The Russian atrocities against civilians in Ukraine have been met with silence from Dar es Salaam, Harare and Juba. Not a word from Addis Ababa, Maputo or Khartoum. On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the Ugandan President’s son, lieutenant general Muhoozi Kainerugaba, is clear: ‘Putin is absolutely right!’
Nearly half of Africa’s 54 nations refused to vote against Russia at the United Nations last month. Not only African governments but multitudes of Africans, even in countries that opposed Russia, such as Kenya, enthusiastically support Vladimir Putin. And the curious thing is that it’s the very countries that have historically received the most western aid that seem most in favour of him. In fact, they support him because he is the West’s enemy. Tough luck for Ukrainian civilians.
The argument is simple: historically Britain, Europe and America, the main givers of aid, were imperialists. As capitalists, they are still fixated on exploiting rather than uplifting Africa, it’s believed. Westerners treat African migrants cruelly, support Israel and kill Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans and Somalis. By contrast, in African schoolbooks and official histories, the Russians (when they were Soviets) are portrayed as Africa’s true benefactors, because they supported sundry liberation wars against white colonials. ‘We are with Russia… teach them a lesson,’ says Julius Malema, the South African politician who also sings about shooting Boers.
Ironically, we created this situation ourselves. Britain helped African countries become leftist regimes and then stay that way, shovelling aid at their revolutions while they circled the drain, sponsoring just the sort of tyrants who now gravitate towards Putin.
When my family’s farms were expropriated without compensation in Tanzania in the 1960s, the man who completed the documents to endorse this theft was a British official called Wilson, seconded to Julius Nyerere’s socialist regime by Harold Wilson. ‘Ujamaa’, as the forcible resettlements were called, was a human disaster that bankrupted the country, but Britain helped pay for it. Nyerere never said thank you to Britain because he was in bed with the Chinese, the Soviets and the East Germans – though he went off to die in a London hospital because the doctors in his own socialist Shangri-La could barely supply aspirins.
Towards the end of the Rhodesian war, Britain’s foreign secretary David Owen spent enough time with Robert Mugabe to know he was an ‘open Maoist’ who should ‘never be president of any country’ – yet he and his successor Lord Carrington ensured Zimbabwe was handed over to a communist dictator who within three years murdered 20,000 of his own people. Today the Zimbab-wean catastrophe is run by ‘the crocodile’, President Mnangagwa, another communist who got his training in Red China. Britain is giving Harare £76 million in aid this year.
When it comes to the African National Congress, despite the fact that the South African Communist party formed its ideological vanguard, Britain and other western countries have been like the audience at an early Beatles concert. In 1990 I met a dozen former fighters of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, after they had escaped guerrilla-run prisons where they had been tortured for years by Eastern Bloc commissars for being ideologically incorrect. When I broke the story in the press, the recently released Nelson Mandela admitted there had been abuses within the ANC and that investigations were under way. Nothing ever happened. Those in charge of the detention centres became government ministers and senior echelons in security agencies. The pillaging of South Africa’s economy ensued, ANC cadres still call each other comrade – but the British would never dare to complain in case they’re accused of being racists.
It may seem a mystery that Eritrea was one of the four countries in the world to explicitly back Russia at the UN. Eritrea after all is a nation that seceded from the Ethiopian empire with the help of Washington after a 30-year war in which communist forces led by Soviet advisers murdered countless Eritreans. But Eritrea’s love of Putin – Africa’s love of Putin – comes from the same place as that standing ovation the African leaders gave Idi Amin after he expelled Uganda’s Asians in 1971. It echoes the continent-wide adoration of Mugabe. ‘He is a hero to us,’ many Africans used to tell me, insisting that the atrocities Mugabe inflicted on his people were eggs that must be broken in making the omelette of African emancipation. Zimbabwe’s economic collapse, I was told, was due solely to the West. It was the West’s revenge for ‘kicking out the whites’.
Trillions of dollars in western aid don’t buy hearts and minds in Africa, it turns out. Instead, Africans remember fondly the 36 million AK-47 assault rifles Moscow supplied for Africa’s wars, plus the MiG jets, tanks and artillery. Africa’s Cold War years were extremely hot, and by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, millions were dead.
For 15 years, Russia vanished from the continent almost completely, only to return in 2005, when Tony Blair visited Moscow and told Putin it was time to wipe out third- world poverty. Fine, the Russian leader said, on condition that Africans embraced democracy. What a hoot! When somebody suggested Russia was in no position to opine on Africa, given its own human rights record, we got a glimpse of Moscow’s new continental doctrine. ‘We all know Africans used to eat their adversaries,’ Putin said as Blair squirmed. ‘We don’t have such a tradition and I believe the comparison between Africa and Russia is not quite just.’
Despite this, Putin has rebuilt Russian relations across the continent over the past decade. He may eschew what economies need – trade, investment, security – but he offers what African dictators crave, and what Joseph Siegle summarises as ‘mercenaries, arms-for-resource deals, opaque contracts, election interference and disinformation…’. Guns and Sukhoi fighters are back. Moscow’s economy (once the second-largest in the world) has shrunk to the size of two and a half Nigerias. Crime-ridden and corrupt, Russia is like Congo in the snow. The value of trade between Africa and Britain alone is more than double that of Moscow’s. It doesn’t seem to matter to Africa.
How, then, should Britain respond to these countries that accept aid but hate the West and back Putin? Perhaps it’s time to tell them that if they don’t like the international order established after the second world war, which sanctions aggressors for attacking sovereign democracies; if they don’t like what we represent and fail to see the value of western trade, investment and security – then they shouldn’t expect to share in its profits.