By Rahmane Idrissa
Why does Africa seem to support Russia’s aggression of Ukraine? There can be many answers to this question, including one that questions its relevance. But the best response I can think of is inequality.
Let me explain this with a couple of examples.
Over a decade ago, at a prestigious institution in the UK, I was unexpectedly asked to tell a group of well-meaning scholars what Africa’s deep desire regarding international governance was. That was not something I spent my day thinking about, and caught off guard, I blurted out, “international democracy,” “equality of nations.” I was astonished that I said this. These concepts did float in my head at the time, but they were half-baked, not ready for public communication, I didn’t even know what they meant exactly and couldn’t elaborate, as the others were clearly waiting for me to do. After a moment of silence has passed, the conversation moved on.
There was a problem of terminology. In Africa, people did not speak of equality or inequality, but of colonialism or neocolonialism, terms that are more appealing because they are less abstract. Yet, the central problem of international governance today lies in the unequal relations between sovereign entities, in a world which, since around 1960, has been entirely and uniformly composed of the same type of sovereign, the nation-state. Colonialism and neo-colonialism no longer exist in the 21st century, with the exception of Israel/Palestine, where settlement colonialism is still in force. Everywhere else, colonialism ended when the colonized countries became independent. Neo-colonialism existed for some time after the end of colonialism, but it too disappeared no later than the early 1980s, with the onset of globalization.
Two things did not end: inequality of sovereigns (a fact of life) and some legacy ties from the colonial era. Such ties used to be pieces in a machinery of control that is now gone. Examples include the language of the former metropole, or, in France’s former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, the CFA franc currency. The focus on colonialism mobilizes energies against legacy ties, but the real issue in the modern world is sovereign inequality, and it does not concern only the relationship with the former colonial master. To wit, even if the former colonies stopped speaking a “colonial language” or switched to a “non-colonial currency” (the CFA has been dubbed a “colonial currency”), the inequality will remain.
On 6 August this year, France suspended its 482-million euros of development aid, and its 13-million euros of budgetary aid to Burkina Faso, in what was a policy change about the junta-ruled states of the Sahel, following a coup in neighboring Niger (junta-ruled Burkina had applauded that event). In what looks like a retaliation, the Burkinabe state revoked a public private partnership contract it had passed with a French consortium for the planned building and management of a new international airport in the capital, Ouagadougou. In the Burkinabe government’s rhetoric, the partnership was a threat to Burkina’s “national interest,” one should understand, because it was passed with a French entity and therefore reflected an inherently exploitative, neocolonial entanglement. The agreement is nearly identical to the ones which the governments of Senegal and Niger passed with a Turkish company for the building and running of similar infrastructure. Like the one between Burkina and the French consortium, those agreements stem from inequality, since Burkina, Niger and Senegal lack the capital and enterprise to build and run a world-class airport through a home-based organization and must pass these contracts with foreign ones. Yet, if, in the case of the Turkish company, the inequality cannot be ascribed to neocolonial profiteering, the evidence that colonialism and neocolonialism are well and truly gone is supplied by the very fact that the Burkina government could abruptly scrap the French contract, something unthinkable in a neocolonial context. And the evidence that what matters is inequality is supplied by France’s suspension of its aid. France likes to present its aid as deriving from “responsibility” toward former colonies, almost like a form of sovereign noblesse oblige. The claim isn’t groundless in places, like the Sahel countries, where French economic investments are minimal (only Niger’s uranium counts as a strategic investment in French calculations). But that further highlights the inequality in the relationship, insofar as something that is a choice for the French state is almost a necessity for the Burkinabe. (In money terms, the total French funding is over 12 percent of Burkina’s total fiscal income). It means that France can hurt Burkina without feeling much pain itself, which is the essence of inequality. Psychologically, the pain stings more when it is inflicted by the former colonizer: but the problem isn’t colonialism, it is inequality. So Burkina attempted to restore some sense of equality, in the form of reciprocity, by endeavoring to hurt French “interests,” i.e., the consortium contracted to build the airport. However juvenile that might seem, that is an act of sovereignty, though not an anticolonial act. It is an act that aspires to sovereign equality.
