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Climate Change Is More Important for Africa than the War in Ukraine

Interview with Gilles Yabi

Climate Change Is More Important for Africa than the War in Ukraine
 Gilles Yabi
Founder of WATHI

Gilles Yabi is an economist and political analyst from Benin, as well as the founder of WATHI, a participative think tank for West Africa. Here, he sheds light on the unique but also diverse African positions of non-alignment regarding the Ukraine conflict. While the Ukraine crisis concerns the entire world, including Africa, Yabi reminds us that the continent has many other priorities to contend with. It faces considerable challenges, whether related to climate change, democratic stability, or economic transformation. This article is the final analysis in our series Ukraine Shifting the World Order.

Why is Africa struggling to take a clear stand against Russia in the Ukrainian war? For example, the various votes at the United Nations have shown a degree of ambiguity on behalf of African countries. 

My first observation regarding the votes of African countries at the UN relates to the European commentators themselves. Their surprise reflects the West's perception that Africa is unable to make independent assessments of what is happening in the world. The war in Ukraine is a major crisis on a global scale. As such, we can expect each country to develop its own position, regardless of European and American condemnations. 
My second observation concerns the diversity of the votes. Some countries voted in favor (Chad, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo), others against (South Africa, Algeria, the Central African Republic and Mali), and very few showed firm support for Russian aggression (Eritrea). Therefore, one cannot conclude that African countries massively support Russia. The majority position is more subtle: it is one against systematic alignment with Western positions.
Thirdly, there is no "African position". Like Europe, Africa also has an institution that tries to speak in a unified voice - the African Union (AU) - but the level of integration is not comparable to that of the EU. The AU brings together 54 countries that are extremely diverse politically, and each one has its own interpretation of the world. As a result, there is not one homogenous African vision, but as many visions as there are countries. Unanimity would have been quite surprising. 

By abstaining, a country like Senegal seems to call into question certain universally-accepted principles enshrined in the UN Charter.

That is the crux of the matter. No one disputes that there was an explicit violation of the UN Charter, and few African countries have supported this aggression in an assertive, frontal manner. As far as condemnation is concerned, what the Africans - and other countries in Latin America and Asia - are telling us through their votes is not an endorsement of the violation of the Charter. Instead, it is a reflection of feelings about past violations, including by Western powers, that did not lead to sanctions. In Iraq and Libya for instance, Western interventions have had colossal, long-term impacts. 

Russian networks and relations in Africa are well-developed, which has consequences for African positions. 

How could this not influence the positions of African countries and many others around the world? It is this double standard that has greatly bothered African nations. As far as Libya is concerned, I need to clarify that while there was a UN Security Council resolution that authorized Western intervention, what happened afterward on Libyan soil was not aimed solely at protecting the civilian population. The large-scale consequences are well-known, and those are what matter. There is a sense that a Security Council resolution was used for a specific agenda.

With regard to Russia, one should be reminded that it is a member of the UN Security Council; it is also a military and nuclear power, with long-standing diplomatic relations with a majority of African countries. Its predecessor, the Soviet Union, held these ties as well. This applies to Mali, for example. Russian networks and relations in Africa are well-developed, which has consequences for African positions. African countries are aware that there are risks to going against a power with a strong ability to cause trouble. In considering a country's best interests, such consequences have to be taken into account.

Finally, in order to better understand the position with regard to Russia, we must also remember that Africa holds great diversity in terms of political regimes. A number of governments are not committed to supporting democracy and human rights. The Eritrean position, for example, is not surprising given the country’s anti-democratic stance. Many other governments are not strong defenders of democracy and human rights, which explains their attitude at the UN.

Can we say there is a "Global South" for which this affair is an opportunity to emancipate itself from the West? Or is the "Global South" a misleading label that covers a multitude of very different positions?

There is a "Global South" that defines itself mainly in opposition to the West and its dominance. At stake is resentment, or at least a need for rebalancing. Since the Second World War, we have lived in a world defined mainly by the Western powers - militarily, diplomatically, and economically. Part of the explanation for African public opinion on Russia is based on the idea that the positions currently adopted avoid dependence on a single American superpower, or on European countries with a history of colonization.
The BRICS were part of this idea of a "Global South". They were seen as emerging powers from the South that could rebalance the world’s centers of power. They challenged certain aspects of the international order, but there have always been divergences and rivalries between these emerging powers themselves. In other words, the "Global South" exists, but there are very different interests among the powers that constitute it. 

