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President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Picture: BLOOMBERG
President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Africa should be under no illusion about Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It is the equivalent of France deciding it would like to have Algeria back, or Portugal seeking to recover Mozambique and Angola, or Britain aspiring to rule once more from the Cape to Cairo.

If anyone has good reason to be appalled by Putin’s revanchist designs to raise the Russian empire from the ash heap of history, it is the people of Africa, having been for so long on the receiving end of the very kind of enslavement Putin is attempting to impose upon Ukraine.

Africa’s 17 abstentions on the UN vote condemning Putin’s Anschluss were not even justified in realpolitik terms. Putin’s Russia has nothing to offer Africa except guns, mercenaries and conflict to sustain demand for them. The Putin regime presides over a murderously corrupt rentier state whose mineral wealth is siphoned off by a rancid oligarchy while what ought to be a hugely vibrant economy stagnates for everyone else.

It is remarkable that the GDP of a country that encompasses 11 time zones and a population of 144-million should be smaller than Italy’s. Other than petroleum products and weapons, Putin’s Russia invents or manufactures almost nothing the rest of the world wants to buy. Is it any wonder that the country’s brightest and best are fleeing? For one thing, they would prefer not to find themselves poisoned or in Putin’s gulag for committing thoughtcrime.

And now, thanks to Putin and his perverted dreams of restoring a mythical past, the lives of millions of Africans, already reeling from the Covid pandemic, are likely to be made even harder as his wicked war causes energy prices to soar and shuts down one of the world’s most important granaries. In IMF-speak, “Sub-Saharan African countries find themselves facing another severe and exogenous shock”. Or as AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat plaintively put it, Africa is a “collateral victim”.

Africa is not responsible for turning the atmosphere into a hothouse. Africa did not culture the virus that has sent millions to an early grave over the past two years. Africa, as Kenya’s permanent US representative famously noted in the UN Security Council debate on Putin’s invasion, has scrupulously respected its borders even though they are the arbitrarily drawn artifacts of occupying powers. And yet Africa keeps paying the price of others’ greed and folly.

Demographics tell us that this will, in the end, be Africa’s century. Come 2050 Africa will be home to more than half the world’s people in their prime working years; Nigeria alone will be more populous than the US. But if demographics truly are to be Africa’s destiny, the continent’s leaders need to lead with shared purpose.

With Covid, climate change and Putin’s war, with the American body politic gnawing manically at its own entrails, with the Chinese Communist Party turning increasingly expansionist, we appear to be headed to a historic inflection point, a point at which we will have to decide to do things differently, the way we did at the end of the previous great inflection point, World War 2. Whether it will take a like cataclysm before we undertake the needed course correction is the frighteningly open question today.

Africa, almost all of which was then what Putin is now trying to make Ukraine, had no say in designing the post-world war global architecture. One obvious result: a region that now represents over 16% of the world’s population has no permanent seat, let alone veto, on the UN Security Council. That has to change.

If it is to change, Africa has to act and be seen to act as a major power in its own right, not as a collection of mostly small, weak, easily divisible statelets. That is one reason it is so important that the African Continental Free Trade Agreement is fully implemented. The more the AfCFTA vision is realised, the more self-sufficient African economies will become in terms of food and energy, the less they will be vulnerable to exogenous shocks and reliant on the kindness of self-interested strangers.

Of course, Africa is hugely diverse and complicated, but if Africans and their leaders could genuinely speak as one beyond their waters’ edge, their interests would be much more effectively served. Speaking and acting as one, African leaders would not have to cravenly pretend there is some kind of moral equivalence between Putin’s regime and the targets of his nakedly imperialist ambitions.

As one, they might also have some influence were they to demand that China choose between Putin and Africa.

• Whitaker served as assistant US trade representative for Africa under the Clinton and Bush administrations, and is now president of The Whitaker Group.

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