Africa Brief

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Why African Leaders Won’t Back the West on Ukraine

Committed nonalignment, fear of upsetting China, and reliance on Russia for arms and security led many countries to ignore Washington’s demands.

Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives for an EU-AU summit in Brussels on Feb. 17.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives for an EU-AU summit in Brussels on Feb. 17.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives for an EU-AU summit in Brussels on Feb. 17. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: The United States calls for an investigation into atrocities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Gambia’s opposition party loses its majority in elections, and the trial of South Africa’s Jacob Zuma is delayed again.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: The United States calls for an investigation into atrocities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Gambia’s opposition party loses its majority in elections, and the trial of South Africa’s Jacob Zuma is delayed again.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Nonalignment Motivates African Push for Dialogue on Ukraine

When the United Nations voted last Thursday to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, African countries largely abstained. Washington has attempted to put diplomatic pressure on African governments to back sanctions against Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine—a message increasingly ignored on the continent.

For South Africa, a BRICS member, it was the third abstention on Russia’s actions, a stance that analysts attributed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s courtship of African leaders. During a call with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden “emphasized the need for a clear, unified international response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

While the African Union has clearly condemned Russian aggression, the lack of an overall consensus from African leaders has hampered Washington’s diplomatic offensive.

Senegal is a staunch Western ally, and its refusal cannot be attributed to Russian influence. Instead of backing a U.S. position, Senegalese President Macky Sall reiterated “the need to favor dialogue for a negotiated outcome to the conflict” during a call on Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has asked to address the AU. Sall’s position follows the continent’s principle of nonalignment, dating back to the 1960s, when newly independent African states sought a rejection of Western hegemony.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said last month in a BBC interview that “you cannot stand on the sidelines and watch the aggression that we see taking place in Ukraine and say you’re going to be neutral about it.” Samuel Ramani, an occasional contributor to Foreign Policy, commented that “Russia’s war with Ukraine will kill more Africans from starvation than Ukrainians on the battlefields. Africa should get off the fence and condemn Russian aggression.”

The reaction and tone of the debate, analysts say, marks a turning point in how diplomats and foreign-policy observers continue to view Africa as homogenous, lacking the nuance of 54 sovereign nations each acting on the basis of complex diplomatic and economic interests.

“African leaders have increasingly become more allergic to that tone—something that China has figured out,” said Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political analyst and managing partner at Insight Strategy Partners. “And it seems that the messaging coming from China gains more traction. It is more attractive to African countries that are trying to assert their own political strength.”

China’s stance on Russia has greatly influenced the positions of those African countries for which China is the biggest and closest trading partner. For some countries, abstention may not necessarily translate to a pro-Russia stance but a China-aligned stance.

African observers defending abstentions also point to the disproportionate media attention lavished on Ukraine compared with other conflicts and the double standards of the Western invasions of Libya and Iraq. There is also talk of “hypocrisy” in levying sanctions that impact African countries, while Europe has spent 35 billion euros ($38 billion) on Russian energy since the war began.

Some African leaders weighing up their countries’ vulnerability to volatile economic markets, growing and increasingly frustrated young populations, and facing their own security challenges requiring a range of allies have simply concluded that their governments cannot afford to take sides. The abrupt U.S. exit from Afghanistan and the horrific scenes of people clinging onto airplanes made some African policymakers view Washington as an unreliable partner that will also put its security needs first.

In 2021, when the United States paused an arms deal with Nigeria over concerns about human rights violations, Abuja turned to Russia, the largest exporter of arms to Africa, to replenish its arsenal for the fight against Boko Haram. Russia has often strengthened ties with African governments during tensions with the West. In Time, Sandun Munasinghe of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change noted that “Africa has, for some time, been a second front in Putin’s confrontation with the West.”

Mali and the Central African Republic, key security benefactors, voted against Russian sanctions. Animosity over civilian killings during France’s Operation Barkhane, and the refusal of Paris to acknowledge responsibility, laid the groundwork for a Russian expansion into Mali. In turn, Moscow on Saturday blocked a request by France for a U.N. investigation into claims of a civilian massacre in Mali by Wagner mercenaries.

In CAR, Wagner paramilitaries secure the state government against armed rebels. But the government has also accused Russian mercenaries of 103 separate incidents of human rights abuses. In Sudan and the Horn of Africa, the United Arab Emirates filled the vacuum of U.S. leadership vacated under the Trump administration and continues to wield influence that often runs counter to Western interests.

The treatment of African students fleeing the war in Ukraine has also complicated African views. An editorial in the Guardian Nigeria suggests: “Following the lead of the African governments, the world is happy to tolerate the dehumanization of the Africans caught up in the war in Ukraine.”

There are others who note the quick global action against Russia while calls to remove African human rights violators from the Human Rights Council are ignored.

Cameroonians have long campaigned for sanctions against President Paul Biya’s administration over atrocities committed by Cameroonian soldiers (backed by U.S. support) in the fight against Boko Haram and Anglophone secessionists. Cameroon was reelected last year as a member of the Human Rights Council, which took effect in January. “If we are going to take measures to sanction dictators, then let us do it—but let’s do it for everybody,” said Cameroonian politician Kah Walla.

