UN General Assembly voting on Ukraine – What does it tell us about African states’ relations with external partners?

Photo: Logo of the UN on blue ground

Picture by Chickenonline on Pixabay

On 2 March 2022, the UN General Assembly voted in a special emergency session on a resolution condemning the Russian attack on Ukraine. The General Assembly dealt with the issue on the basis of a referral from the Security Council, which was paralysed by a Russian veto. The resolution calls for an immediate ceasefire and clearly names Russia as the aggressor.

Voting behaviour in the UN General Assembly should not be over-interpreted, assuming that votes are transferable to other bodies and situations. Nevertheless, this vote in New York can be seen as a key moment that shows which states are currently ready to condemn the violation of the UN Charta by Russian aggression.

The General Assembly condemned Russia with a clear majority (141 out of 181 voting states), the two-thirds majority required for adoption was comfortably exceeded. Ninety-six states alone joined the resolution as so-called co-sponsors. Russia’s opposition to the resolution was shared only by Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria. However, 35 states abstained and a further 12 states did not cast their vote. Around a quarter of the community of states did not want to explicitly condemn Russian aggression, including China, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ethiopia. As expected, China and India both abstained, as they previously did in the Security Council. Noteworthy was the lack of support from Russia’s hitherto close allies such as Serbia, Cuba, and Nicaragua, but also from states in its immediate neighbourhood like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Some of these did not cast their vote, which is more ambiguous than abstention, but nevertheless contributed to Russia’s isolation.

The voting behaviour of African states, however, was very diverse and illustrates the lack of a concerted African Union (AU) response to the Russian invasion. By either abstaining or not taking part in the vote, 26 African states chose not to take an explicit stand against Russia. Why was this the case, and what could it mean for Africa’s position towards its external partners?

Different voting behaviour of Africa states

With 28 votes in favour, the support by African states on the multilateral stage is clear. Seven African states were sponsors of the resolution and thus visibly condemned the Russian attack in advance of the vote. So did the African members of the Security Council Kenya, Gabon and Ghana with widely noticed statements. Only slightly smaller, on the other hand, is the group of states that did not want to support the resolution, which included South Africa and Algeria as political and economic heavyweights.

South Africa backed away from its original clear condemnation by Department for International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) and abstained. Algeria, Angola and Eritrea are the only African states to belong to the UN Group of Friends in defence of the UN Charter, established in 2021 in reaction to the re-engagement of the Biden administration at the UN with China and Russia as prominent members. All members of this group of friends abstained, did not vote or voted against the resolution, with the exception of Cambodia and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

How can this voting behaviour of African states be explained?

Many African states seek to diversify and consolidate their international cooperation relationships; the West cannot claim exclusivity.  The group of states’ choice not to support the resolution contrasts with Kenya’s forceful message on the invasion during last week’s UN Security Council meeting, which some hoped would prompt other African states to take a similarly principled stance.

We do not have a comprehensive account of the cooperative relations of African states and Russia; Russia does not report its financial resources for international cooperation and is not the subject of international research investigations to the same extent as China. Yet generally, Russia’s interests in African states are considerable, as also underlined in earlier plans to convene the next Russia-Africa summit in the second half of this year.

During the Cold War, the USSR nurtured close linkages to African liberation movements, including the South African ANC, Angola’s governing party, and others. Russia is often seen as the (sole) heir of the USSR and regarded through that prism. For more current reasons, reports cite a variety of economic and military ties between Russia and African states and mercenary activities, for example in the Central African Republic, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, and Mali. Some observers call Russia a “partner of last resort” for African embattled “strongmen”.

Furthermore, Algeria and Egypt, and more recently Nigeria, Tanzania and Cameroon, are major importers of Russian arms (as is India). Voting behaviour in the UN could be part of cooperation agreements, as Russia has been able to count on African allies to support it on key votes in the past. There seems to be a correlation between arms imports and voting behaviour also in this vote at the General Assembly: On the basis of SIPIR data, Eric Voeten preliminarily showed that with three exceptions (Rwanda, Nigeria and Egypt), the countries that have imported at least 20% of their arms from Russia in the last five years did not vote in favour of the resolution.

It is interesting to note the statements made by African regional organisations, with those whose mandates allow have distanced themselves from Russia to varying degrees. These statements tended not to take sides, but called on all parties to cease hostilities and seek a peaceful solution. The African Union (AU) issued a statement co-signed by the current AU Chair and the Chair of the AU Commission, explicitly not reflecting the organisation’s position. This contrasts with the AU’s subsequent statement regarding the reported poor treatment of African citizens at Ukraine’s borders with Europe, which the entire AU has supported and which should also be read in the context of the AU-EU Summit just over a fortnight ago.

Augurs for future co-operations?

Interests, perceptions – often based on historical experiences – and positionality matter greatly in international relations. These observations on voting behaviour are a snapshot, a first international „sentiment test“ in New York. Overall, they showed great solidarity with Ukraine and support for the fundamental principles of the UN Charter. Yet, we are at an early stage of the conflict, whose further development is naturally unclear. The economic impact (including of sanctions) will sooner or later be felt by all: imports of grain from Russia and Ukraine seem particularly relevant for African states, and trade in fertiliser is also an important factor that will affect national and global food security.

Likewise, reservations among states of the Global South about double standards of the West, a longstanding bone of contestation, may negatively influence their further support: The political and financial response to a European crisis compared to past and present crises on the African continent or elsewhere will be closely registered. The German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, when she spoke before the General Assembly, signalled her willingness ”to critically question our own actions, our past engagements in the world” as a response to the articulated weariness by her colleagues from abroad when called to show solidarity with Europe.  Europe is well advised to sincerely engage with African countries and societies beyond the recent summit and seek a continuous dialogue on global peace and security, but also climate change and other pressing challenges.

Image: Niels Keijzer is Social Scientist and Senior Researcher of the Research Programme "Inter- and transnational cooperation" at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

Niels Keijzer is Social Scientist and Senior Researcher of the Research Programme “Inter- and transnational cooperation with the Global South” at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

Photo: Silke Weinlich, Senior Researcher

Silke Weinlich is a Senior Researcher of the Research Programme “Inter - and Transnational Cooperation with the Global South” at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE). She leads a research and policy advice project on the UN development system and its reform needs.

Image: Sven Grimm

Sven Grimm is Head of the Programme “Inter- and Transnational Cooperation with the Global South” at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

1 comment

  1. fernando jorge cardoso - Antworten

    Hi Niels, Silke and Sven,

    Generally I agree with what you have said. I would however add that this is a circumstantial voting. Should a full occupation of Ukraine happens, I believe another UNGA will be called and then some of the countries that did not vote or abstained will have to revisit their positions, because in such a scenario, future interests will matter more than narratives from the past – or even hostile feelings. Those that depend heavily from aid and economic relations with the EU will be forced to think twice

    Fernando Jorge Cardoso
    executive director of the Club of Lisbon

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