Ukraine as Africa’s inflection point
The Russian invasion impels many Africans to seek a stronger self-image of freedom.
In the three decades since the Cold War, much of Africa has sought to engage the rest of the world with a certain neutrality. Its people have welcomed massive investment from China and lately from Russia, for example, while still maintaining ties with the West. That openness was aimed at accelerating economic growth and strengthening democracy.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Although China is engaged in infrastructure projects in more than 35 countries and trade with Russia is up 84% in just the past four years, the more harmful consequences were in plain view: a new scramble for Africa’s vast resources, more corruption, and an erosion of democracy.
Now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is prompting African countries to confront not just these vulnerabilities, but also a mindset enabling them. Many African leaders harbor historical resentments. While Europe colonized Africa, China and the then-Soviet Union in the late 20th century trained African liberation forces. In the United Nations debate last month over a Security Council resolution condemning Russia, Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the U.N., warned that peace and prosperity must be built on higher principles than those of the last century.
“Kenya and almost every African country was birthed by the ending of empire,” he said. “We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
Africa’s “colonial mindset” still runs deep decades after independence. It has left generations of people feeling inferior and dependent. The crisis in Ukraine has exacerbated that sense of vulnerability, especially in terms of food. Ukrainian exports to Africa have been about $4 billion annually, 75% of which were agricultural products.
Concern over the war’s impact on food security as well as fuel supply was evident in how African countries voted on the resolution condemning Russia’s invasion. Twenty-eight of 54 countries backed the measure. Most of these were democracies. Another 17 abstained. These were countries with mainly authoritarian-leaning regimes, some with close military or ideological ties to Russia.
Kenya and Ghana, which strongly endorsed the resolution, import most of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Their willingness to put human rights and sovereignty above their material interests reflects the yearning for democracy and innovation broadly demanded by younger Africans born a generation or more after the end of colonialism.
That generation’s aspirations are reflected in initiatives like the Civic Tech Fund Africa, launched last November by a group of African and European nations to promote democracy through innovation projects started by young Africans in 11 initial countries. They are also reflected in themes explored by emerging African artists and writers who are turning a critical lens on their own societies. One example is Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, who grappled with the weight of her great-grandfather’s role as a slave trader in a recent essay for The New Yorker.
“I was born almost 20 years after Britain officially handed over my country, Nigeria, to its people,” she told the BBC. “The one enduring effect that I find most bothersome is the way our former colonial rulers still loom large in our peoples’ minds, shaping the greater part of our self-image. What ‘the white people’ think and speak of us continues to mean more to many Africans than what we believe about ourselves. ... I am one of a new generation of Africans who believe more in the power of dreams than in the power of memories.”
Insights like hers echo the strong stand that many African democracies are taking against Russia’s war in Ukraine and for a freer way of thinking. Both Russia and China may be taking note.