Africa should not help Putin whitewash his crimes in Ukraine

African leaders need to acknowledge Russian expansionism is as immoral and harmful as Western colonialism.

Putin and Zuma are seen at a meeting together in 2013
Then-South African President Jacob Zuma attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 26, 2013 in Durban, South Africa [Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images]

It was highly distressing to watch African leaders, from whom I expected better, squirm and struggle to explain why their nations abstained from voting on the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on March 2.

While the resolution passed with overwhelming support, only 28 African countries voted for it. Seventeen African nations chose to abstain, and eight did not attend the vote.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa claimed that his country abstained because “the resolution did not foreground the call for meaningful engagement” or “provide the encouragement and international backing that the parties need to continue with their efforts” to conclude a peace agreement.

Zimbabwe said it abstained because the resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would “further complicate the situation”. Namibia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah claimed that her country abstained because Article 96 of the Namibian constitution demands that it adheres to a policy of non-alignment. And Uganda claimed that it abstained because as the incoming chair of the Non-Aligned Movement it needs to remain neutral.

Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and commander of the land forces of the Uganda People’s Defence Force, meanwhile, hinted that there may be other reasons behind the African abstentions than an unyielding commitment to neutrality.

“The majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine,” he tweeted. “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?”

Whatever their true reasons may be, it was disheartening to see Africa’s leaders turn a blind eye to (and even support) the invasion of a sovereign nation in 2022.

Standing by or nodding in smug approval as defenceless women and children stare down the barrel of death is not, under any circumstances, justifiable.

Staying neutral, or turning to whataboutisms after watching more than two million people flee a country amid heavy, indiscriminate shelling sits at odds with the African Union’s commitment to promoting the Charter of the United Nations and universal human rights.

Granted, countries like Gabon, Chad and Rwanda did demonstrate outstanding moral courage and condemned Russia’s actions. But still, a plethora of much more politically influential African nations chose to remain silent in the face of Russia’s imperial aggression against a neighbouring nation.

The reasons behind the decision by these nations to continue to stand with Russia after this invasion are perhaps not difficult to see.

The Soviet Union provided much needed financial, military and political support to African liberation movements during our struggles for independence. Moscow, for example, supported and provided training for freedom fighters in apartheid South Africa throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. And Russia continued to support many African countries militarily after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

These longstanding ties undoubtedly contributed to African leaders’ reluctance to strongly condemn Russia in recent weeks. And this is perhaps why South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma released a lengthy statement on March 6 defending Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and even describing him as a “man of peace”.

Of course, the hospitals and schools that have been reduced to rubble, the civilians sheltering in makeshift bunkers in basements, the thousands who lost their lives including many innocent children, are evidence enough that Putin is not a “man of peace” by any stretch of the imagination.

As Africa contributes to the global discourse on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, it is critical that African countries remember their beginnings. Our countries were founded on progressive, democratic values and a commitment to stand for what is right both at home and abroad.

We are thus obliged not to ignore, diminish or endorse Russia’s belligerence and imperial aggression.

African nations have long supported and will continue to support the Palestinians, because we share their democratic aspirations and can empathise with their ongoing struggle against colonial oppression and dispossession.

Today, Ukrainians are suffering under the fist of an aggressor with imperial ambitions. As we long spoke against the atrocities and aggressions of former colonial powers like Britain and France, we should now clearly speak against this atrocity being committed by Russia.

Africa cannot be impervious to the severe trauma ordinary Ukrainians are experiencing or oblivious to the hand behind it. Russian expansionism is no less catastrophic and harmful than the Western colonialism African people suffered under for so long.

The massacres committed by Russian soldiers and drones today in Ukraine are as disastrous as the ones committed by German soldiers in present-day Namibia in 1904. And Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine is just as devastating and immoral as the French occupation of Algeria.

Sure, Western countries are not the world’s righteous saviours, and African leaders have the right and even obligation to counter any such claim at every opportunity. This, however, cannot and should not mean that Africa embraces Russia as its anti-imperialist hero, even when it wages an undeniably imperialist war against a much smaller nation.

In its response to this immoral conflict, Africa should be the voice of reason and morality. This is why our leaders need to immediately abandon their attempts to whitewash Russia’s aggression under the facade of impartiality.

South Africa, for example, has long been a strong and unflinching global advocate of human rights, particularly Palestinian human rights.

It has been resolute in condemning Israel for bombing Palestinian hospitals, homes and schools during its wars on the besieged Gaza enclave. It has been critical of Israel’s apartheid state in support of long-suffering Palestinians. It has also never refrained from criticising Israel’s Western backers for fuelling the violence against Palestinians.

So why has it chosen to abandon equally blameless and desperate Ukrainians in their time of need? In fact, why are so many Africans failing to see themselves in the victims of Russia’s violence?

Can Africa not recognise the suffering of the innocent when the perpetrator of the suffering is Russia?

A few hours before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin said, “Our policy is based on freedom, the freedom of choice for everyone to independently determine their own future and the future of their children.” African states should hold him accountable to this statement and condemn the painfully contradictory developments that are emerging in Ukraine. Indeed, let us promote a peaceful resolution to the war, but avoid becoming hypocrites and losing our humanity in the process.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.