After Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine began in late February 2022, 17 African states refused to vote for a UN resolution condemning Russia. Since then, most African countries have continued trading with Russia, resisting efforts to cajole or strong-arm them into picking sides in the latest might-makes-right contest in Ukraine. Their reasons for spurning the USA and NATO are a mixed bag of historical and current grievances. Truly, Africa is pissed off with the West.
Africans are rightly vexed with the West for several understandable and heartfelt reasons:
- The hypocrisy underlying the so-called rules based international order;
- The almost insurmountable obstacles to reforming international institutions;
- Slavery, colonialism and the aftermath of ‘independence’;
- The long-term damage caused by Western military interventions;
- The failure to take African opinion into account by international decision-making institutions.
How the so-called rules based international order is applied in practice is probably the #1 reason Africa is thoroughly irritated with the West.
The concept of a rules-based international order
No educated African believes that the rules-based international order promoted by the USA and EU is based on a set of rules that apply equally and fairly to all states.
Wikipedia states that the rules-based international order describes a set of global, rule-based, structured relationships … that has been in place since the late 1940s. It is based on international cooperation through multilateral institutions (such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund) and is constituted by human equality (freedom, rule of law and human rights), open markets, security cooperation, promotion of liberal democracy, and monetary cooperation. The order was established in the aftermath of World War II, led in large part by the United States.
This rules-based international order (RBIO) has not served Africa’s interests. All it has done, say African academics and politicians, is preserve the status quo in which major powers maintain their dominance over Africa and the Global South.
The Global South consists of the nations of the world that are regarded as having relatively low levels of economic and industrial development. They are typically located to the south of the more industrialized nations, that is, most are found in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
According to RBIO cynics, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, i.e. the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK, aka the Big Five, fail to consult African governments concerning African affairs. Africans of all political persuasions find this particularly irksome and unacceptable.
For example, in 2011 the African Union (AU) was using diplomacy to de-escalate the crisis in Libya and its efforts were gaining some success when NATO (the USA, Britain and France) — treating the AU as if it did not count in the scheme of things — started bombing the shit out of that country. Unsurprisingly, the AU’s diplomatic efforts came to nought, and Libya collapsed into a failed state wracked by violence that continues today.
Under the West’s oft-touted RBIO, the bombing of Libya was in fact illegal. The UN Security Council resolution that was used to justify the attacks merely authorised a no-fly zone, not the wholesale bombing NATO indulged in and that led to the fall and death of Gadhafi, Libya’s leader, and turned an oil country whose citizens enjoyed a cradle-to-grave welfare state, on a par with that of their cousins in the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf, into a failed state plagued by tribal violence.
The illegality of the bombing of Libya was noted throughout Africa.
The current form of the RBIO is dominated by a few powerful states that seem to think that peace and security is the imposition of their will on others. As a result, resistance to the current form is growing. More and more countries in Africa and in other parts of the Global South are refusing to accept the current RBIO but they are not trying to wreck it like China and Russia are doing.
African countries want the RBIO to be reformed so that it is no longer based on the idea that might-makes-right. They want the United Nations (UN) and the other international institutions, such as the IMF and WTO, to be restructured so that they operate on more equitable and fairer terms, meaning that states other than the Big Five are included in decision-making, especially when it affects their part of the world.
A good place to start with these reforms would be with the UN Security Council.
Reforming the UN Security Council
The purpose of the UN Security Council is to ameliorate threats to international security through negotiation, by imposing sanctions and by authorising the use of force as well as the deployment of peacekeeping missions.
The Council has 15 members. Five of these — China, France, Russian, the UK and the USA — are permanent members. The other 10, known as rotating members, are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Each permanent member has a veto power, that is they can block resolutions passed by the other 14 members. The remaining 10 rotating members have no such power..
The United Nations Security Council epitomises how Africa, along with other states in the Global South, is excluded from international decision-making.
More than 50% of Security Council meetings and 70% of resolutions authorising peacekeepers to use force relate to African states. Yet there are no African countries among the Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members. In other words, African states, being at most rotating members on the Security Council, are extremely limited in how they can contribute to Security Council decisions that affect Africa. Africans find this extremely irritating and vexatious, especially when a decision goes against what they see as their own best interests or those of their continent as a whole.
Since 2005 the African Union has been making the case for reform of the UN, trying to get Africa fully represented in all decision-making organs of the UN, especially the Security Council. But its proposed reforms have been rejected by the permanent members of the Security Council … three of whom were striving in 2022 to get African countries to side with the West in the struggle over Ukraine (they failed to see the irony).
Reform, however, is possible. The UN Charter can be amended under Article 109 which allows a special ‘charter review conference’ to be called by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly and a vote of any nine of the members of the Security Council. This vote cannot be vetoed by the permanent members. A coalition of African and other states in the global south could draft a General Assembly resolution to put a review of the charter on the Assembly’s agenda. There are no major obstacles to this as long as the coalition has a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly.
This review conference would have the power to alter the UN Charter and introduce new provisions that would transform the system. Article 109 states that ‘each member of the United Nations shall have one vote’ and that provisions shall be approved by a two-thirds majority with no country having a veto. Thus the resolutions of the review conference could not be blocked.
Perhaps this is just a pipe-dream. It is unlikely the five permanent members of the Security Council would allow a review of the Charter to take place. To make it happen, Africa would have to build a coalition of the willing (a Reform Alliance) with the rest of the global South and any developed countries not in thrall to the USA, Russia or China.