That Monday morning in the UK, I didn’t want to come across as talking about colonialism, I didn’t want my perplex audience to conclude, “he’s saying equality, but he means anticolonialism.” I already felt back then that the colonial thinking so widespread in Africa was a mistake. (Colonial thinking exists also in the former metropoles, but this analysis is about Africa). Today, the type of colonial thinking that drives crowds in former French colonies in Africa also determines much of Africa’s response to the Ukraine war. The inequality with Russia, even as the Wagner group is plundering the Central African Republic and turning its government into a plaything – in a way which French neocolonialism in its worst days didn’t do – does not register with Africans. The inequality with the West is the only one that counts, because it is seen as colonial in essence. Reducing all relationships to either “colonial” or “not colonial” is a grave mistake, which can hurt Africa’s immediate interests and diminishes the long-term interests involved in its moral standing. The failure to define an attitude that clearly condemns Russia’s aggression of Ukraine without aligning with the West is an example of the latter problem.
To set the records straight and envision reform consonant with Africa’s interests (in both senses indicated above), we must speak of inequality in our world’s governance. And the origins of this modern inequality go back not to colonialism, but to a time when the end of colonialism became ineluctable – the years immediately after World War II.
Inequality between countries changed in 1945, when pact-based world orders arose. Since 1989, with a prehistory that goes back to 1945, we have been living in a US-led pact-based order, a structure of hegemonic control that knew its paroxysm in the 1990s and began to decline with the Iraq War of 2003 and the global financial crisis of 2008. This pact-based order is usually called a rules-based order by IR experts, especially Americans, because it is embodied in codified or customary international rules and institutions. But rules and institutions do not come out of thin air. They are based on pacts, that is, on underlying ententes reached through the interplay of the power and interests of (unequal) sovereigns.
The pact-based order is an improvement on the previous system, which was based on naked force. In a pact, the weaker sovereigns have limited say, and some very weak sovereigns may have no say at all, but by creating rules and some institutions that administer such rules, pacts protect weak sovereigns and give them some opportunities to defend their interests. Compare with the world before 1945, and even worse, the one before 1918. Despite the myth that sovereignty gained recognition in international law as a result of the treaties of Westphalia, which, in theory, opened an era of peace, the 270 years between those treaties and 1918 were an age of perpetual interstate wars in Europe, and of imperial or colonial wars outside of Europe. In 1885, European powers (and the Ottoman Empire) sought to regulate the conquest of the last colonial frontier (Africa) by a pact formalized at a conference in Berlin, but imperialist tensions were one of the causes of World War I. As a consequence of that war, a pact-based order began to take shape in 1918, including through the ambitious rules of collective security of the League of Nations, but tensions in the 1930s – fueled by the imperialist agendas of Japan, Italy and Germany – and the fact that the US, which was already by then the world’s largest sovereign, stayed out of the system, doomed it to failure.
For small countries, a pact-based order is better than a force-based one (if that could be called order), but the best would be something we have not yet invented, a rule-of-law-based international order – which is what I meant by “international democracy” at the meeting in the UK. As historian E. P. Thompson has shown in his studies of the birth of the rule of law in England, such a structure, though it can easily be manipulated by the powerful, inherently introduces a degree of risk and uncertainty for them because it offers resources that can be unpredictably exploited by the weak. It deprives the strong of his privilege of arbitrary power. But this works because rule of law means the existence of an autonomous judicial apparatus for administering it.
The same is true at an international level. In 1945 and the years after, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was in the works, a group of states that included many small countries – mostly from South America – as well as most European states, wanted to arm it with institutions that would essentially form an independent judiciary at the international level, one which would impose on states the obligation of opposing and sanctioning offenders and hold everyone up to legal, not political standards. If that had come to pass, a revolution in history would have been achieved. But the US and the USSR opposed the project and managed to suppress it.
