was the only African country that voted against the motion, alongside Russia’s diehard allies Syria, Belarus and North Korea.


A damaged building after the shelling by Russian forces in Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv on March 3, 2022. PHOTO | AFP

Explaining the abstention, Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the UN Adonia Ayebare cited “neutrality,” noting that his country was just taking over the “Non-Aligned Movement”.

“Uganda will continue to play a constructive role in the maintenance of peace and security both regionally and globally,” he said.

His stance, was, however, betrayed by Lt-Gen Kainerugaba, Commander of Land Forces, who said most non-white people were siding with Russia.

“The majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia's stand in Ukraine. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is absolutely right! When the USSR parked nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba in 1962, the West was ready to blow up the world over it. Now when NATO does the same they expect Russia to do differently?” he tweeted on February 28, referring to the defence alliance, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), whose dalliance with Ukraine partly precipitated the current conflict.

His remarks could be an indicator of an early sense of foreboding among African military strategists as Western sanctions against Russia begin to take effect. According to FlightGlobal’s World Airforce’s Directory 2022, in Eastern Africa, Ethiopian and Ugandan militaries are the most exposed to Russia-related sanctions, because of their over-reliance on Russian aircraft.

Tanzania is the least exposed for its lack of any Russian equipment in its air wing.

Military hardware

The sanctions that bar dealings with the Russian government or entities associated with it will have far-reaching near-term consequences for governments across the world that relied on Russia for the supply of military and civil hardware. They also pose a challenge for Western aircraft lessors and maintenance and repair organisations that were supporting the huge fleet of Western jetliners leased by Russian airlines.

Read: Russia eyes $40b trade deals with Africa

The United Nations, which operates a huge fleet of Russian fixed-wing and helicopter transports, will not be spared the sanctions. Also, hard-hit will be a helicopter overhaul and maintenance repair facility that Uganda jointly owns with Russia’s Pro-heli International Services, that was launched by President Museveni in late January. The facility was among others targeting the UN missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan’s Darfur region, in which a substantial number of UN transport helicopters operate.

The sanctions will affect both in-service equipment and anything that had not been delivered by the time they came into force. Depending on how customers react, the sanctions could also prove a boon for Ukraine, whose military-industrial complex has the capacity to support many of the Russian types operated by military and civilian customers across the world.

All Ethiopia’s jetfighters — 20 Sukhoi-27s and nine Mig-23s — were supplied by Russia while Uganda’s combined force of five Mig21s and Sukhoi30s are also Russian supplied. Fifteen of Uganda’s 20-strong fleet of combat helicopters are also Russian supplied.

The DRC, Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya are also exposed to varying degrees. The DRC has five Russian jetfighters and seven combat helicopters. Burundi operates three mi-24 combat helicopters, Rwanda has a combined fleet of 12 Mi-17 transport helicopters and five Mi-24 combat helicopters while Kenya has two Mi 171s.

Eritrea operates eight Russia-made jet fighters and 12 combat helicopters. Mozambique operates eight Mig-21s and six combat helicopters; Sudan has 35 Russian jetfighters and 67 helicopters while South Sudan has 14 helicopters.

Both Ethiopia and Uganda are engaged in active military campaigns — the former against renegade forces in the Tigray region, and Uganda against the Allied Democratic Forces rebels in eastern DRC.

The sanctions could have serious implications on the supply of spares and consumables associated with the equipment. Although Brig-Gen Felix Kulayigye, spokesperson of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces, says there are alternatives to Russia, analysts believe the sanctions place Russian defence customers in a difficult situation.

“It is a tricky situation for them because they have an important relationship with Russia in terms of their access to certain types of defence equipment, which Western nations might not be willing to supply and therefore need to stand in solidarity with Moscow at this time,” said one analyst, adding: “On the other hand, they have to find alternatives to Moscow to bypass Western sanctions and keep key elements of their militaries operationally ready.”

Effects of sanctions

“Certainly, when a country is under sanctions, they will affect its business and its customers. But the market is wide open and there are alternatives out there, so in my view we are not as exposed because we can make alternative arrangements,” Brig-Gen Kulayigye told The EastAfrican.

Although that could be true and many of Russia’s adversaries like Israel, Poland and a number of former Soviet satellite republics, including Ukraine, have the capacity to fill the gap, a number of variables such as pricing and the long-term relations with Moscow could come into play.

Lt-Gen Kainerugaba’s remarks appear to indicate how Uganda will cast its dice.