This is unlikely to happen as the veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council would probably bring traditional forms of pressure to bear on members of the reform alliance … cajoling, promising the delivery of aid, bribes and, ultimately, military threats ‘to bring democracy to their country’.
However, until their interests and concerns are taken seriously, African governments will continue to pursue a strategy of nonalignment and intentional ambiguity in their dealings with major powers. Attempts to wheedle or strong-arm them into picking a side in the latest might-makes-right contest in Ukraine failed, since no one in Africa believes that the international order is based on rules.
Slavery, colonialism and the aftermath of ‘independence’
For the last 500 years the international order has been exploiting Africa.
During the 300 years plus of the transatlantic slave trade, more than 10 million Africans were purchased from Arab traders and African chiefs and shipped to the Americas where their unpaid labour and brutal serfdom made the elites of America and Europe extremely wealthy.
Once the slave-trading era was over, European nations, especially the British and French, began colonising Africa. The prize was no longer slaves, rather it was the extraction of natural resources. Resistance to this extraction (or, more accurately, theft) was met with unparallelled brutality from the continent’s colonial masters.
Things changed little with the independence achieved by African nations in the 1950s and 1960s. The retreating colonial powers were able to corrupt incoming African leaders, such as Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Francis Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, into agreeing to independence on terms that were not beneficial to their African nations.
For example, the CFA franc, a relic of the colonial past, still gives France sway over the economies of 14 West and Central African countries. It may be hard to believe but Francophone African countries are still paying $500 billion a year in ‘colonial taxes’ to the Central Bank of France while France, in a surfeit of generosity, gives just $12.2 billion back in development assistance to Africa. At the same time France no longer has the expense of maintaining a colony!
It is obvious that the international powers that exploit Africa have merely changed their methods and rhetoric. They no longer take what they want with brute force. Instead they rely on skewed trade deals and financing arrangements to drain the continent of its resources, often with the collusion of the African elites they have corrupted.
The major powers, however, still do use force when they find it is expedient. Despite claiming to uphold the RBIO, they have imposed their will on other countries many times. Examples include the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia and Libya, the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. In 2014, the USA, the UK and France intervened militarily in Syria to support rebel forces; a year later, in 2015, Russia’s military stepped in to support the Syrian government.
All Africa is aware that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was not a departure from the norm but a continuation of the same old story of the more powerful using force against the less powerful.
The long-term damage caused by Western military interventions
African elites are fully aware that military interventions by the world’s major powers have steadily eroded the pretence of a RBIO and made the world much less stable. Let’s look at some of the consequence of these illegal wars by Western states.
The illegal invasions of Iraq and Syria created violent extremist jihadi movements, such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (aka ISIS), which have since spread rapidly across Africa. Following the chaos created by NATO’s intervention in Libya, Islamist terrorism has proliferated in the Sahel, becoming rife in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. In East Africa, religious extremism imported from the Middle East in the form of Al Shabab is undermining stability in Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia and Tanzania.
These threats are not sensed in the capitals of America and Europe. But they are acutely felt by Africans who had no say in the military operations that spawned them. As a result, Africans feel that they do not count; if they did count, the consequences for Africa would be considered when these military campaigns are being planned.
Here’s the weird and sad thing. On the one hand, illegal military interventions by the major powers have resulted in terror in Africa; on the other hand, the same major powers have failed to intervene in humanitarian crises — in Rwanda in 1994, Srebrenica in 1995 and Sri Lanka in 2009. This failure exposes the lie at the heart of today’s global order. Those who keep calling for the protection of an illusionary RBIO have obviously not been on the receiving end of a USA-NATO military incursion. Africans see their voices as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The myth of a functioning RBIO that constrains the whims of nations is still believed in the West. But in the opinion of Africans it is high time that the West acknowledges what African countries have known for decades — the dysfunctional RBIO poses a clear and present danger to developing countries. The concept of a rules-based international order has been destroyed by the atrocious actions of some of its most powerful advocates.
The current arrangements exclude the representatives of the majority of the world’s population from international decision-making; at the same time it leaves them at the mercy of more powerful hostile forces. Most African politicians believe that the RBIO needs to be remodelled as a matter of urgency. This means re-imagining multilateralism and redesigning international institutions, such as the UN (which may or may not be possible as discussed above), to create a more effective global system of collective security. The failure to even try to do so is what really pisses off educated Africans.
Africans as reconciliators
As this essay has shown, Africans have many good reasons to be totally frustrated with the West.
They are, however, the beneficiaries of an intellectual and political understanding that springs that from their experience in fighting colonialism and apartheid and in attaining self-determination. Rather than holding grudges over their past, they focus on the future and the possibilities for a new global order.
This writer’s African friends have a vision for a new global order that is based on equality — equality of representation on world institutions such as the UN, the IMF etc, and equality in international decision-making. It would also include non-interference in their decision-making as sovereigns and the redress of historical wrongs, though Africans in their generosity do not insist on the latter.
This is because Africans are reconciliators by nature. When the colonial powers withdrew from the continent, Africans did not retaliate against Westerners for the brutal and exploitative system they had imposed on the peoples of the continent. This ability to effect reconciliation between warring communities was most visible in post-apartheid South Africa.
But African foreign policy-makers are now demanding that an international order that is de facto based on might-makes-right be replaced with one based on equality, justice, global solidarity, reconciliation and joint decision-making.
The fact that this is just not happening, and is being prevented from happening by the obstinacy of the UN Security Councils Big Five ensures that Africans will remain thoroughly pissed off with the West.