At the time, the stake, for the small countries, was to forestall the kind of physical domination and use of force that were tolerated in the interwar international order. The League of Nations was ineffectual when Japan carved a large puppet state out of Chinese territory and then simply left the organization when it dared protest. When Italy attacked Ethiopia, the UK left the Suez Canal open for its armada and the Soviet Union sold it petroleum (but the UK refused to supply weapons to the Ethiopians). Sylvia Pankhurst, an anticolonial and antifascist activist, warned that “if the Fascist Government is allowed by the rest of the world to succeed in its aggression against Abyssinia, this will be but the prelude to yet more terrible aggression.” After the extreme horrors of World War II proved her right, even European countries saw the wisdom of international rule of law.
Not the US and the USSR.
The US representative at the Human Rights Commission, Eleanor Roosevelt, was also its chair, and she was surprised by “how high feelings ran” among the small countries about the concept of supporting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with legally binding conventions. Yet, as she was doing her good work at the commission, she sent a rather chilling note to James McDonald, a supporter of Zionism who had sensitized her on the Jewish predicament at the onset of Nazi antisemitic terrorism in Germany, saying, “I think we should have the courage to tell the Arabs that we intend to protect Palestine, but I suppose that is asking too much of us at the present time, though it would only take a small air-force and it would seem to me to keep them in order.” (“Palestine” is here a synecdoche for the Jews who lived there, not the Arab Palestinians). For Eleanor Roosevelt, the plight of the Jews outweighed the rights of the Arabs, and if the latter didn’t accept this, one could imagine forcing them to do so. In the aftermath of Auschwitz and Treblinka, we can see how she could have reached such a conclusion, but objectively, her attitude was no different from that of the British who facilitated Italian aggression against Ethiopia. The idea, in both cases, was that the right of some (Jews, Italians) to own a colony dwarfed the right of others (Palestinians, Ethiopians) to live free in their own country. The reasons were different: compassion for the torments of European Jewry on the one hand; belief in the racial and cultural superiority of Italians on the other – but when it comes to human rights, the result is the same and equally wrong. The same right that should have opposed the conquest of Ethiopia should have played out against the expropriation of Palestine – but in both cases, force prevailed. And so it was with good reason that even under the leadership of such an exceptional personality as Eleanor Roosevelt – a personality who remained, after all, an American, a leader who knew she had behind her the most stupendous apparatus of force ever assembled in human history – the small countries’ feelings would run high on the subject of guarantees against force.
The US and USSR are credited, in that period, for ending Europe’s colonial empires, i.e., the most obvious force-based structures of rule in the world at that time. In so doing, they seemed to be riding the tide of history. But things are not so clear-cut. Even as states like Britain and France wished to cling to their colonies, the impending collapse of colonialism was turning their continent into a region of “normal” states. The fact that European countries were part of the venture for the adoption of legal norms and institutions capable of moving the world towards international rule of law shows that many in their officialdoms accepted this development (and they did later achieve this on the scale of their continent, in the guise of the European Union). By contrast, the USA and the USSR, poised to become the world’s new empires, had no interest in adhering to rule-of-law constraints: pacts suited them better. In short order, formal pacts bound Western Europeans to the USA, notably through NATO; and Eastern Europeans to the USSR, notably through the Warsaw Pact. And both states refrained from adhering to the UN’s International Court of Justice.
Thus, two imperial pacts ordered the world between 1945 and 1989. The most successful was the US-led one, which became preponderant in the 1970s and eventually became the only one standing after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989. In December of that year, Mikhail Gorbachev met US President George H. W. Bush on a Soviet warship off the coast of Malta. To signal that he considered the Cold War over, Gorbachev earnestly asserted, “I want to tell you and the United States that the Soviet Union will under no circumstances start a war. The Soviet Union is no longer prepared to regard the United States as an adversary.” This was a declaration of peace which, in his eyes, was intended to set the record straight and usher in a new era of cooperation between the countries of the world, an era which, this time around, would be truly post-imperial, in contrast to 1945, when European imperialism had merely given way to American-Soviet imperialism. But Bush stayed mum. A few months later, during a meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he said: “We prevailed and they didn’t.”
