As the world looks on, impotently and aghast, at the crisis that has been playing out in Ukraine since 24 February, 2022, there are many lessons to be learnt. The biggest of those lessons are for Africa. It seems counter-intuitive, but the reality remains that the continent, even in this epoch that has been dubbed the African Century, still remains much of a vassal state.
No African leader will have ignored the speed with which Europe, North America and Australasia moved to impose sanctions on Russia, nor their almost immediate impact. This was not like the sanctions that were imposed on South Africa by the West in the 1980s that were so easily circumvented. Instead, the cessation of the Swift banking system and the targeting of the assets of Russian oligarchs seen to be close to Vladimir Putin ratcheted up the pressure very quickly.
Russia, of course, tried to hit back as quickly, by twisting the screws on the West’s dependency on its natural gas and insisting on payment in roubles, but the impact was far greater than the Kremlin had ever foreseen or gamed in their strategy workshops when they planned the invasion in the first place.
When you think of Africa, what would happen here? Much of Francophone Africa, 12 countries – almost a quarter of the continent – works almost entirely on the CFA franc. The currency, implemented in 1945 and which involved participating countries placing half their foreign exchange reserves with the French treasury, has fundamental implications for the sovereignty of those countries.
Almost all of Africa was colonised at one stage. Today those former colonial masters, perhaps not as successfully and as fundamentally as the French, continue to exert huge influence on their former colonies, both as major economic trade partners as well as through development donor funding – and then there are the new influencers: Russia and China.
Both of them played significant roles in the wars of liberation that played out in the latter half of the last century and have now gone on to forge even greater ties. China has done so with its Belt and Road policy of creating infrastructure, with the concomitant risk of debt that has to be repaid, often with a great sovereign risk to the defaulting country. Russia on the other hand has been hard at work supplying military equipment to many countries.
The problem now, as it routes much of its manufacturing production and surplus equipment to deal with the problem it has landed with in Ukraine, is that many African countries are now left out on a limb. They don’t have the spares or the technical assistance to maintain their fleets of Russian-sourced equipment, whether landward, maritime or aviation.
Unable to use that equipment to keep their territorial integrity secure against asymmetric warfare threats and cross-border insurgency, they could become unstable and threaten the stability of their neighbours.
It is not inconceivable that we could end up with a domino effect as the current conflicts escalate into major ones, with an unstoppable momentum bringing further hardship and horror to a continent reeling under the brunt of climate change, water and food instability and the ongoing contestation for access to Africa’s treasure trove of commodities and raw materials.
There is only one way to resolve this: to become independent of foreign influence. It seems like a tough ask – after all, Africa is a collection of 54 very different countries, not all of them ethnically or culturally homogenous themselves because most of them are colonial constructs. Independence, not national political independence, but a proper lack of dependence on any third party, can only be achieved by inter-dependence, regional and continental collaboration.
One of Africa’s biggest institutional problems is a lack of urgency and coherence, when it comes to reacting to crises. The African Union is a wonderful successor to its ancestor, the Organisation of African Unity, but it is all too often hamstrung by the need to find total agreement on important issues. It is not agile but instead bureaucratically constricted.
The African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which was signed into being in January this year, potentially creating the largest trading bloc in the world, will require strong and decisive action from all states to make it a success. The continent needs to find alternative mechanisms in the interim that allow for like-minded states to work in tandem to resolve immediate problems that affect them, before these become crises and ultimately catastrophes.
We need to develop the capacity where neighbouring countries can quickly and securely share intelligence on cross-border terror threats or transnational crime syndicates that threaten them.
We need a proper African rapid response unit to sort out instability in member countries quickly before legitimate governments are overthrown, without having to rely on global players like the United Nations or former colonial powers with their own vested interests.
We need a proper African-managed disease response centre, rather than waiting for outside agencies to help us bury our dead. Most of all we need to promote the ease of access and movement between states rather than wasting time, resources and people pretending to patrol porous borders and then criminalising those, including from the diaspora, trying to create a better life for themselves.
At the whim of others
None of this is new. Many iconic African leaders have put the continent’s self-sufficiency at the top of their personal and their country’s agendas, but to no avail. We have plans in place for an African Standby Force, but nothing has ever come of it – indeed the competing regional blocs remain at odds as to whether it should be the UN or AU which has the authority to deploy it, even before there are actually boots on the ground.
What the tragedy in Ukraine shows us is that we have to act now before it is too late. We have to use the lessons that are playing out in front of our eyes to finally achieve the promise that the founding fathers and mothers of the OAU and later the AU believed in. Africa has to develop its own solutions; its own banking mechanisms, its own defence solutions.
If it does not, it will not just be beholden to those foreign countries it is most indebted to, it will be concomitantly at risk, always at the mercies of the whims of foreign third parties or their own competing agendas.