Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Putin’s World Order Would Be Devastating for Africa

Moscow is already deeply involved in destabilizing wars.

By , the director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, and , the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa.
Dimitry Sytii (C), founder of the mining company Lobaye Invest and placed under U.S. Treasury sanctions for his alleged links to the Wagner group, is surrounded by Central African deputies on the steps of the National Assembly in Bangui on October 15, 2021.
Dimitry Sytii (C), founder of the mining company Lobaye Invest and placed under U.S. Treasury sanctions for his alleged links to the Wagner group, is surrounded by Central African deputies on the steps of the National Assembly in Bangui on October 15, 2021.
Dimitry Sytii (C), founder of the mining company Lobaye Invest and placed under U.S. Treasury sanctions for his alleged links to the Wagner group, is surrounded by Central African deputies on the steps of the National Assembly in Bangui on October 15, 2021. AFP via Getty Images

On March 2, member states of the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that strongly condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. The resolution, which was supported by 141 member states, affirmed that “any attempt aimed at the … disruption of the territorial integrity of a State … or at its political independence is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.” The resolution was an affirmation of the legal guardrails and norms that have guided international relations since the conclusion of World War II and the ratification of the United Nations Charter in 1945.

One region stood out for its seeming ambivalence, however. While most African countries joined their global counterparts to stand up to Putin’s unprovoked brutality, 17 African countries abstained, with another eight choosing to not participate. One country even voted against the resolution, Eritrea, a totalitarian dictatorship. There were many reasons for the abstentions, varying from historical ties to Africa’s liberation struggles to the self-interest of regimes currently propped up by Russia and to those ideologically committed to nonalignment on the global stage.

But African leaders should have a more fundamental concern than these—at least, those who are committed to advancing peace and democracy. Putin is attempting to undermine the global order that has guided international relations for the better part of the last century. Building on Russia’s previous annexation of Crimea and parts of northern Georgia as well as its prior occupation of Ukraine’s Donbas region, Putin is taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of the once stable post-World War II order.

On March 2, member states of the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that strongly condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. The resolution, which was supported by 141 member states, affirmed that “any attempt aimed at the … disruption of the territorial integrity of a State … or at its political independence is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.” The resolution was an affirmation of the legal guardrails and norms that have guided international relations since the conclusion of World War II and the ratification of the United Nations Charter in 1945.

One region stood out for its seeming ambivalence, however. While most African countries joined their global counterparts to stand up to Putin’s unprovoked brutality, 17 African countries abstained, with another eight choosing to not participate. One country even voted against the resolution, Eritrea, a totalitarian dictatorship. There were many reasons for the abstentions, varying from historical ties to Africa’s liberation struggles to the self-interest of regimes currently propped up by Russia and to those ideologically committed to nonalignment on the global stage.

But African leaders should have a more fundamental concern than these—at least, those who are committed to advancing peace and democracy. Putin is attempting to undermine the global order that has guided international relations for the better part of the last century. Building on Russia’s previous annexation of Crimea and parts of northern Georgia as well as its prior occupation of Ukraine’s Donbas region, Putin is taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of the once stable post-World War II order.

This attempt to normalize expansionist ambitions will have profound consequences for Africa. Would-be tsars across the continent—who, like Putin, have evaded term limits to stay in power indefinitely while eliminating their political opposition—are watching closely, asking if Putin can get away with this brazen overreach and flout the rules-based order, then why can’t they. It is a reasonable question to ask. At stake are established notions of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the independence of member states, which suddenly become more temporal, arbitrary, and open to violent contestation.

Perhaps the most eloquent defense of the existing order, premised on these foundational principles, came from Kenya’s permanent representative to the United Nations: ambassador Martin Kimani, who warned Putin and the Russian military to respect its border with Ukraine, using Africa’s own colonial past to highlight the dangers of stoking the “embers of dead empires.”

So what does a Russian-shaped international order look like for Africa?