The USSR was soon dismantled and its central core, the Russian Federation, was processed through the machinery of neoliberal reform policy that then dominated international economic governance. It came out of it in very bad shape, consigned to the doldrums of a long recession and to what looked like the beginning of decline and reduction to the status of a weak sovereign. This outcome was not deliberate, but it cannot be said that the West, and Washington in particular, were very much saddened by it. By contrast, the United States rose to the status of sole superpower, of what Hubert Védrine, French Foreign Minister in the late 1990s, described, not without chagrin, as a “hyperpower”, a state so strong that it seemed to preside, as universal regulator, over the end of history. In that context, conflicts between states seemingly no longer had any historical meaning and the hyperpower’s enemy was, almost by definition, a criminal or a terrorist, trivialized as the object of simple police operations (Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, e.g.), or hypostasized as the Enemy, an absolute threat to world order (Osama Bin Laden, e.g.). The universal regulator also decided who was above the rules – itself, of course, but also favored states like Israel – and who was rigorously constrained by them – for instance, the small countries and “weak states” (a telling phrase) of Africa. When a state achieves such a degree of power on the international stage, the political value of international institutions diminishes proportionately, since in the end everything depends on the value of the pact made with the only force that counts – the “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, called her country at the end of the 1990s.
But this did not last. In the next two decades, the US squandered the benefits of its position through military adventures in the Middle East, capitalist excesses under globalization (a product of the economic aspect of the US-led pact-based order) and intense domestic polarization. This crisis of America’s global control has played a key role in the choices made by others. Russia’s attempt to take Ukraine was a consequence of that, rather than the other way round – i.e., had the American pact been as robust and threatening as Putin claimed, he would have very likely left Ukraine alone. Elsewhere in the world, the holes in the US-centered pact are gaping wider. The US is more visible as a pact-master, including in the concessions it is making to certain countries to keep them on its side of the fence. A stern rules enforcer regarding coups in the small countries of Africa, where – unlike in Sisi’s Egypt, say – there were no interests blocking the way for the defense of democracy, the US is nowadays rather very “tactful” in its relations with new juntas in such “normally” insignificant places like Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey, where Russia’s subversions are at work.
In any case, Africa’s trajectory since independence could make it only a halfhearted adherent at best to the US-led pact-based order.
Africa’s interest at independence was twofold: build modern economies in the postcolonial territories; and set up a regional bloc that could proportionately increase its strength in the processes of pact-making. This was similar to the situation of Europe. Europe was of course much more fortunate. Though wrecked by Hitler’s war and bereft of capital, it had the most educated population on the planet and all the relevant skills for rebuilding (rather than building from scratch) a modern economy. The US, which had plenty of excess capital, had also a vital interest in reviving its fortunes. The Marshall Plan’s finance seeped into a fertile soil, especially in the northwestern parts of the continent, which had been highly advanced countries before the war. Moreover, the French, who were accused of being too vengeful against the Germans after World War I – although, in truth, they were only being justifiably fearful – this time imagined forming with them a supranational partnership and turning hereditary enmity into hereditary friendship, the “Franco-German couple.” The result was a power bloc that lacked the muscles of America but made the European states much less unequal to it than if they had each kept to their national sovereignty.
