Ubuntu is a foundational term in African cosmology and spirituality meaning ‘humanity’.

It expresses the African belief that ‘I am because we are’ or ‘I am because you are’ and also expresses our ‘humanity towards others. Ubuntu further expresses the African belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. In this spirit of ubuntu, Africa reaches out to and sympathises with the people of Ukraine and the hell-on-earth visited upon them over the last two months. We pray that the unnecessary war is ended.

And as ubuntu demonstrates, even though physically far from her shores, Africa has been – and will continue to be – affected by the war in Ukraine in numerous and profound ways: social, economic, and diplomatic.

But contrary to the spirit of ubuntu, “The first immediate and most visible impact of the war that was evident for all to see was how the war was played out on Africans resident in Ukraine,” observed Dr Craig Moffat, Visiting Senior Research Fellow with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and Head of Programme, Governance Delivery and Impact at Good Governance Africa. Dr. Moffat added how distressing it is that even in times of war when its victims should rally together as one for the common good in the spirit of ubuntu, it is racism rather than our common humanity that has still reared its ugly head with the blatant discrimination of Africans unwittingly caught up in the war.

The Brookings Institution documented “black people who, even during a life-and-death situation, have found themselves running into racist barriers to their safety and freedom” with reports that they were “refused at border crossings in favour of white Ukrainians, leaving them stuck at borders for days in brutal conditions”.

Another manner in which the unfolding scenario runs counter to the spirit of ubuntu, and even to the spirit of Fratelli tutti, is the seemingly lopsided diversion of attention. Fratelli tutti is Pope Francis’ encyclical on fraternity and social friendship amongst the world’s community of nations. While the Ukraine war is a calamity of catastrophic proportions that concerns us all, it should neither supplant nor take away the world’s attention, turning it to a singular country and issue, and away from similarly deserving disasters across several countries. The fact is that funding for protracted and forgotten emergencies is under threat. Funding is also being diverted. Some donors are reportedly pulling funding from aid budgets in other regions to fill the gaps in Ukraine. For example, South Sudan is one of three countries whose humanitarian aid appeals are each less than 8% funded. This sharply contrasts with the success of the United Nations’ two emergency appeals for USD 1.7 billion for people affected by Ukraine’s conflict. Both were close to fully funded the day they were launched. Related to that, the mobilisation for Ukraine is on an unprecedented scale and speed as has never been seen for the equally deadly wars eviscerating Sudan, Ethiopia, and Cameroon.

While acknowledging that the impact of Russia’s invasion was globally significant, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also pointed out that wars in Africa and Asia had only garnered a fraction of the focus on Ukraine. “I need to be blunt and honest that the world is not treating the human race the same way. I don’t know if the world really gives equal attention to black and white lives. Some are more equal than others. I hope the world comes back to its senses and treats all human life equally.”

Echoing the concern of Pope Francis’ in Fratteli tutti calling for countries endowed with greater capacity to play the Good Samaritan, Colonel (Dr) Abdourahmane Dieng, Head of the Regional Security Division at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) recalls, “The COVID-19 crisis has amply shown that in the face of catastrophe, the so-called great nations close ranks, slam their doors and save themselves first.”

Economic fallout

There is also an economic fallout for Africa and the world beyond Ukraine. Despite the vast physical distance between Europe and Africa, the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine are reaching Africa. Fuel, food, and fertiliser price hikes and shortages are already evident. A continent already hard-hit by the COVID-19 induced economic shock must now also bear the unbearable burden of yet more.

‘Preparing the future’ in Africa

Within this externally induced crisis also lies the opportunity for Africa to rise to the occasion by strengthening its food systems with a focus on safeguarding its food sovereignty and empowering local farmers. This is not only prudent, just, and moral but also in keeping with Pope Francis’ call to “prepare the future”. The Pope encourages nations to create the future they want to be guided by the tenets of social justice: an intentional and proactive shaping of the future and not a reactive approach, that does not leave the future to chance.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, Africa holds nearly two-thirds (65%) of the world’s arable land and 10% of the planet’s internal renewable fresh-water sources. “Africa has ample arable land and a dynamic youth,” noted Fr Ludovic Lado, Director, Centre d’Etude et de Formation pour le Développement in N’Djamena, Tchad. “Only good public policies and political will are missing. There is no doubt that with good policies, Africa can produce enough cereals to feed its people,” he continued.

“Let the war in Ukraine stop as soon as possible,” said Idrissa Ba, Cordaid’s country lead in Senegal. “In the first place for the sake of the Ukrainians. But let this war also be a wake-up call for us in Senegal and so many other places. To develop and strengthen our own markets and invest more in our farmers and our food sovereignty,” he added.

This calls for intra-continental cooperation, especially in matters of trade. “The development of intra-Africa trade is one of the most sustainable solutions to economic overdependence on the West,” noted Fr Lado.

But trade is dependent on optimal production. For this reason, others have expressed the need for Africa to enhance its productive capacity. “Our countries must increase their productive capacities,” exhorted Fr François Pazisnewende Kabore, professor of economics and President, Kosyam Jesuit University of Science, Burkina Faso. “If our countries react the right way, then we could enhance our food security and secure the functioning of our economies with respect to the goods initially imported from Ukraine.”

Col Dieng agrees. “It is an opportunity to explore our possibilities and try to get what we need directly from within the continent first before looking elsewhere. It’s time to trust ourselves and look at our internal possibilities. The operative words are resilience and independence. Let us believe in ourselves and say ‘Yes, we can!’”

