50.50: Opinion

An African view of what’s happening in Europe

Africans support the Ukrainian people, but centuries of experience also make us wary of ‘solutions’ by our former colonisers

Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
3 March 2022, 10.20am
A sign protesting against US and European sanctions in Zimbabwe
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Yagil Henkin / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Scrolling through my social media and news feeds, “I stand with Ukraine” is the dominant statement of support for a country that undeniably needs it at this time. But this stance is not as black and white as Western liberals like to think. It is not a simple exercise of picking sides between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’.

Not for Africans, anyway. Some even see President Putin’s war in Ukraine as one man’s resistance to Western hegemony.

The rest of the world has experienced NATO, Europe and the US in other ways than ‘good’ – and we are allowed to express the anger and scepticism that highlights hypocrisy and calls for caution about Western solutions.

I stand with the Ukrainian people (who are wholly deserving of sympathy and are not synonymous with the Ukrainian state), but as the ever-increasing outcry on social media and press reports show, even now we must talk about anti-Black racism. The racist treatment that Africans are facing as they flee Ukraine is proof that white supremacy never takes a day off, not even in war time.

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So neither can an African’s vigilance in understanding and interpreting Western narratives of dominance.

War is war. Ask us – we know. It is death, disease, displacement, sexual violence. But also: the victims may not be blue-eyed and blonde enough to warrant as much sympathy as Ukrainians are currently getting from news anchors and governments. As Global South thinkers have long pointed out, wars render Black, Brown, disabled, sexual- and gender-divergent people in particular even more vulnerable than usual, and European borders are neither welcoming nor safe for them. So here we are again.

But our national histories also make it hard for us to see Russia as the ‘bad guy’ and Ukraine’s pursuit of a Western way of life – including membership of the European Union and NATO – as an innocent desire that makes all who support it the ‘good guys’.

No African country was ever colonised by members of the former USSR

All African countries (apart from Ethiopia and Liberia) were colonised, our homes cut up and shared like cake among European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 and in later years. The result? Some of the bloodiest subjugations in human history. No African country was ever colonised by members of the former USSR.

Instead, socialist countries including Cuba and the Soviet Union supported our independence movements, in the face of the brutal attempts by supposedly ‘civilised’ countries to prevent us from winning our freedom. Now we watch, somewhat numbly, as these same Western powers champion themselves as defenders of the freedom of the Ukrainian people.

As NATO members spend millions on military support for Ukraine and increase deployment in eastern Europe to counter Russian aggression, it is time to listen to Africans in Libya, Somalia and Kenya. They will point out the trail of Western violence and give us all insights into the limits of military interventions by the US and its European allies.

The simplistic logic of sanctions

Just as ordinary Russians will, ordinary Africans have also suffered collective punishment under sanctions rained down by the mighty hand of Western governments. Often without popular support for them in Africa – except perhaps in the case of apartheid-era South Africa where they were at the behest of Black South Africans. Even then, the sanctions were lifted well before Black Africans thought it appropriate, prompting Nelson Mandela to accuse Western Europe of racism and eagerness to realign itself with white power elsewhere.

Yet, we watch even more crippling measures being celebrated in the media as the appropriate reaction to one strongman’s decision. “Cripple Russia’s economy and there will soon be riots in Moscow to overthrow Putin” is a very simplistic logic to apply to people living under an oppressive regime.

I live under President Yoweri Museveni. If the Ugandan economy were to be crippled by sanctions, I would still have no say in whether or not he stays in power. After all, I have no say in the matter now.

This is not an argument for withholding support from the wholly deserving Ukrainian people. It’s a plea to acknowledge these contradictions because they matter. To acknowledge them is to accept that the ever-growing discontent with the Western liberal order is informed and valid, not some knee-jerk reaction.

It is informed by our lived experiences under racism, imperialism, colonialism, aparthied, neo-colonialism and so-called Western military ‘solutions’ – such as the “war on terror” – which invariably exacerbate conflicts and lead to more deaths.

The nuclear threat: not just Russia

Africans are as scared as everyone else by what is happening in Ukraine. Nuclear weapons are being used as pawns in a military and political chess game that could end humanity. Yet, we also must disabuse the West of its belief that this nuclear threat is to be blamed on one mad man.

After all, NATO members (under the nuclear sharing programme) make up more than half of the countries in the world mad enough to make, possess and have access to these weapons. No African country possesses nuclear weapons today (South Africa gave up theirs in 1989 and Libya halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003).

The United Nations remains our most viable option for ensuring accountability between countries, but even in the UN, countries in the Global North – which pose the biggest threat of mass violence, both militarily and economically – are the ones that wield almost all the power.

Any day should be a good day to call out hegemony. Today, as the “free world” of “civilised nations” face “unprecedented times” – as the media would have it – those who have paid dearly for the unquestioned “rightness of the West” are saying: let’s speak against Western hegemony too.

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