How to overcome Africa-Europe estrangement over the war in Ukraine


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe

Picture of Youssef Travaly
Youssef Travaly

Senior Fellow for Digital at the Africa-Europe Foundation

Do not normalise the war

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One year ago, Russia escalated its illegal invasion of Ukraine to a full-scale, all-out war on a sovereign, European nation. Friends of Europe pays homage to the first anniversary of this unprovoked and unjustified attack with a series of articles, podcasts and events that tap into the expertise and experience of leading activists, Ukrainian officials, artists, NATO representatives, and security and defence experts and call upon us all to not normalise this war.

Europe, multilateral institutions and the global community have learned some tough lessons about the arrangements put in place to prevent acts of aggression or to guide our actions once they take place, including approaches to multipolar geopolitics, supply chains with illiberal nations, as well as Europe-wide and global agreements in a post-World War 2 world. The war has upended so much that we previously took for granted. For these reasons, normalising this war is not an option. Our commemorative activities aim to identify steps towards the ultimate goals of justice and peace.

Contributors include Friends of Europe’s Luke O’Callaghan White and Senior Fellows Jamie SheaChris Kremidas-Courtney and Paul Taylor; the Africa-Europe Foundation’s Youssef Travaly; Ukrainian European Young Leaders (EYL40) Emine Dzhaparova and Oleksandra MatviichukJaime Nadal, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative for Ukraine; Business Ombudsman Roman Waschuk; LGBTQ+ activist of KyivPride, Edward ReeseDavid Rowe, Professor and Fulbright NATO Security Studies Scholar; Borys Tarasyuk, former Ukrainian foreign affairs minister; journalist Maryana DrachInna Shevchenko, Ukrainian author, journalist at Charlie Hebdo and leader at FEMEN International; artist Markus Georg Reintgen; and Philippe Cori, UNICEF Deputy Regional Director Europe and Central Asia; and Giancarlo La Rocca and Alessandro Marrone of the Istituto Affari Internazionali.

Find out more here.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, the West and the South have reacted in divergent ways that threaten to undermine the partnership that the European Union and the African Union (AU) sealed just a few days before the invasion. We need to overcome that estrangement to avoid further damage to the crucial relationship between our two continents.

European governments responded to the return of major inter-state war in Europe for the first time in decades with condemnation and sanctions against Moscow, an outpouring of solidarity for Ukrainian refugees, as well as economic assistance and incremental arms supplies to Kyiv.

African leaders were divided over the war, with 28 out of 54 AU member states voting at the United Nations to condemn the Russian action, while 17 abstained, 8 did not vote and 1 voted against the resolution. Many Africans saw the European response as a prime example of double standards, given the disproportion in political and military support for Ukraine compared to assistance for African states battling aggression and instability, the generous welcome for those fleeing the conflict in eastern Europe and the scale of financial resources mobilised for Kyiv.

Some were reluctant to take sides, either because they recalled the former Soviet Union’s support for liberation movements against European colonialism and apartheid, or because some rulers welcome Russian economic and security assistance with fewer strings attached than EU grants and loans, which typically carry human rights, anti-corruption and sustainable development conditions. Russian narratives blaming the United States and NATO for the war found fertile ground.

European governments expected greater political solidarity from their African counterparts

Given the reliance of many African countries on Russia and Ukraine for supplies of grain, fertiliser and cooking oil, governments could ill afford to risk their economic ties by alienating Moscow at a time of scarcity and inflation. Besides, many felt the West, including the EU, had taken African support for granted and shown little consideration for African interests in general when imposing sanctions. For example, shutting Russia out of the SWIFT international payments system caused severe complications for African countries needing to pay for food and fuel. Moreover, African governments are alarmed that hundreds of young Africans have been lured to fight in Ukraine after Kyiv appealed for volunteers and Moscow’s Wagner Group military contractors reportedly recruited prisoners in the Central African Republic to join the war.

Europeans, for their part, could not comprehend why many of their African partners equivocated on the issue of principle over an unprovoked attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a neighbouring state. After all, Africa has relied for decades on the principle of the intangibility of borders, even though they were often drawn arbitrarily by former colonial powers.

In their hour of need, European governments expected greater political solidarity from their African counterparts. The EU-AU relationship is largely about European support for peace and security in Africa. But when Europe’s own security was threatened existentially, Europeans felt that their AU partners should have shown more reciprocity.

Compounding fraying mutual confidence, a number of African countries are looking to Russia or China for security assistance, even to the predatory privateers of the Wagner Group. In African eyes, this reflects frustration at the failure of a decade or more of French military intervention to improve the security situation in the Sahel region or the Central African Republic. It also stems partly from a resurgence of military coups against elected leaders seen as unable to ensure security or economic development.

This particularly irks the central and east European countries

But seen from Europe, striking deals with the mercenaries blamed for some of the worst atrocities in Russia’s war in Ukraine is hard to stomach. In Mali and the Central African Republic, EU missions training African security forces and providing development assistance co-exist uneasily with Wagner operatives in the field.

This particularly irks the central and east European countries that are on the borders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and feel their own safety immediately threatened by Russian aggression. The sight of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov being embraced from Pretoria to Bamako causes understandable anger.

These states, which once lived under Soviet domination, as well as the Nordic countries, are increasingly driving the foreign and security policy debate in Europe. In the perennial contest between East and South for EU policy attention and resources, they are in the ascendant.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the EU has already allocated €3.5bn out of the €5.3bn earmarked for 2021-27 in the new European Peace Facility – originally designed to fund support for African security forces – to buy weapons and equipment for Ukraine, but only €600mn for peace support in Africa over the next three years.

With no end in sight to the conflict in Ukraine, Europeans and Africans must look for ways to rebuild mutual solidarity in order to sustain political support for their partnership in peace and security. The seeds were sown in last year’s AU-EU summit declaration, but they were blown off course by the geopolitical conflict in Europe.

Africa and Europe should intensify joint work

Both sides of the Mediterranean can draw lessons. Bringing vaccine manufacturing to Africa is a good example of effective collaboration. Why not replicate this model of cooperation and level of engagement in other fields of interest beyond peace, security and defence?

The EU could support more African countries in closing technology and skills gaps to make them less dependent on Europe in years to come. Africa and Europe should intensify joint work on mastering hydrogen technology to help Africa achieve energy independence and contribute to future EU needs. Harnessing space technologies could be of mutual benefit for both continents. The EU should look again at making access to its funds, such as the Horizon science programme, less forbiddingly cumbersome and better adapted to African needs.

For their part, Africans should engage in developing their own financial system, based on their mobile phone network, to reduce their reliance on the Western banking system and SWIFT, enabling large transfers of ‘mobile money’ for commodity payments.

Training and equipping African security and defence forces, and supporting AU-mandated peacekeepers, should remain the centrepiece of the AU-EU peace and security partnership, given the low appetite on both sides for European military interventions.

But Europeans are right to expect greater understanding from African partners when their own security is threatened by aggression in Europe. And African rulers who embrace Europe’s mortal enemies should not expect EU cooperation to carry on regardless.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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