This path was difficult for Africa to follow, and perhaps it was impossible in 1960. The Europeans, in 1945, had realized that national sovereignty, though necessary in the world of states, was also problematic: it had destroyed their continent. The impulse to moderate it was natural at that juncture, and it helped in the process of bloc-forming. In Africa, on the other hand, national sovereignty was a brand-new thing, one which had been both flaunted and denied to them by the Europeans during the colonial era. Therefore, the impulse was to affirm it, now that they had it, not to subordinate it to a mistily vague new experiment of continental-national unity. Kwame Nkrumah, who dreamed and theorized a Pan-African union, hated the fact that he had to concern himself with the petty affairs of Ghana, which he saw as only a fragment of the real thing, the United States of Africa. But most of his colleagues, and also most of his fellow Ghanaian citizens, thought that the real thing was what they actually had – a sovereign nation-state. Besides, before uniting the states of Africa, one had to build them first. In fact, since state-building was the logical priority, Nkrumah should have focused on building up Ghana’s fledgling and fragile sovereignty. And instead of unity at the continent level, Africa’s leaderships should have focused on the more practical goal of forming an effective bloc of viable states on the world stage. That would have been very difficult, but was not beyond the realms of possibility.
Yet, not only did the African states fail to form a bloc – a successful one anyway – but they needed more wide-ranging and tall-order help to build their economies and states than the Europeans required to rebuild their countries. The problem of Africa in that era is often seen as one of neocolonial interference and damaging Cold-War spillovers. These were real, but as regard the continent’s pressing interest of economic and political development, the problem was that the two reigning pacts were not equipped to help, and moreover, presented hindrances. The American pact was passed first and foremost with Western Europe, as is shown by the fact that its institutional pillars, the Bretton Woods institutions, were created to finance the “reconstruction” of that continent and integrate its monetary system with the American. These processes remade a capitalist international political economy, which then engaged other regions, including in terms of development aid. Hence, Western aid was not predicated on the actual (structural) needs of a country, but on capitalist rules of engagement: loans, investments, agreements between capital-owners and raw-material producers (as embodied in the conventions between Africa and the Common Market), etc.
The Soviet pact, for its part, lacked the economic foundations for doing much in the way of material help, beyond training students – which was also a way of spreading its ideas. By the 1970s, it entered the prolonged period of decline that ended in abrupt collapse in 1989. For practical purposes, the international pact that mattered from that point on was the one led by the US. In 1977, the African countries joined countries in Asia and South America to push for a far-reaching reform of the capitalist pact that would make their development interests integral to it. This was ignored and in 1980, the African countries drew up a plan of action at Lagos, which affirmed their wish of solving the development riddle through reforms driven by a self-sufficient African bloc, even though they still called for support from the dominant pact. The following year, the World Bank issued its own plan of action. It was ostensibly responding to the call for help included in the Lagos plan – which it mentioned, and whose title it copied (both spoke of “accelerated development in Sub-Saharan Africa”) – though its goal was very different.
In 1981, the year the Berg Report – as the World Bank’s document is called – was published, a sweeping reform of the capitalist pact was afoot. It was set in the direction of more capitalism and less or no state-led development. The world capitalist economy was then in crisis and the solution envisioned was what came to be known as the Washington Consensus, which included globalization. The Berg Report rejected (by never mentioning it) the notion that Africa’s development problem had causes in the international political economy. Rather, it ascribed it exclusively to domestic issues, such as mismanagement of the economy by the state and Africa-specific issues such as rapid population growth. The report highlighted historical misfortunes, for instance, the scarcity of trained manpower, but these were still domestic issues.
The underlying thinking was that it is not for the capitalist pact to accommodate Africa’s problems; it is for Africa to fix its problems by living up to the demands of the capitalist pact. And those demands were now geared toward globalization. The Berg Report recommended, among other things, retrenchment in the field of social protection (health, education), curtailment of industrial policy, devaluation of currencies, promotion of agricultural exports, and family planning. In other words, to be accepted in the changing capitalist pact – an acceptance that would come in the form of loans and development aid – the African countries must agree to seek in it a place which is not so different from the one they had in the colonial economy: that of producers of agricultural commodities and buyers of manufactured goods in a context of minimal social contract between state and society. The report’s subtitle “accelerated development” thus sounds rather Orwellian, but it reflected the belief that by embracing the humble role that comparative advantage – a concept important for globalization and trade opening – prescribes to it, Africa would eventually develop thanks to the magic of the market.
