Chidi Oguamanam



Russia, Ukraine and Crimea: Africa's Dilemma

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on April 24, 2014 at 3:10 PM

Chidi Ogumanam

Punch, April 22, 2014  

Recent and ongoing rift between Russia and pro-Russia separatist elements in Ukraine on the one hand, and the new political leadership in Kiev, on the other, has some ramifications for Africa as it does for international law. For one, in its simplistic shred, the Ukrainian crisis has to do with the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation and the overreaching ambition of an opportunistic dictator of a juggernaut next-door neighbour. It also assists to revisit the politically combustible principle of self-determination in international law. The crisis is, in effect, certainly beyond Vladimir Putin’s opportunism and delusion of resurrecting the old Soviet Union after his own personal fancy.  Perhaps, the global cost of such a delusion is what is presently at stake.

For Africa, ideas of territorial integrity and state boundaries are sealed on the wax of colonial history. There is hardly any rhyme or reason regarding subsisting African colonial borders other than selfish discretion, indiscretion and economic and political contingencies of colonial powers. All over Africa, pre-colonial ethnic nationalities are divided, sometimes across the middle, among artificial postcolonial African states and are further co-founded by a Babel of colonial languages.  And indeed, the sizes of these colonial and postcolonial African states are radically uneven. The arbitrary nature of national or, perhaps most appropriately, Westphalian state boundaries is not a uniquely African experience. State boundaries are creatures of complex political histories as evident from the post-World War II reconfigurations.

But in Africa, centuries of colonial abuse and greed make the boundary issue one of the most enduring scares of colonial legacy on the continent.  The 1884-5 colonial Berlin African Conference is historic evidence that the scramble for trading opportunities and raw materials and colonial spheres of influence were what mattered in regard to the convenient carving of African state borders. Every other thing was of no consequence. Several decades after the end of colonial rule, African countries have not mustered the courage to convene a counter conference to redraw and reconcile their borders after their ethnic or nationalist and pre-colonial rationales. It is not surprising that the continent is constituted for the most part by states where the loyalty of citizens lie first with their pre-colonial ethnic identities with little sense of national cohesion.  But then, Africa is in a “Catch 22” situation in matters of colonially drawn boundaries. Despite the lingering and vested interests of colonial powers in favour of the status quo, it is unlikely that the continent is capable of successfully revisiting the delicate issue of colonial borders. The issue of colonial boundary is one where the wisdom of allowing a sleeping dog to lie is as evident as it is pragmatic.

Africa’s dilemma in the Russian-Ukrainian face-off is evident in the response of African states to the recent UN General Assembly Resolution condemning Russia’s action in Crimea. A majority of African states abstained from the vote, others voted in favour while the rest voted against. Space forbids me to explore specific individual state votes and some of the reasons adduced. But analysts agree that African response is open to diverse interpretations. Two of those interpretations are necessary presently. One is that Africa seems to now recognise the double speak and hypocrisy of Western powers over international law. African unwillingness to fully lend its regional weight to the United States and its European allies in condemning Russia reflects an appreciation by the continent that for the West, international law is invoked when it aligns with their strategic interests and jettisoned when it is not.  The second reason is that the volatility of colonial boundaries in Africa does not resonate with equal urgency in specific African states; hence the decision of some states to vote in favour of Russia reflects that thinking. In addition, a few rogue African states sided with Russia essentially to spite the West, reflecting the potential opportunity for an isolated Russia to make inroads into pockets of African states who may be motivated by Russia’s support for the infamous Bashir al-Assad regime in Syria.

For the entire African continent, the Russia-Ukraine crisis presents a dangerous precedent and invokes equally dangerous sentiments, the consequences of which may not have immediate ramifications but are certainly unpredictable. Whether as a result of arbitrary colonial boundaries or as a result of various forms of political instability, African traditional or ethnic nationalities have remained restive within the colonial Westphalian states in which they find themselves. And there is no dearth of “big” powers on the continent capable of stoking ethnic sentiments across the borders to destabilise neighbouring states. From virtually all regions of Africa and specific countries, including Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin Republic, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Congo, Rwanda, Morocco, to mention but a few, there are potential for transnational ethnic disaffection as well as its vulnerability for regional and continental destabilisation.  Just consider: Why would Nigeria not opportunistically overrun Benin Republic on a flimsy reason of protecting the interest of Yoruba-speaking Beninese?

Russia’s vocal role as the protector of ethnic Russians wherever they may be found is a dangerous gamble that has the potential to stoke a new global crisis of unpredictable consequences for Africa. Only a few issues have been more problematic in the theory and jurisprudence of international law than the right to self-determination. That right is one of the main justifications of the pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine for their Russia-backed siege and campaign of provocation for the dismembering of sovereign Ukraine.  The renewed wave of resistance in Eastern Ukraine to the government in Kiev on the heels of Crimea’s secession from Ukraine despite a recent diplomatic attempt at resolution only points to the fact that self-determination and tinkering of the territorial integrity of a sovereign state are like bestriding an unruly horse on a slippery slope. In that case, no one –not even Russia and the so-called pro-Russia militias – can guarantee the international political destination of the horse they have mounted. For Africa, perhaps more than any other continent, more is at stake than presently meets the eye.  The rising political visibility of Putinian Russia, especially as recently bolstered by the Ukrainian and Syrian crises forebodes unpredictable consequences for Africa, and indeed the globe.

This Opinion was first published in Punch, on April 22,2014

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