Building an alliance for change in Africa

This faraway war is sorely testing and severely straining the fragile fabric of Africa’s multilateralism. With countries, regions, and regional blocs motivated by various reasons, Africa is far from having a unified position in the conflict. Lawyer and teacher Chidi Anselm Odinkalu sum it up thus: “Between the Pentecostal prayerfulness of Nigeria, the pusillanimity of South Africa, and the manifest Pilatism of the African Union, the continent’s leadership offers neither ideas on the geostrategic impact of the war on the continent nor succour to the Africans caught up in it. This is far from surprising.”

The Africa-based Institute for Security Studies critically examines Africa’s division on the war and the implications and ramifications of this for the continent’s global partnerships.

“We are facing the confrontation of two conflicting visions of the international world order,” observes Col Dieng. “One is based on the unilateral vision of the world imposed by the West – mainly the USA and its allies in Europe, Australia, and Canada. The second vision is the Russian one looking at multilateralism as the mechanism to govern the new world order. Russia is backed on that by China, Brazil, and many other countries. Africa has to be very circumspect when we are backed by western countries. At the end of the day, we can find ourselves alone fighting a war for the interests of the West. In this domain, Napoleon was right to say that it is better to develop the politics of our own geography. Peace with neighbours is key. During this war, most African countries have remained neutral vis-à-vis the western initiatives of United Nations sanctions. This sounds like the end of an era. Countries like Senegal are no longer automatically aligning their positions with their former political master’s orientation. We need not be engaged in the struggle between the two giants who want to impose a new order to the rest of the world. It is time for us to make our own judgment, chart our own path and make our own choice in terms of alliances with the rest of the world.”

“For countries sovereign enough, the war would require that each country take a stance with respect to the war,” notes Fr Kabore. “This could lead to new strategic partnerships in the economic and political arena. Political independence without some level of economic independence or sovereignty is hollow and an empty shell.”

“Russia is increasingly playing a major security role in a number of African countries such as the Central African Republic and Mali, especially with regard to the fight against terrorism,” observes Fr Lado. “These countries find it dicey – and risky – to take sides in this conflict.”

Joseph Siegle, Director of Research, Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Maryland, outlines five decisive steps that Africa should take in and from this war. Collectively and looking into the future, Russia’s expanding influence portends a bleak vision for Africa, with Russia attempting to export its governance model – of an authoritarian, kleptocratic, and transactional regime – onto Africa. Worrying because there are at least a handful of African leaders attracted by this model of governance despite its deep divergence from the democratic aspirations of the vast majority of African citizens. Russia’s corrosive influence could have negative and far-reaching consequences for democracy, security, and sovereignty on the continent.

“Africa must liberate itself from the grip of its former colonial masters,” urges Fr Lado. “After China, Russia is working towards increasing its influence in Africa. Europe and the USA are not happy about this development. And yet, only a more united Africa will be able to assert itself in the jungle of international relations. In this sense, Africa should be very cautious about merely replacing former colonial masters with fresh colonial masters. Africa should be free to choose its own partners and avoid being dragged into wars that are not it’s own. Africa has its own wars and conflicts and should concentrate on solving those,” he cautions.

Fr Kabore concurs: “The way we approach the war in Ukraine could in some aspects be part of what I term ‘intellectual diversion’ whereby some Africans will theorise on the pros and cons of the war in Ukraine while neglecting to face our own issues: terrorism, environmental degradation, socio-political turmoil, poverty, vulnerability and so on.” He then adds: “In Africa, we should know that in a globalised world, we need to be aware of our own immediate and global environment. However, we should also focus our energy on our own priorities.”

Regrettably, the African Union (AU) has not really risen to the challenge of a coordinated response to major crises affecting Africa, Fr Lado laments. “Although AU has elaborated a number of frameworks of collaboration between member states to enhance the emergence of the continent as a major world player, their implementation remains a challenge. This is true of agriculture, of global security, and many other common issues,” adds Fr Lado. “Good governance is key here. Unfortunately, it is still badly lacking in many African countries. Unless Africa solves the problem of good governance, it will not be able to rise to these global challenges and risks remaining the perennial playground of world powers keen on promoting their own parochial and selfish interests,” he cautions.

“A terrible war may occur here only because of an external fight for geostrategic influence and domination,” Col Dieng warns. “Conceivably, the war started in Ukraine could continue in West Africa where Western countries – namely France and its allies – are losing ground to their rivals from China and Russia.”

Ubuntu: African idealism and a message for a divided world

Still, in this crisis, Africa has shared with the world another way of healing a broken world in the spirit of ubuntu. In his speech to the Security Council on 22nd February 2022, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, schooled Russian President Vladimir Putin on an important history lesson of relevance to the entire world. Amb Kimani addressed Mr. Putin’s nostalgia for that greater Russia of yesteryear (the Soviet Union) that disintegrated in 1991, observing that most African states had been created by imperial powers, paying no heed to their ethnic affiliations. Amb Kimani noted that after independence, rather than try to reunite their ethnic, racial, or religious groupings, Africans made efforts to build nations out of a mosaic of separate ethnic groups, and that had Africa not done so, “We would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later”. So, Amb Kimani advised Mr. Putin that “We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”

In closing his tribute to former South African President Nelson Mandela and his family at Mr. Mandela’s memorial service in 2013, former US President Barack Obama said, “There is a word in South Africa – ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”

As all the world reels from the impacts of a war between two countries, here too is an opportunity to positively acknowledge and reaffirm our human interconnectedness, before we speak or act rashly or harshly in ways we will later regret.

People who made it across the border of Poland await transit to a refugee centre in Przemyśl, Poland, on March 1, 2022. Photo:Yara Nardi/Reuters

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