As African leaders find themselves at odds with Western nations, and the war risks diverting U.S. support and endangering commitments toward peace, security, and economic recovery recently announced at the AU-European Union summit, there is little appetite on the continent for navigating between Cold War rivals. And perceived patronizing and neocolonial discourse used to condemn African countries’ nonalignment only pushes countries closer to China and the Gulf and benefits authoritarian leaders who use those arguments to stay in power.


The Week Ahead

Wednesday, April 13: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosts his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, in Washington.

Monday, April 18: Zimbabwe celebrates its Independence Day.

Tuesday, April 19: The African Union holds an expert session on migration, refugees, and internally displaced people.

The U.N. Security Council holds consultations on its mission in Libya.


What We’re Watching

Ethiopia access. The United States has insisted that access be granted to international monitors in western Tigray. In a statement on Friday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the Biden administration had “grave concern” over reports of “ethnically motived atrocities” in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. “There must be credible investigations into and accountability for atrocities committed by any party,” Price said.

It follows a joint report by rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which accused security officials and civilian authorities from the neighboring Amhara region of engaging in a “campaign of ethnic cleansing” in western Tigray, a contested territory that was occupied by Amhara forces from the outset of civil war in November 2020.

People wait in line ahead of the opening of a voting station in a market in the Kanifing neighborhood in Banjul, Gambia, on Dec. 4, 2021.

People wait in line ahead of the opening of a voting station in a market in the Kanifing neighborhood in Banjul, Gambia, on Dec. 4, 2021.GUY PETERSON/AFP via Getty Images

Gambia elections. A new parliament is due to be sworn in on Thursday in Gambia after legislative elections took place Saturday. Gambian President Adama Barrow’s National People’s Party won 19 of the 53 parliamentary seats available, according to results published by Gambia’s independent electoral commission.

The results mean Barrow’s party cannot govern alone but has narrowly overturned the majority held by main opposition group, the United Democratic Party (UDP), led by Ousainou Darboe, an unsuccessful challenger to Barrow in last December’s presidential election.

The UDP claimed 15 seats and independent candidates 11 seats. On Thursday, the president will appoint five additional lawmakers from his own party, including the speaker of the parliament—seats that are by law reserved for the party that won the presidency.

Zuma trial. A South African court on Monday granted a further delay in former President Jacob Zuma’s corruption trial; it will be adjourned until May 17, pending the outcome of Zuma’s latest bid to have lead prosecutor Billy Downer taken off the case. South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal last week rejected Zuma’s effort to remove Downer, whom Zuma accused of bias and of leaking information to media.

Further undermining President Cyril Ramaphosa’s efforts to reform his party’s damaged image, the adjournment came a day after the African National Congress elected former Mayor Zandile Gumede, who is facing corruption charges, as its chairwoman in the eastern eThekwini region. Zuma’s long-running trial has served as a litmus test on whether the ANC can successfully prosecute corrupt former and current party members.

Sankara verdict. It has been almost 34 years since the death of revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara in a coup led by his former ally Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso. Last week, a military court in Ouagadougou sentenced exiled former president Compaoré in absentia to life imprisonment for the murder of his predecessor.

Sankara was an iconic leader across West Africa, earning the nickname “Africa’s Che Guevara” because of his revolutionary politics and outspoken views on neocolonialism. He took power in 1983 and remained in office until his assassination during a coup led by Compaoré in 1987.


This Week in Tech

Discovering Endurance. In 1915, polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton ordered his men to make a daring escape through sea ice as their ship, named Endurance, was crushed, sinking to the bottom of the Weddell Sea, off the coast of Antarctica. One of the greatest undiscovered shipwrecks was found last month by scientists aboard the South African polar research vessel Agulhas II.

What made the Endurance wreck a remarkable find was that, at a depth of nearly 10,000 feet, it was teeming with marine life. The mission to locate Endurance had other key scientific aims, including learning how ice levels around Antarctica may be changing as the world warms and impacting the rest of the planet. Agulhas II is owned and operated by the South African government at a time when funding for environmental research across the continent and elsewhere is declining and more research is being commercialized and funded through private investors.


Chart of the Week

Some observers have speculated that Russian economic influence may be behind the continent’s hesitancy to support U.N. resolutions against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the continent’s most important foreign trade relationships are with China, India, and the United States, rather than Russia.


What We’re Reading

Secret payments. A deep dive in Declassified UK uncovers how Britain is paying the descendants of colonial-era landowners so it can conduct dangerous military exercises in Kenya.

A fire near Mount Kenya last March, which has been blamed on a British military exercise, destroyed about 12,000 acres of land at the privately owned Lolldaiga conservancy—part of an area seized by the British during the colonial period and given to white settlers. A Kenyan court ruled last month that a lawsuit brought by 1,500 local residents against British soldiers and Britain’s defense ministry can go ahead.

Benin vs. Tunisia. The North African examines how Benin presents an alternative framework for understanding Tunisian politics. Benin was hailed as a success story for democracy. Now, as in Tunisia, it is undergoing a rapid decline. The country also shares in the experience of French colonialism, shaping significantly its state structure, post-independence elites, and political culture.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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