The Berg Report provided the blueprint for economic policy in Africa until the late 1990s, including the infamous structural adjustment programs that started to go into action shortly after it was published. Three decades later – a longer period than the era of state-led development – and after many serious sacrifices, development has not taken place.
Africa’s development problem carried over in the political sphere. The failure to develop, i.e., to fulfill the most pressing interest of the continent, delegitimized rulers who had concentrated power in their hand against the promise that they would deliver on that interest. To save their skin, many ended up relying on increased corruption and violence, or, overwhelmed by problems, a lot of which could be solved only at the international level, they let rot and decay spread. Needless to say, this only compounded the development problem. In the 1990s, some of those rulers fell to democratization movements. But even when they did not, the conjunction of the crisis of authoritarian governance and of the fall of the Soviet bloc opened a space, in Africa, for the progress of political ideals and values defended by “the official West” (to use Putin’s jargon), in particular human rights, a strong civil society, and the underlying philosophy of liberal humanism. Moreover, it was at that juncture that, finally rid of Soviet nuisance, the American or capitalist pact became truly inescapable.
The trajectory I just outlined means that there was a strong undercurrent of resentment against the US-led pact-based order in Africa. Not only was the pact not equipped to help Africa in tackling its development problem, which was excusable; but it worsened the problem, which was not. Development aid was a palliative that addressed only issues internal to African polities, not those that pertained to the international political economy. Moreover, it made African states dependent on foreign assistance, with the consequence that they were deprived of a sense of initiative. That is what made them swallow the conclusions of the Berg Report, for instance. Something similar happened to Russia in the 1990s, as we have seen, and this common experience created a shared sense of grievance. Russia is keen to exploit its aura as the successor state to the USSR, a champion of Africa’s independence struggles, but that would not have worked so well had the American pact been more hospitable to Africa’s concerns and interests in recent decades. Being relegated at the lower end of the US-led pact-based order means being more strenuously subject to its rules than anyone else while reaping little of its rewards, and so any weakening of that order is an opportunity to either try changing it to one’s advantage or try something else that might work better.
That something else is not necessarily a Russian pact, as Africa’s apparent support for Russia regarding its aggression of Ukraine may suggest. That support needs to be put in perspective, for instance by comparing it to some of the responses in Europe. Germany did not at first want to stop buying Russian natural gas; Austria still buys Russian natural gas (which is delivered to it through Ukrainian territory); France still trades with Russia’s nuclear giant Rosatom; months into the conflict, its president, Emmanuel Macron, was urging his allies not to “humiliate” Putin, much to the anger and irritation of Ukrainians, and a year after the war had begun began, he was saying he wished Russia “defeated but not crushed.” Outside of Europe, another close US ally, Israel, refuses to help Ukraine with the “Iron Dome” air-defense system funded by US aid money. European leaders were so certain that Russia would make mincemeat of Ukraine that, without the latter’s heroic resistance and the pressure of their own public opinion, they wouldn’t have moved a finger to come to its rescue. Some sectors in their public opinion still resent the help given to Ukraine, including in countries as key as Germany and Italy. If that is how things went (and go) in the region where national interests are most impacted by the conflict, why should people and states elsewhere should be more moved?
Much of this European reticence, which, of course, is less significant now, was coming from misgivings about the American pact, some of which verges on anti-Americanism. Plus, there was a notion that Russia belonged in the European family of nations, which is something different from the West, though it overlaps with it. With time and commerce, that notion, it was believed, would correspond fully to reality. The US always doubted it and for decades opposed Europe’s trade deals with the USSR and then with Russia, particularly those that created strategic dependence (natural gas) – all in vain. Africans have even greater misgivings about the American pact, and for their part, they see Russia as belonging in the family of those that suffered grievously from it and deserve solidarity. Nothing perhaps shows this more as their perception of NATO, the military linchpin of the American pact, which was damaged beyond repair in their eyes after its intervention in Libya in 2011.
