Lessons from DRC: Africa should not reward Russian expansionism

The embattled Ukrainians deserve the same genuine support African nations have long been offering to the people of eastern DRC.

On June 16, seven African leaders – from South Africa, Zambia, Senegal, Egypt, Comoros Islands, Uganda and the Republic of Congo – met with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv in an attempt to negotiate a “roadmap” to a long-term peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. The next day, they held similar discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg, Russia.

Many commended the African states for their efforts to end a conflict that has already claimed thousands of lives.

Soon, however, it became clear that this was not a selfless humanitarian affair but one driven largely by domestic socioeconomic and political imperatives.

Since Russia launched its brutal all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Africa has experienced rising commodity prices and food inflation, igniting fears of widespread social unrest.

Countries such as Eritrea, Egypt, Benin, Sudan, Djibouti, and Tanzania, which import 70 percent of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, have been hit especially hard by spiralling shipping costs and disruptions to Black Sea shipment routes.

And the proposal African leaders put on the table during their visits to Ukraine and Russia, regrettably, demonstrated that they are putting these immediate domestic concerns over the fundamental rights of Ukraine, and the survival of the rules-based international order.

Indeed, the 10-point peace plan presented to Zelenskyy and Putin by the delegation alluded to recognising the “sovereignty of countries” and respecting international law, but fell short of affirming and defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the face of an illegal and indefensible invasion.

Russia has repeatedly bombarded Ukrainian cities, towns and villages, displacing more than eight million people and killing more than 9000 civilians. Russian forces stand accused of myriad war crimes and crimes against humanity. Torture chambers and mass graves are still being discovered in liberated Ukrainian cities. Russia also unlawfully annexed the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia in September 2022.

Russia must not be presented with the opportunity to retain the blood-soaked spoils of its imperial actions. To have a chance at bringing lasting peace to the region and gaining the backing of the international community, any peace proposal must require Russia to respect the UN Charter, established international law, and thus, Ukraine’s 1991 borders.

So it is no surprise that Zelenskyy outright rejected the weak and poorly thought-out African proposal and stressed that peace talks can only begin in earnest after Russia withdraws its forces from occupied Ukrainian territory.It did not have to be this way.

Rather than trying to placate Russia with a proposal that could literally let it get away with murder, African leaders could have used their experience in bringing fair and lasting solutions to regional problems to help end the conflict in Ukraine.

Prior to the delegation’s visits, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni had said Africa’s leaders could “share” their experiences from “solving disputes, like that of South Africa, Congo, Somalia” with Russia and Ukraine.

One look at African leaders’ approach to the current situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where they have shown commitment to providing a just solution, is enough to recognise that they have the ability to do the same for Ukraine – if they choose to do so.

For over a decade, DRC’s east has been plagued by conflict with the signatories of the Peace, Security and Cooperation (PSC) Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region leading the African efforts to bring peace and stability to the country.

Today, the DRC has reason to believe one of its neighbours is actively fuelling the turmoil and bloodshed. On May 23, it filed a complaint – the second one – against the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) and M23 rebel group at the International Criminal Court for the alleged systematic pillaging of its natural resources in the country’s eastern region.

Last August, a report by United Nations security experts determined that Rwanda had indeed provided weapons and support to the M23 rebels, as well as carried out military operations inside the DRC from at least November 2021.

Rwanda has long denied that it is actively undermining peace and stability in eastern DRC. Despite its flimsy rebuttals, however, there are telltale signs that its leadership views the DRC’s established sovereignty over its eastern territories as a grave historical aberration.

On April 16, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, speaking at a news conference in Cotonou, Benin, said, “The borders that were drawn during colonial times had our countries divided.”

“A big part of Rwanda was left outside, in eastern [DRC], in southwestern Uganda and so forth and so forth,” he added.

He claimed that people of Rwandese heritage, who are citizens of countries other than Rwanda in the Great Lakes region, have long been denied their “rights”.

On May 6, the PSC and representatives of the United Nations, the African Union, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, and the Southern African Development Community firmly dispelled any notion that the DRC’s borders might ever be altered for any reason.

Following the 11th high-level meeting of the Regional Oversight Mechanism for the PSC in Bujumbura, Burundi, the parties affirmed their “respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, notably intangibility of borders, and the political independence of all countries in the region”.

They condemned the actions of “foreign and local armed groups operating in eastern DRC”, and called for the prosecution of the actors behind the massacres perpetrated against the peaceful civilian population in Kizimba in May.

Africa, most admirably, firmly upheld the rule of international law and rejected Rwanda’s dubious military designs and revisionist history.

If Kagame’s violent and subversive game plan appears familiar, it’s because Putin has long used a similar modus operandi to destabilise Ukraine.

In February 2014 – several weeks before Russia illegally annexed the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol – Putin declared he reserved the right to protect Russian-speaking people in Ukraine. Since then, Russia has been covertly sponsoring pro-Russian separatist militia in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine was based on a contrived need to save “Russians” in Ukraine from “genocide“.

Still, despite these and countless other transgressions, many African states have refused to condemn Russia.

They have firmly backed the “sovereignty, territorial integrity and intangibility” of the DRC’s borders, as they rightly should, but refused to do the same for Ukraine.

On October 12, 2022, 15 African nations – including three mediators from the African peace mission – South Africa, Uganda and the Republic of Congo – abstained from the UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s “attempted illegal annexations” of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhia.

It goes without saying that any trustworthy assessment of Ukraine’s plight must always be centred on international laws and not old fraternal ties. This, however, has not been the case with some of the African peace mission facilitators.

In a June 2022 meeting held in Sochi, Senegalese President Macky Sall told Putin, “Despite heavy pressure, many countries still did not denounce Russia’s position.”

Later that same month, Museveni met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Kampala and publicly declared he saw no reason to condemn Russia’s land theft and murderous actions.

And at this year’s Africa Day celebrations in Johannesburg, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a thinly veiled reference to Ukraine, said African countries are “being dragged into conflicts far beyond our own borders”.

These leaders have certainly mastered the art of diplomatic hypocrisy.

For starters, Russia invaded Ukraine, so it’s not a “conflict” or a “dispute”, as the Africans (and their Russian friends) love to claim: It’s a bloody and disastrous invasion.

As members of the global community, African states have an obligation to help protect besieged populations.

They should not seek to establish peace and stability in Ukraine only to protect their fragile and dwindling economies.

The embattled Ukrainians deserve the same genuine support African nations have long been offering to the people of eastern DRC.

Africa must insist on a complete and unqualified withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine. And if African leaders really want to “silence the guns” in Ukraine, they must fight to preserve its 1991 borders. Anything less cannot be considered an attempt at honest mediation and would serve to do nothing but damage African powers’ reputations in the eyes of its peers.