Aidan Hartley

The sin of neutrality

African nations’ refusal to take sides in the Ukraine conflict is morally inexcusable

The sin of neutrality
‘As Martin Luther King said: “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict”’ [Stephen F. Somerstein / Contributor]
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Yet again, millions of civilians across the Horn of Africa are starving. The world blames the crisis on drought and climate change, which nowadays is the way we excuse these countries for environmental mismanagement. But as ever, war is really the single greatest reason why people are killed year after year in this region. And while western countries pour billions of dollars of food aid into Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan, the weapons flooding those states originate mainly from Russia, China, Belarus – and Ukraine.

In response to an article I recently wrote in The Spectator about why I think so few African governments condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I have had the usual deluge of ad hominem attacks so familiar to anybody who dares to criticise African governments. Simmering beneath the surface is always the hint that one is a racist for expressing any view at all about Africa if one is a white journalist, even though I am a Kenyan citizen, born and bred in Africa. One broadside came from Nic Cheeseman, apparently a respected professor of democracy at Birmingham University, who sits on the board of Oxfam and is researching ‘the history and impact of African political thought’.

Under a blog headlined ‘Offensive Ideas’, Cheeseman calls me myopic, simplistic, blinkered, offensive and colonial. At no point does he explicitly condemn Russian atrocities in Ukraine or the militarism of Russia, or its USSR predecessor, in Africa. Instead, he talks of ‘the West’s willingness to sacrifice democracy and human rights on the altar of national security’ in Africa. He rails against European and North American powers which ‘supported a set of venal and abusive dictators’ during the Cold War.

The hook for my recent piece was the voting patterns of African states at the United Nations. I pointed out that nearly half of them refused to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. To break it down, on 2 March, 28 African countries supported the UN resolution demanding an end to Russia’s hostilities; 26 states were against, or abstained, or didn’t vote – i.e. nearly half. But on 7 April there was another important UN resolution, to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Headlines had just broken about Russian war crimes against civilians in Bucha, yet only ten African countries voted in favour of the resolution – while 44 states were against, or abstained, or didn’t even vote. To say, as Cheeseman does, that a majority of African countries support the West’s position isn’t convincing if you look at overall UN voting patterns. He argues that other African states prefer to sit on the fence – to stay ‘non-aligned’ – in order to avoid becoming pawns in an international conflict. Really, even after seeing those images from Bucha? I feel sure that Cheeseman is an admirer of Martin Luther King and his famous observation that ‘he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it’.

Cheeseman tells me off for being critical of African governments without appreciating their perspective because this might ‘alienate potential allies, the vast majority of whom hold pro-democratic and anti-war attitudes’. I have always been critical of the actions of the West in Africa, often because I do not think the continent should be carpet-bombed by food aid, or much of any kind of aid delivered by groups such as Oxfam, some of whose staff are said to have sexually abused children instead of feeding them. In 33 years of covering Africa, I’ve learned to be sceptical about how pro-democratic African rulers are. Now in 2022, after 37 coup d’états in the past decade and conflicts flaring across the Sahel, with insurgencies raging from Libya in the north to Mozambique in the south, I’m sad to say that many African leaders and their rivals are still keen on laying waste to their own countries – usually with Russian guns.

I’m constantly being lectured about how the USSR helped liberate Africa from colonialism and white minority rule. But in Ethiopia, yet again the heart of today’s humanitarian crisis in Africa, where civilians are being cluster bombed by government Sukhois, little has changed since the 1970s or 1980s. At that time, Vasiliy Petrov, deputy commander of Soviet armed forces, directed battles against communist Ethiopia’s own population and its neighbours while Moscow poured $2 billion (which is $9.5 billion in today’s money) of weapons and airlifted 15,000 Cuban troops into the country. As a direct consequence, countless numbers of Ethiopians perished in 1984 and even then, the well-meaning supporters of Band Aid blamed the crisis on drought and western indifference rather than wars.

In the midst of these Ethiopian killing fields, a witness recorded how ‘everywhere I went, I saw food from America – wheat, cooking oil, soya and milk powder. It struck me as ironic that the Ethiopians’ closest ally, the Soviet Union, supplies them with weapons, while America, which they condemn, keeps them from starving to death.’

As King also said: ‘The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.’