A primary feature is the challenge to the inviolability of established boundaries. There are currently some 100 contested borders on the continent, most of them stemming from arbitrarily drawn colonial boundaries. These have, for the most part, been managed peacefully by successive African governments, rooted in a respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that were enshrined in the Charter of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963 and later reaffirmed in the Constitutive Act of the African Union in 2001. Established during the postcolonial independence period, many African states were born out of a commitment to self-determination. Ironically, this is the central issue being contested today by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

If the lesson from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is that might makes right, then Africa’s political geography could be perpetually in dispute. In other words, if the overlapping security guarantees provided by both the U.N. and AU charters can be violated with impunity, then what is to stop African leaders who envy Putin’s aggressive brand of authoritarianism from following suit?

Already, we see this happening in some parts of Africa.

The volatile African Great Lakes region stands out for the fragility of its borders. The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, has become a target for exploitation by authoritarian leaders in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, officially in power since 2000, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, have routinely marched their troops and proxies as well as directed their allied rebel groups to seize Congolese territory, loot natural resources, and kill citizens with alarming impunity. In October 2021, Congolese authorities reported clashing with Rwandan troops, who allegedly occupied several villages before retreating. And as recently as March, the Congolese army presented evidence that the Kagame regime was actively backing a rebellion in eastern Congo. Disregarding borders is particularly precarious in the Great Lakes region because it carries with it the potential to reignite one of the most cataclysmic conflicts in recent history.

Similarly, Moscow has played a destabilizing role in Africa. Recent years have illuminated a “new scramble for Africa” as external actors seek to aggressively plant their politics, governance, and economic flags across the continent. Russia has been at the forefront of this predatory behavior by repeatedly propping up isolated and authoritarian leaders—most notably in Libya, Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan—to advance Moscow’s patently anti-democratic influence.

Through the deployment of shadowy and unaccountable mercenary groups, polarizing disinformation campaigns, election interference, and arms-for-resource deals, Russia has gained influence while fostering instability and the increased human rights abuses that ultimately result from it.

Russia has also fomented—both covertly and overtly—and been quick to support the many unconstitutional seizures of power recently witnessed in Africa. The spate of coups and increasing instances of African leaders scrapping term limits, for example, better suit Moscow’s vision of remaking the international order in its autocratic mold.

That a Russian-shaped order in Africa would be more oppressive is crucial to note since most of the 16 ongoing internal conflicts on the continent have deep roots in authoritarian forms of governance. None of Africa’s established democracies, in contrast, are in conflict. More authoritarianism, then, can be expected to yield more conflict.

Tolerance for predatory interstate behavior globally, moreover, will embolden elevated forms of repression domestically in African states. After all, if the enshrined principles of self-determination and popular participation are not respected in a high-profile instance, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then what international actors can be compelled to penalize the intimidation or jailing of opposition leaders, the shuttering of independent media outlets, and the brazen rigging of elections in Africa? Growing autocracy would do a grave injustice to the 75 percent of Africans who regularly state that democracy is their preferred form of government. The inevitable repression that will result from an unfettered international order would also lead to a spike in refugee flows and internally displaced populations.

It took the trauma of World War II to compel the international community to unite, recognize, and sign onto the principles outlined in the U.N. Charter. Intrinsic to this global system—forged from hard-learned and costly experiences—was the importance of collective security to deter and push back against authoritarian bullies in Europe and elsewhere.

The Organisation of African Unity and later the AU adopted many of these core values. Indeed, drawing on its own hard-earned lessons from colonialism, the challenges of securing peace following the brutal wars of the 1990s, and the aftermath of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, the AU rightly recognized the importance of action when faced with violations of such universal principles.

While often underappreciated and unevenly applied, the U.N. and AU frameworks provide a layer of international accountability against extralegal actions as well as a critical starting point to build the solidarity that is needed to address the challenges that the global community faces.

As Africans grapple with the more present and disastrous aftershocks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is important to recognize the threat this form of authoritarian expansion will have on the continent if it is normalized. History shows us that impunity is contagious. And apathy in the face of imminent threat is foolhardy. The clear threats emanating from Putin’s worldview defy the principles that are central to an international order that both the U.N. and AU helped foster.

Joseph Siegle is the director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed are his own.

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa. Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

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