Can the African Union be a neutral arbiter of peace in Ukraine?
The continental body is not demonstrating true neutrality with its actions.
On May 22, speaking at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Dakar, Senegal’s President Macky Sall said he would visit Moscow and Kyiv in the coming weeks in his capacity as chairman of the African Union (AU), which he said wanted “peace through dialogue between the two sides”.
“We do not want to be aligned on this conflict, very clearly, we want peace,” Sall explained. “Even though we condemn the invasion, we’re working for a de-escalation, we’re working for a ceasefire, for dialogue … that is the African position.”
But is the continental body genuinely “neutral” over Ukraine? Can it really foster peace by starting a dialogue between the warring parties from the position of a non-aligned entity?
We should take a look at the actions – not the statements – of Africa’s leaders to answer these questions.
On March 2, 17 African states, including Sall’s Senegal, abstained from voting in a crucial United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And the AU has unashamedly snubbed two attempts by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address its heads of state. On April 12, Zelenskyy sought an audience with the AU heads of state during a phone call with Sall. But the requested meeting did not materialise.
Later that month, AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat revealed that Zelenskyy had made a second request to address the AU through Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. That attempt, too, yielded no tangible result.
Sall later promised to “get together all the heads of state of the African Union who want to [meet] with” Zelenskyy at a date yet to be confirmed. This was a bewildering admission by the AU chairman that not every African leader is willing to meet, and acquire firsthand information from, the leader of the invaded party. It was an admission that the AU would not even try to arrange the meeting Zelenskyy actually wanted – which would include all African heads of state – in fear of offending Russia.
These are not the actions of a truly non-aligned body that condemns the invasion of Ukraine but seeks to foster peace from the standpoint of complete neutrality.
If there were any remaining doubts over the disingenuousness of the AU’s claim to “neutrality”, South Africa’s President and previous chair of the AU Cyril Ramaphosa dispelled them on May 24.
Addressing the media in Pretoria, again together with Germany’s Scholz, Ramaphosa described Russia and Ukraine as “two belligerent entities” in a feeble and misplaced attempt to diminish the former’s tremendous culpability in the devastation being experienced today in Europe and beyond. He lamented the economic fallout from Russia’s violent actions and blamed the West for an emerging global food crisis, declaring that “bystanders” are going to “suffer from the sanctions that have been imposed against Russia” – repeating an argument first put forward by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who in April said by sanctioning Russia the Western elites showed that they are ready to “sacrifice the rest of the world to maintain their global dominance”.
Ramaphosa also claimed that Africa “does have a role to play [in the resolution of the conflict] because it has access to both leaders [of Ukraine and Russia]”. However – just as has been been the case with the AU in general – Ramaphosa’s government has long been unwilling to engage with the Ukrainian side.
On April 11, Ukraine’s Ambassador to South Africa Liubov Abravitova took to Twitter to complain that senior South African officials have been declining her meeting requests since the beginning of Russia’s invasion in late February. “Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, I did not have any requested meeting with SA government officials,” she wrote, “45 days. My people are under brutal attack from Russians now.” South Africa disputed her claim and insisted that Ramaphosa wants to speak “to your president”. Ramaphosa finally had a 20-minute phone call with Zelenskyy on April 20 – almost two months into the war, and seven weeks after he called Putin to get his side of the conflict.
South Africa’s steadfast refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion and the diplomatic spat with Abravitova strongly contradict the “African position” Sall confidently declared in Dakar.
There are obviously sharp and widespread divisions over the significance and sanctity of international law in the AU’s leadership ranks. On the day Ramaphosa attempted to shield Russia from justified global condemnation in Pretoria, for example, Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo and Mozambican President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi did the exact opposite in Accra. “We both condemn Russia’s invading of Ukraine and have called for its immediate cessation as its effects, together with the ravages of COVID-19, have proven to be devastating to the entire world, particularly for those of us on the African continent,” Akufo-Addo said. Unlike Ramaphosa, he did not blame Western sanctions, or attempt in any way to whitewash Russia’s actions: he rightly labelled Russia’s invasion as a massive threat to African and universal peace.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may have appeared remarkably distant to the common African man or woman’s immediate problems in February. And hence it might have seemed acceptable – or according to some even somewhat romantic – for some African leaders to try and defend Putin’s actions on the basis of anti-(American) imperialism.
Today, however, the widespread consequences of Russia’s unprovoked aggression are starting to hit home. Many countries across Africa rely on Russia and Ukraine for a significant percentage of their wheat, fertiliser, and vegetable oil imports. According to the International Monetary Fund, Africa is facing the possibility of widespread instability as food and energy prices rise rapidly. Hence the redundant diplomatic charades and organisational confusion engulfing the AU’s response to Russian aggression must come to an abrupt end.
Russia poses a clear and existential threat to Africa’s social, economic and political stability. Africa must speak truth to power collectively and act decisively to help secure Ukraine’s wellbeing and avert major crises across the continent. As the progressive world acts against Putin, Africa must act in tandem with it. Electing to extend an evidently cold and discredited facade of neutrality indefinitely, even as thousands die and Ukrainian cities are destroyed by Russian shelling is simply indefensible. Common Africans (and Ukrainians) should not have to suffer the consequences of Russia’s illegal and open-ended expansionism.
Before Sall’s delegation departs for Russia, the AU must undergo some much-needed, extensive soul-searching. How will the AU seek to negotiate peace and defend Ukraine’s right to territorial integrity and self-determination if it cannot commit itself to safeguarding the UN Charter and international law?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.