African ground forces face a similar exposure as reflected by their air forces. But some of them, like the Kenya Defence Forces, are fortunate that while their 100-strong fleet of T-72 main battle tanks is Russian, theirs were supplied by Ukraine, keeping them out of the reach of sanctions.

Uganda has 237 Russian supplied main battle tanks and 1,056 armoured personnel carriers in its inventory while Ethiopia has 459 battle tanks.

None of Tanzania’s 23 combat aircraft is Russian while it relies on China for the bulk of its ground fighting vehicles. Farther afield, Algeria is a major operator of Russian air defence equipment, with 125 Russian jets in operation and another 28 on order. The country also has 222 Russian combat helicopters of different iterations and another 30 on order.

Over the past few years, Russia has built military alliances with governments in Africa facing violent insurgencies or political instability, including Libya, Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mozambique.

Dr Hassan Khannenje, director of the Horn International Institute of Strategic Studies in Nairobi, told The EastAfrican that Africa prefers a rule-based international order and embraces multilateralism, which explains the current divisions.

“Outside of the Central African Republic, which openly sympathises with Moscow, other countries have largely chosen a middle plan in this conflict, even as they share (Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Dr Martin) Kimani’s sentiments on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. They are, however, united on the plight of Africans in Ukraine,” he said.

A week ago, Dr Kimani lampooned Russia after it initially recognised the “independence” of two Ukrainian regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, before the invasion. Dr Kimani argued that the move by Russia breached international law and gave examples of African countries that have had to live with colonial borders for the sake of peace.

Read: Kenya: Russia's actions in Ukraine row are dangerous

Dr Hawa Noor, Associate Fellow, Institute for Intercultural and International Studies, University of Bremen, told The EastAfrican these moves have everything to do with relations.

“When you look at the relations between the big players and the smaller countries, there is a lot of power imbalance, which has a lot to do with what is happening today, including the behaviour of states. Unfortunately, on one dimension, this is how international relations operate and states band together in such situations,” she said.

Russia, like other world powers such as the US and China, has significant influence in Africa. Moscow, which delayed its return to the continent after the Cold War, has seen increased arms sales to Africa, as well as ventures in mining, and the controversial deployment of a private military group, Wagner.

The Arms Transfers Database by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows that Russia, between 2016 and 2020, supplied 30 percent of arms imports by countries in sub-Saharan Africa. China supplied 20 percent, France 9.5 percent and the US 5.4 percent.

In September 2019, Russia hosted the first summit with African heads of state and government, joining the fray of summits that the US, China, UK and the European Union have been hosting.

Its joint declaration said Africa and Russia will “fully contribute to achieving international peace and security… based on the principles of respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs of states, preservation of national identity and civilisational diversity.”

By invading Ukraine, Russia seemed to have broken this pledge.

But the declaration also offered something else: That Russia will support African countries with equipment and training to combat, “in all forms and manifestations,” all sorts of threats to peace and security, including terrorism.

Some of the countries that have benefited from that support are Sudan, which has incidentally faced a political crisis since late last year when the transitional government was derailed by a military coup and the eventual resignation of civilian Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok.

As Russia attacked Ukraine, Mohamed Hamdani Dagalo, a Sudanese junta top general, led a delegation to Moscow for “cooperation” talks. At the same time, in the CAR capital Bangui, a statue of Russian paramilitary personnel credited with quashing an armed rebellion in late 2020 was erected.

On March 2, Gen Dagalo said ties with Russia were “deep,” but added that Sudan was urging dialogue to end the war in Ukraine.


Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to fight off allegations of racism against Africans in evacuation efforts. At least 20 percent of the more than 80,000 international students studying in Ukraine come from African nations, with sizable populations from Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt.

Andrii Pravednyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Kenya refuted accusations of open racism, arguing that: “In accordance with international humanitarian law, priority is given to women and children. All men, both Ukrainian nationals and foreign citizens, pass checks and check-in operations after women, children and elderly people.”

Whether exaggerated or not, the African protests, as well as Dr Kimani’s famous speech, were now being seen as a new lesson for other world powers, including the US.

Read: AU slams ‘racism’ in the wake of Ukraine war

The current global inflection point, argues Michelle D. Gavin, a former US ambassador to Botswana, should help prompt a shift from imagining that African states are simply the sites of crises with little relevance to understanding that there will be no successful attempt to reform the international, rules-based order without Africa.

“The search for lasting global solidarity also requires acknowledging and reckoning with the racism that distorts analysis, obscures opportunities, and fuels injustice. That racism informs the kind of choices that leave Africans stuck at border crossings as they struggle to escape Ukraine,” said Ms Gavin, Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Additional reporting by Michael Wakabi