Africa and the Russian Aggression against Ukraine – Interview with Ulf Engel

Interview with Ulf Engel by Megan Maruschke

Ulf Engel, Professor of African Studies at Leipzig University, recently launched a five-part blog series on Africa and Russia’s war in Ukraine in Leipzig University’s Research Centre Global Dynamics blog:

  1. African states’ individual responses
  2. The votes of African countries in the UN General Assembly and what it means for German-African relations
  3. The economic fallout of the war in Africa
  4. The difficulties faced by African students in Ukraine
  5. And a deeper look at the choices made by Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa

We talked with Prof. Engel to find out why understanding African responses is crucial to a full analysis of the Russian war in Ukraine.

Megan Maruschke: How did you come to the idea that there were important stories regarding the war in Ukraine in an African context, at a time when most Ukrainian or Russian specialists have been called on for analysis?

African Union flag. Image source: Wikimedia commons.

Ulf Engel: Well, first of all, I am just following the news as anybody else does. And it cannot escape your attention that also non-Ukrainians were trapped in Ukraine, that the war has significant implications on food security in many world regions, and that the war has forced many countries to take sides. Being an African Studies person, it felt natural to look at these implications regarding the African continent. So, first, what does the Russian aggression mean for the many students of African origin in Ukraine? What is their experience in trying to get out of the bloodlands? And how does this experience differ from that of people labelled as “white”?

Second, Ukraine and the Russian Federation are major exporters of wheat and related agricultural products. What are the implications of severely reduced exports and increases in world market prices for highly dependent importing countries such as Egypt, Eritrea, or Ethiopia? How could a reduction of bread subsidies impact the precarious social balance in a military dictatorship such as Egypt (i.e., will we see a déjà-vu of bread riots), or affect situations in drought-stricken countries in the Horn of Africa? In short, what is the immediate and midterm impact of the war on political stability and livelihoods?

And finally, the votes in the UN Security Council and the General Assembly have forced member states to declare which side of history they are on. In the case of Africa and the UNGA emergency session on 2 March 2022, roughly one half of them condemned the Russian aggression – and the rest either abstained from a condemnation, did not participate in the vote, or supported the Russian rejection of the respective resolution.

My understanding from your blog is that many African states view this conflict and their responses to it in a long-term perspective (rather than as a moment of crisis) that has historical causes, and they also understand the precedent being set by corporate actors and states in how they will respond to future conflicts, not just war in Ukraine. In looking at how African states voted in the UN, some analysts have called this a continuation of the Cold War and many states’ “non-aligned” status. What is your reading of the multiple reactions across the continent? Is there something new here or just a continuation of Cold War stances or even reactions along postcolonial lines? Does a fractured response today prove a challenge for the African Union?

Indeed, in particular the vote on 2 March during the emergency session of the UN General Assembly has been discussed in these terms. The perception of many African governments that opposed or abstained from the resolution tabled by 94 UN member states (among them also seven African countries), in fact, is that the conflict was caused by Ukraine herself, or NATO. The votes of many states concerned followed a historic trajectory: post-colonial elites aligned themselves with the Soviet Union, and later the Russian Federation, because of the latter’s support for a group – not all – of the liberation movements that fought against white colonial settler regimes and apartheid in the 1960s to 1980s.

In the public discourse in these countries the role of Ukraine within the Soviet Union usually is not really discussed in a nuanced way (although, for instance, Ukraine played a major role in student and military training). These liberation movements in power (Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, but also Zimbabwe) clearly struggled to reconcile post-colonial constitutional values with past/present geopolitical allegiances. In some cases, also very basic economic interests may explain African voting patterns (i.e., dependence on Russian energy companies, arms supplies, or elite collusion state capture projects).

This does not simply translate into a continuation, or reproduction, of Cold War patterns, but brings in many new entanglements that have developed in post-Cold War times. The dynamics within these states also talk to the internal dynamics and the fractures one can observe in the liberation movements in power after so many years (Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, South Africa’s transition to a democratic dispensation occurred in 1994 – to name but just two examples).

For the African Union the response of its member states to the Russian war of aggression clearly demonstrates that the development of common policies still is a very cumbersome endeavor. Despite a common rhetoric on many global issues, it has become very clear that individual foreign policy interests clearly trump pan-African foreign policy visions. The communitarisation of member states’ interests remains a long-term perspective.

Your blog highlights economic impacts that the war has or will have in Africa, and you mention Russian companies. Yet the last years have seen major discussion about the expansion of Chinese companies in African states. How does a stronger Chinese economic presence in Africa impact responses to the war or possible economic fallout? What is the Russian position?

Clearly, over the past 20 years in many fields, China has made huge inroads into the continent, also economically. Regarding the Russian Federation, in the past in academia its policy has been discussed as ‘opportunistic’ and even ‘voluntaristic’. What has escaped many observers is that state-owned enterprises – such as Gazprom or Rosatom – have followed a very strategic approach towards the African continent. Also, Russia has become one of the main suppliers of military arms on the continent (20 percent of all exports, second only to the USA). So, my take is that over the past decade or so Russia has managed to re-establish itself in quite a number of African countries as an actor to reckon with. 

You highlight the racism impacting Africans in the process of fleeing Ukraine but also upon arrival into European Union states. Their treatment as well as the diverging attitudes of Europeans regarding the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ and the current influx have sparked conversations in Europe and beyond about how racism plays into perceptions of deservingness of asylum protection. Yet, I couldn’t help but think about the African Union’s more expansive definition of a refugee, which does not align perfectly with the UN definition based on individual persecution. The OAU definition historically emerged to account for violence faced during decolonization and foreign occupation. African states continue to host most refugees produced through conflict in Africa. Have these other ideas about refuge, that do not rely entirely on the Western liberal tradition, played a role in how states or media on the continent have reacted to those fleeing Ukraine?

The way I read current debates is that these are taking place within AU member states, but not at a continental or regional level. Thus, dealing with the fall-out of the Russian aggression in Ukraine is something that is being discussed in Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, or Ghana, who account for the biggest number of Africans in Ukraine. As far as I can tell, the legacy of continental debate on refugees, however defined, in this case does not really show.

Are there other topics you haven’t included in the blog that you think will deserve ongoing observation and attention moving forward? What are you watching out for now?

This is a good question. Clearly for me the blog also had the function to keep a clear mind in a situation that I still find extremely discomforting and threatening. Brain fog.

Having lived on and off in some of the states we have talked about – Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Ethiopia – I am still struggling with the long-term impacts the current situation will have on societal debates in these states. To give but one example: Ethiopia has experienced an internal war between the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy and the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front since 4 November 2020. During this conflict, Ethiopia has moved closer to China, Turkey, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates – and increasingly seen the USA as a destabilizing or antagonizing force. The fall-out of the Russian war against Ukraine will certainly accentuate these strategic choices and contribute to recalibrating the current global order.


Trained as a political scientist and historian, Ulf Engel is professor of ‘Politics in Africa’ at the Institute of African Studies at Leipzig University, Germany. He is also a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, and a professor extraordinary in the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.


Citation: Megan Maruschke, Africa and the Russian Aggression against Ukraine – Interview with Ulf Engel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.05.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/35840


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