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Ukraine-Russia war: non-alignment, the best choice for Africa?

By refraining from condemning Russia at the UN on March 2, 17 African countries demonstrated a non-alignment reminiscent of the Cold War.

The 2 last march, African countries voted in the UN General Assembly for a resolution “condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine”. If this text was adopted, seventeen African countries preferred to abstain. Like Senegal. Macky Sall then called in a press release "for respect for the independence and sovereignty of States" and reaffirmed "his adherence to the principles of non-alignment".

Born in the middle of the Cold War in the 1960s, is the concept of “non-alignment” making a comeback, as the Western bloc desperately tries to align the different countries behind it? If "the geographical remoteness of the conflict creates a certain emotional distance" was one of the factors of the abstention of several African countries, according to the Cameroonian researcher Paul-Simon Handy, the fact that this war pits great powers against each other has, "as often in Africa, provoked a reflex of non-alignment".

Uganda, leader of the non-aligned countries

Although little is said about it, the Non-Aligned Movement still exists. And among its members, most are African. The vote of March 2 seems to have put forward the movement born in 1961 in Belgrade. Francis Kpatindé, lecturer at Sciences-Po Paris, assures that "the high abstention is partly explained by a return to the non-alignment policy of the 1960s on the African continent, led by countries like Uganda , which has just taken over the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement, Tanzania or South Africa which, after condemning the Russian invasion, has reversed course towards a more neutral policy”.

While Westerners try to move the lines, the resurgence of the Non-Aligned Movement shows how difficult Africa is to navigate between the two blocs. The Havana Declaration of 1979 assured "the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries in their struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, segregation, racism, and all form of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony by great powers or political blocs”.

A polarization from which Africa wants to stay away

In short, for the non-aligned countries it was a question of being neither for nor against the Western and Soviet blocs, which were engaged in an interminable Cold War. A real dilemma that arises once again in Africa. The repolarization of the world into two camps is putting pressure on the continent, which has developed strategic partnerships with Europe and the United States, but also with Russia and China.

It is this repolarization which therefore encourages Africa to reflect, according to Thierry Vircoulon, coordinator of the Observatory for Central and Southern Africa of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). For the researcher, “to escape this strategic dilemma, the non-alignment invented in 1955 is making a comeback in 2021 as a prudent and reassuring option. The Non-Aligned Movement born from the Bandung conference in 1955 brought together the States which did not want to affiliate either to the Eastern bloc or to the Western bloc”.

It is in this perspective of non-alignment that the African countries have, for some, decided to abstain on March 2 at the UN. "Non-alignment, of which abstention in the vote of the UN General Assembly is the expression, avoids taking sides in this conflict between great powers and makes it possible to navigate the turbulent waters of the new Cold War, believes Thierry Vircoulon. The future will tell if this diplomatic strategy will make it possible not to displease or displease everyone, especially if the conflict flares up”.

African caution

Now begins a real lobbying operation on the part of the Western bloc. The United States is now making eyes at Venezuela, a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. There is no doubt that Europe will try to put pressure on the African countries which have abstained from the UN. But it will be difficult to bring the continent into a war that is not its own, especially when we know the current problems facing African countries.

For Thierry Vircoulon, Africa has certainly made a reasonable choice by not condemning Russia. "If the party of the abstainers has so many members in Africa, it should not only be seen as the influence of Moscow and the decline in popularity of Europeans and Americans, but also and above all a reflex of prudence and safeguard on the part of 'a multi-dependent Africa which knows that 'when the elephants fight, it is the ants that die'”, concludes the researcher.

It should also be remembered that the non-aligned movement had, during the Cold War, been torn apart against the background of the war between the USSR and Afghanistan. In Africa, it was notably the interference on both sides of the world powers in the civil wars in the region of the Great Lakes which separated the protagonists of the movement in Africa. A look back at the end of the movement's African leaders: Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) was overthrown, Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt) was in the crosshairs of the West during his tenure, Thabot Mbeki (South Africa) was kicked out of his post. However, the latter had a better fate than Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara or even Muammar Gaddafi, all eliminated.

If Africa decides to be neutral today, then, its leaders are not necessarily in a comfortable position. For, as Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos reminds us, the West is often quick to "confront African neutrality" through "neocolonial interference" if he sees his interests threatened by said neutrality.

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