Russia, West vie for influence amid Africa caution on Ukraine war

Soon after landing in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, French President Emmanuel Macron made sure his views on the war in Ukraine were known and that his presence on the continent was felt.

While Europe and the West have characterised Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine as a war, African leaders are being far more cautious in their description of the conflict and remain neutral on the subject.

That impartiality is problematic for Macron, who also visited Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau during his visit last month.

“I have seen too much hypocrisy, particularly on the African continent,” Macron announced as he began his three-nation tour.

“And – I’m saying this very calmly – with some not calling it a war when it is one and saying they don’t know who started it because they have diplomatic pressures.”

Macron was not the only high-profile visitor to Africa that week.

In East Africa, Uganda laid out the red carpet to Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who was on a four-nation tour to win the continent’s support over to Moscow’s war on Ukraine.

Lavrov seemed determined to outwit Macron in a battle for the hearts and minds of African leaders.

Where Macron was preachy and took the high moral ground on the position of African leaders and the war in Ukraine, Lavrov embraced his hosts and counterparts and did not question their ethical compass.

“We appreciate the considered African position as to the situation in and around Ukraine,” Lavrov wrote in a newspaper column published in Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda and Ethiopia, the four countries he toured during his visit.

“Although unprecedented by its scale, the pressure from beyond has not brought our friends to join the anti-Russian sanctions. Such an independent path deserves deep respect,” he added.

Lavrov’s strategy worked wonders.

When Lavrov finished his meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the African leader praised Russia, describing Moscow as a “partner” in the struggle against colonialism going back a century.

“If Russia makes mistakes, then we tell them,” Museveni said, referring to his own participation in student demonstrations against the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

“We don’t believe in being enemies of somebody’s enemy,” he added.

Museveni has in the past enjoyed cordial relations with the West and Uganda is set to assume the chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement, a global body formed during the Cold War era by states seeking to avoid the geopolitical polarisation at that time.

Supporting Russia

Museveni is not the only African leader the Russians appear to have won over. Even countries Lavrov did not include in his recent visit are rooting for Moscow.

Zimbabwe, which has frosty diplomatic relations with the West, is in Russia’s corner on the issue of Ukraine. This is most apparent in state media coverage of the Ukraine conflict.

The Herald, a state-run daily, takes its cue from Moscow’s description of the war by describing Russia’s attack on Ukraine as a “special military operation”.

Zimbabwe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu PF), enjoys historic relations with Russia dating back to the 1960s when the party was fighting for independence from Britain. To this day, Zanu PF officials address each other as “comrade”, a term state media in the country reserves for top government and Zanu PF officials.

South Africa, the Southern African economic powerhouse, also seems to be on the Kremlin’s side.

Like Zimbabwe’s Zanu PF, the ruling African National Congress (ANC), has a long-established relationship with Russia that dates back to the country’s struggle against apartheid.

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