Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Africa and the Dispute over Crimea: Avoiding Repeating Calamitous Cold War History on the Continent.

By Takura Zhangazha*

Africa’s weak placement in contemporary global politics has never been so starkly demonstrated than in the wake of the ‘international’ dispute over the 'breakaway' Ukrainian  region of Crimea.  It was somewhat understandable when during the live broadcasts of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) deliberations on the unfolding events on live international television, the Rwandan representative was cut off from the live feed.

While international broadcasters have their own editorial briefs and perhaps they already knew beforehand the position (perhaps inconsequential?)  that Rwanda would take on the matter, it was a painful but anecdotal reminder of Africa’s rather small role in global political disputes.

This is not to say that Africa has not had any useful or instrumental role in the global political economy. On the contrary. Respected academics such as J F Bayart, have analysed the role of Africa in international relations since before the slave trade in what he has defined as a ‘history of extraversion’.

In our contemporary international relations, Africa’s placement is however more influenced by its pandering to the market demands of a globalizing/globalised economy.  Especially in the aftermath of anti-colonial struggles as exemplified by South Africa’s independence and the attendant end of the known ideological Cold War on the continent.

Since then, the continent has sought to function on the basis of the universal equality of continental organisations and states via the United Nations. 

So when a dispute between the worlds’ nuclear superpowers occurs, there should be an understanding that Africa must have an influential or at least some consistent say on it.  Not only because of the ever existing threat of a nuclear war that might occur and affect the entirety of the globe, but also because Africa also has a vested interest in global peace and security for its own development. 

Sadly, the African Union has remained rather muted with an almost ‘its none of our business’ approach to the saga in Eastern Europe.  While it has urged all sides to resolve the issue amicably and through diplomacy, its message has not been consistent nor has it demonstrated serious concern at the possibility of global politics returning to the bipolar nuclear character of the Cold War. 

And perhaps this is where Africa repeats the mistakes of the past.  In the West, there has been debate about a ‘new Cold War’ as the crises in Ukraine continues. In Africa, while there has been no broad public debate either via the media or in political capitals, what is evident is that we are again returning to the 'bifurcation’ of African foreign policy by way of country interests. The only difference is that the reasons for bifurcation are not as ideological as in the past. They are literally about percentages of foreign aid in cash or kind received from either the East or the West. 

So the mute button has been pressed over the African continent for reasons that can only be understood as vested self interest.  For analysts of international relations and politics this is probably the best thing to do in the circumstances.

But when China and India supported Russsia’s annexation of Crimea the implications become even more global and affect Africa’s foreign relations. Both China and India have a strong presence in Africa with the former having  stronger historical ties with the liberation of the continent and simultaneously rivaling Russian influence on the continent.  And so African countries now have to juggle their vested interests with two differing blocs of nuclear powers.  And largely without ideological justification save for reference to the UN Charter’s principle of respecting the sovereignty of other countries.

There is however one significant matter that the African Union and its member states must consider. This being that it remains imperative that the continent also makes its voice heard over and about international matters of concern.

Particularly if the potential belligerents are nuclear powers.  In so far as the West expresses concern over humanitarian crisis in Africa, we too must be able to express continuing concern over the potential fall out that is reminiscent of the Cold War in a world where we have increasing numbers of nuclear weapon owning states. 

Where Kwame Nkrumah made mention of seeking first the political kingdom, he may have been loftier in his idealism but the strategic considerations that informed his famous saying remain relevant for the African continent.  We cannot claim global equality without consistently voicing our concerns at potentially calamitous global conflict.  Even if we do not have a single African country with nuclear weapons, we at least a have a global moral authority to prevent war. Both in our territories as in the rest of the world.

As an African I can only say, and as a personal perspective  from a citizen of a country called Zimbabwe,the international  dispute in the Crimea is not about a return to the Cold War. At least it should not be so for Africans and the African continent. And African does not have to side with either the USA/EU bloc or the Russia, China and India one.  

Africa must side against a repetition of a calamitous Cold War global  history which sought ideological sides much to the detriment of universal democratic values and principles.

Africa must take the side of peaceful resolution of the Crimean dispute and call for a toning down of the military rhetoric or action on both sides of the global nuclear weapon divide. We may be a weaker continent but we are not weak global citizens. And we must consistently lay claim to this global citizenship by shouting from Mt Kilimanjaro, ‘no return to the past of the Cold War. It does not help the world to move forward.’

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (