March 20, 2023

Harare, Zimbabwe – An imposing Russian warship armed with a strong Zircon hypersonic missile, a handful of Chinese language naval destroyers, and a number of frigates and provide vessels docked on South Africa’s coastal shores final Saturday.

The coterie of Russian and Chinese language maritime firepower, which may simply convey a poorly geared up African nation’s navy to its knees militarily, could be spending days on parade in deliberate tri-nation naval drills off the coast of Durban within the nation’s east.

A 12 months in the past, it might have been laborious to think about South Africa – which has adopted a publicly “impartial” stance on the battle in Ukraine – opting to host such an occasion with Russia whereas the latter invaded its neighbour.

,[The position of ] neutrality can value,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stated in an interview with Bloomberg final March. “And thankfully, we’re not alone in all this, there are lots of others which have chosen the identical path. The profit in all that is that we will speak to either side.

The outdated guard of African politics shared the identical sentiments.

“We do not consider in being enemies of any individual’s enemy,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has dominated since 1986, stated in July final 12 months after internet hosting Russian overseas minister Sergey Lavrov when he toured African nations to rally assist for the battle in Ukraine. .

At a continental stage, it was the same tune.

Of the 35 international locations that abstained from voting in a vital United Nations Basic Meeting (UNGA) decision final March condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 17 have been African.

“We don’t wish to be aligned on this battle, very clearly, we wish peace,” stated Senegal’s President Macky Sall, the then-chairperson of the African Union (AU).


Quick ahead to a 12 months later and with no finish to the battle in sight, it appears many African nations are holding their impartial place.

Throughout a UNGA vote Final week demanding that Moscow withdraw its troops from Ukraine and finish the preventing, 32 international locations abstained – 15 of them African.

South Africa, which is holding its joint naval drills with Russia in the identical week because the anniversary of the battle, was among the many abstentions.

Piers Pigou, the Worldwide Disaster Group’s senior marketing consultant for Southern Africa, stated the continent’s stance on neutrality has not shifted.

“The issue, in fact, is the optics of [South Africa’s naval engagements at] thistime. It is astonishing that they would not have identified someday prematurely that the timing of this factor could be awkward. However they do not appear to care an excessive amount of about that,” Pigou informed Al Jazeera.

“It means they’re doubling down on a place they are saying is non-aligned however actually gives the look to many individuals that they’re partisan.”

This handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Wednesday, Feb.  22, 2023, shows the Admiral Gorshkov frigate of the Russian navy in Richards Bay, South Africa
The Admiral Gorshkov frigate of the Russian navy in Richards Bay, South Africa, the place it participated in naval drills with Russia, South Africa and China, February 22, 2023 [Russian Defence Ministry Press Service via AP]

And optics are proving to be all the things.

“America has considerations about any nation … exercising with Russia as Russia wages a brutal battle towards Ukraine,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White Home press secretary stated final month when responding to queries on South Africa’s naval drills with Russia.

This got here on the identical time that the US plans to introduce a invoice that will compel Washington to punish African international locations who support and abet what it sees as Russian “malign” actions on the continent.

Known as the Countering Malign Russian Actions in Africa actwhich is anticipated to turn into regulation quickly, it seeks to counter what the US considers to be Russia and its proxies’ hostile affect on the continent.

The laws “is inflicting a little bit of controversy with the potential to punish international locations buying and selling with Russia”, Pigou stated, including that it’s “the massive pebble within the shoe in the intervening time”.

diplomatic allure

Nevertheless, on the African continent, the place Washington struggles diplomatically, Russia seems to be succeeding.

International Minister Lavrov, who final 12 months met leaders of Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Eritrea, South Africa, Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia on a sequence of journeys to the continent, has been capable of allure diplomatically.

Of the 4 states he first visited in July, three – Congo, Ethiopia and Uganda – selected to abstain on the UNGA assembly in October when requested to vote to sentence Russia’s makes an attempt to annex Ukrainian areas.

Exterior of the Ukraine battle, Russia has additionally been making huge in-roads in different elements of Africa, together with Sudan, Central African Republic, and Mali the place the Wagner group, a mercenary group linked to Moscow, is concerned within the preventing whereas some Western Navy forces, such because the French military within the Sahel, have made the choice to go away.

Different African international locations have fostered hyperlinks with key Russian allies. Zimbabwe, as an illustration – which has had frosty relations with the West since Robert Mugabe’s insurance policies of land seizure and redistribution to the Black majority have been put in place – performed host final month to Russia’s greatest ally, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukanhesko.

Using on historical past

Russia has historic ties with the continent relationship again to the Soviet Union, which supported many pro-independence actions in Africa at a time of Western political dominance.

Throughout apartheid in South Africa, the Soviets provided funding and paramilitary coaching to the liberation motion that grew to become the governing African Nationwide Congress (ANC) after democracy in 1994. In Zimbabwe, it supported the African Nationwide Union-Patriotic Entrance (ZANU-PF) when the occasion fought a settler Rhodesian authorities from the Sixties till independence in 1980. And in Angola, it supplied army assist to the Movimento Standard de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA), from the Sixties till independence from Portugal in 1975 on the top of the Chilly Struggle.