Finally, we must take into account that there are great differences in the influence that countries of the "Global South" wield: there are those that can assert themselves against the West (India, China, Brazil) and there are those that hold much less weight. We should also consider a country like Turkey, which is in a unique position since it is a member of NATO but, because of its desire to exert influence abroad, including in Africa, it is also close to the new pole I just mentioned.

The "Global South" exists, but there are very different interests among the powers that constitute it. 

Grievance is an important element of the relationship between Africa and the West. The realities of the colonial past are still very recent and continue to produce consequences and effects. In fact, this offers a point of entry to countries that are not part of this colonial past, notably Russia and Turkey. Erdoğan regularly reminds us that Europe has a colonial past in Africa that Turkey does not have.
Colossal, ongoing challenges in terms of state construction have emerged throughout the history of colonization. These are among the characteristics of the international order that some countries would like to see called into question. Most African countries have only been independent for about 60 years. They are still facing the enormous task of building a state within the borders inherited from colonization and with a colonial legacy of authoritarian practices. The challenge of strengthening our states' capacity to meet people's basic needs remains paramount. Moreover, Africa has, up to now, served as a supplier of raw materials. It is still in an unbalanced relationship with the rest of the world. The question of economic transformation is one of the continent's major issues.

Is this an important moment for Africa? Will it change anything in the relationship between African countries and the outside world?

The extent to which this moment is important for Africa remains to be seen; everything will depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, which is bound to last for a long time. It will of course have a profound impact on the world and therefore also on the African continent. But I am unsure that this is a critical moment for the African continent in particular. Such a statement would once again reflect a perception of the world that is completely out of step with the realities in certain countries. In Africa, many countries face serious security issues or are exposed to insecurity through neighboring countries. Some countries' health and education systems are in very poor condition.

Africa has its own past and present conflicts, with its own millions of victims, without the same attention or reactions. 

Or access to electricity and water is far from guaranteed. In other words, there are other vital priorities in Africa. The crisis in Ukraine is happening on the edge of Western Europe, giving Europeans the sense that this must be the most important war for everyone. But Africa has its own past and present conflicts, with its own millions of victims, without the same attention or reactions. This, too, is crucial to understanding African positions.

What is much more important, for example, is climate change and its effects. Climate change is terrible for the African continent, even though it did not cause the problem. These issues should also be high on the international agenda.

What does the war in Ukraine reveal about the world order as it exists today? Will it lead to substantial changes in the international balance of power? Do you see a possibility of victory for Russia, a risk of escalation, and consequences in Europe and the world?

It is difficult to imagine a Russian victory. At the most, we can envision Russia holding on to part of the annexed territories in the long term. But we cannot imagine Ukraine’s destruction. The United States and Europe's objective is to do everything in their power to prevent a Russian victory. The West's massive support in terms of weapons reflects this desire to make sure Russia does not win the conflict. This represents a commitment to a long-term approach, which is dangerous because it comes with the risk of escalation - and we cannot rule out any possibility, including the nuclear option. This war will have significant effects on the world order and multilateralism. 

Germany is increasing its military spending significantly, as will many other countries. What consequences will this have for the stability of African countries? These new military expenditures could result in new arms flows to countries with the lowest capacity for control, such as certain African countries.

This war will have significant effects on the world order and multilateralism.

We should not forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall led to a large flow of arms to conflicts like Sierra Leone's civil war in the 1990s. These are some of the unintended consequences of the Ukrainian war that are not talked about enough. Other consequences include, of course, the economic impacts - and countries with weaker economies face the greatest risk.

If the West - or at least Europeans - comes to the conclusion that they must rethink their relationship with the "Global South" or Africa, what courses of action would you recommend?

If the foundations for a new "contract" between Africa and Europe were to be laid, economic and climate issues would have to be central. On the African side, there is also a willingness to enter into partnerships with everyone, or at least with the partners they choose. Explicit recognition of each other's interests is expected. African countries want to cooperate with Europe, of course, but also with China, India, Turkey, and so on. Being able to choose one's partners is part of the exercise of state sovereignty! It is a determining factor for the future.
As far as the relationship with France is concerned, we notice a loss of influence, "a disaffection". It has been a gradual process, driven by the rise of new generations that are more autonomous in their judgments and their access to knowledge. Specific circumstances also reinforce the trend: the security issue in the Sahel is a key factor in understanding what has happened in recent years, especially in Mali. In addition, the evolution of public opinion is starting to have an influence and represents another key element of the changes underway. Finally, we need a more transparent, perhaps more honest, French discourse - one that recognizes that France is present in Africa to defend its position in the world.


Copyright: Nipah Dennis / AFP

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