Many Western elites still gloat about the NATO-abetted destruction of Col. Gaddafi’s regime by the French and British. They saw Gaddafi as a brutal dictator who had sponsored terrorist acts against Western airliners in the past, a flamboyant criminal-cum-terrorist mocked as such in Western popular culture. But at the end of the 1990s, Gaddafi had reinvented himself as a Pan-African leader, pouring money into development ventures in sub-Saharan countries – the only oil-rich Arab leader to do so – regardless of religion, opening his economy to migrant labor, policing Libyan racism in the process, stabilizing the Sahel countries by supporting Sufi Islam and by brokering peace with Tuareg rebels, and being in fact, in all these ways, the best objective ally that Europe had south of the Mediterranean. Jihadism in the Sahel and the migrant crisis, which have so profoundly reshaped Europe’s geopolitical prospects and domestic politics, are all direct consequences of the fall of Gaddafi. Historians will reckon this NATO act as one of the great follies of the early 21st century. And African leaders, including those in the Sahel, were already warning their Western counterparts about this, before the act. Why didn’t they listen?
They did not listen because of inequality.
In 2011, the American pact was still apparently robust. The interests of African countries did not count in it. The West was not hostile to those interests, it simply could not take them seriously. In its universal regulator mood, it did not present the attack on Gaddafi in terms of interest, but of ethics. The intervention was less an attack on a hostile regime – which 2011 Libya no longer was – than a promotion of human rights and democracy. Western public opinion was sold the idea that Gaddafi was the only obstacle between Libyans and those good things. And the Western states that masterminded the attack calculated that if Gaddafi was replaced by a democratic leadership, Libya would become a true ally of the West, which, given the inequality in terms of power, meant that it would adhere to the American pact as a subservient entity. Given this pleasing vision, Africa’s warnings were inaudible, in the sense that the French give to that term, i.e., not fit to be heard. In any case, what could the Africans do? In the political arena, interests are like demand in the marketplace. Demand exists when it is backed by money, and interests, when they are supported by power. Inferior powers do not have interests – even though they do, or at least they have aspirations, just as those who lack demand still have needs, by dint of being living beings.
After the fall of Gaddafi set off a security crisis and a state of endemic violence in the Sahel, populations in the region reasoned that NATO’s action was in fact an attack on them, that the true target was not Libya, but the Sahel – which, in this reading, the French were bent on recolonizing, due to the untold riches it supposedly holds. When the last coup in the Sahel – the one in Niger – began, one of the first WhatsApp messages I received said that “NATO contingents” were trying to occupy barracks in Niamey. A problem of sovereign inequality was thus translated into an imaginary war of liberation in a culture where there is an obsession about colonialism.
In this context, which is not peculiar to the Sahel, the news that Russia was attacking Ukraine because of NATO’s shenanigans was something that made sense, and indeed, was a cause for celebration. Russia, perhaps, would liberate us from Western oppression, just as the USSR tried to liberate us back in the days of colonialism. What Africans find oppressive is in fact the US-centered pact – for some good reasons, as we have seen – but they are more used to speak of colonialism and imperialism. That isn’t just a question of terminology, since the way we describe reality affects reality. In the Sahel, for instance, the French have, for once, intervened with a genuine will to help – though that was marred from the outset by their unequal relationships with the Sahelian states. But a large part of the public rejected them out of an anticolonial obsession, which has turned into a populist goldmine that juntas are exploiting to entrench themselves in power.
The West has its own obsession and is now fixated on Russia, and how it is allegedly extending its malevolent influence into Africa. But the fundamental problem is not Russia (or China). It is the fact that a pact-based order does not work. Not because it is American-led, but because it is based on sovereign inequality with all its adverse implications. And the reigning one does come with a capitalist ethos that’s harsh to the weak.
Unfortunately, the shocks and tensions that arise from the fraying of the American pact indicate that we might be moving back to a new version of the kind of force-based (dis)order that prevailed before 1945, not forward toward “international democracy” and “equality among nations.” Africa’s deep desire is not on the cards.