“Loyalty to Russia primarily based on its assist, because the Soviet Union, through the battle for independence has been robust,” Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics on the College of London’s College of Oriental and African Research (SOAS), famous to Al Jazeera. “Thus the posture of neutrality – [is] in a method desirous to have it each methods.

On the subject of Ukraine, Chan stated African states should choose sides as a substitute of being seen to be supporting Russia whereas additionally being cozy with its foes.

Three superpowers

The Ukraine battle has uncovered African nations’ failure to diplomatically navigate their method by an unfamiliar political order, Chan argued.

“This has actually engendered a three-way battle for affect in Africa – with the West solely now taking critically the challenges posed by each Russia and China,” he informed Al Jazeera.

In each the bipolar political order – a interval dominated by Russia and the US – and the unipolar political order that adopted the collapse of the Soviet Union, making the US the only real superpower, the selection was easy – both Russia or the US. Now, nevertheless, it’s a alternative between three powers: the US, Russia and China.

“Africa will discover it more and more troublesome to map a balanced path that weaves efficiently between the three superpowers,” Chan stated.

It is a view echoed by Ronald Chipaike, a lecturer in peace and governance on the Bindura College in Zimbabwe.

“Africa hasn’t benefitted a lot from its neutrality within the battle, simply because it did not profit a lot through the Chilly Struggle,” he stated, including the continent will solely reap “fringe” advantages resembling saving Africa from “direct confrontation with both the West or Russia”.

Though the AU purports to be impartial, when Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made diplomatic overtures final April for a video convention with African leaders through the AU, to rally them to Ukraine’s facet, the request was pushed again a number of occasions, and solely occurred in June – 10 weeks after his first request.

Even then, solely 4 heads of state attended whereas the remaining despatched emissaries.

“This reveals that African international locations appear to have a comfortable spot for Russia and it places the entire neutrality subject into query,” Chipaike informed Al Jazeera.

Holding placards with pro Russian slogans, demonstrators gather in Bangui on March 5, 2022 during a rally in support of Russia.
Holding placards with pro-Russian slogans, demonstrators collect in Bangui, Central African Republic on March 5, 2022, throughout a rally in assist of Russia [File: Carol Valade/AFP]

Meals safety considerations

Amid altering political and diplomatic posturing by leaders, on the bottom, the provision chains lengthy disrupted by the battle are nonetheless but to normalise. Africa is bearing the brunt of meals shortages and inflation given its heavy reliance on imports.

African international locations, which import 50 % of their Wheat from Russia and Ukraine noticed costs soar 71 % final March.

Though the meals state of affairs has considerably improved as extra grains go away Black Sea ports and attain African international locations, issues are removed from again to regular on the continent.

Now, costs are a lot greater, eroding buying energy for a lot of Africans.

Of the 24 international locations that desperately want meals support that the Meals and Agriculture Group (FAO) and World Meals Program (WFP) have recognized as starvation hotspots, 16 are in Africa, as a result of world provide constraints, the battle in Ukraine, COVID-19 and local weather change.

Moreover, a poor rice season final 12 months will have an effect on Africa, a joint assertion of FAO, WFP and the Worldwide Financial Fund stated in early February.

Earlier than the battle, about 283 million folks have been already “affected by starvation” in Africa, in line with the African Improvement Financial institution.

Africans on the entrance line

Aside from meals, Africa has additionally needed to take care of the racial undertones of the battle.

When the battle broke out, African college students in Ukraine reported quite a few episodes of racial abuse and discrimination on the borders as they tried to cross in the direction of security into neighboring international locations alongside European refugees who have been typically welcomed with open arms.

On the opposite facet of the battle strains, the state of affairs for Black Africans is precarious in numerous methods.

Final 12 months, a Zambian scholar was killed in Ukraine whereas preventing for Russia.

The scholar, Lemekhani Nyirenda, who had no army background, was deployed to the entrance strains by the Russian mercenary group, Wagner. It stays unclear how Nyirenda, who was serving a nine-year sentence in a Russian jail for a drug offense, ended up in Ukraine; nevertheless, Russian authorities Mentioned he had been pardoned earlier than becoming a member of the battle.

One other Tanzanian scholar, Nemes Tarimo, additionally died in Ukraine after being recruited from a Russian jail the place he was serving a seven-year sentence for a drug offence.

On the newest UNGA vote on Thursday – the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Zambia joined 140 different international locations in supporting the decision calling for the battle to finish, whereas Tanzania didn’t register a vote.

On the identical time in South Africa, which has continued to abstain from UN votes on the battle as a result of its dedication to neutrality, the naval drills with Russia pressed forward as deliberate, regardless of Western stress and criticisms in regards to the insensitivity of the timing.

“There’s a distinction between army and politics,” Lieutenant-Basic Siphiwe Sangweni, the chief of joint operations within the South African Nationwide Protection Pressure, informed journalists on Wednesday, defending the choice to carry the drills.

“Sure, there can be different international locations who really feel in another way in how we’ve got approached this, however … all international locations are sovereign nations and have a proper to deal with issues. [as] they see match,” he stated.

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