A routine Al Jazeera interview with the president of Eritrea in 2008 was electrified when the presenter asked the president when elections were going to be held in Eritrea. Unfazed by the question, the president retorted: “What elections?”
The presenter repeated his question and the president said that they would wait for “three, four decades – or maybe more” to find out whether the conditions are right for elections to be conducted!
Today, 14 years later, the very president is still in power and no elections have been conducted.
The name of the president is Isaias Afewerki – appointed to be president by the ‘National Assembly’ in 1993. Like clockwork, Afewerki went on to cancel the planned elections in 1997 and 2001 and rounded up fellow liberation movement leaders and journalists who questioned him for, among other things, failing to deliver on his promises on democracy. They have never been seen since.
This is Eritrea, a country that has never had an election. It is a nation that is run with no parliament, no constitution, no independent media, no budget and no opposition. And this is the nation that whatever votes, it will vote in support of Russia.
On March 2 and April 8 UN General Assembly resolutions against Russia, Eritrea was the only African nation, together with North Korea, Syria, Belarus, and Russia itself, to have voted against both resolutions. If the friends you keep highlights who you are, these are the friends that Russia still attracts today.
The past one decade or so has seen an increasing trend of African states voting with or in defence of Russia in international bodies. The trend has been much more pronounced after the UN resolution that affirmed ‘Ukraine’s territorial integrity’ against Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In that resolution, 26 African nations abstained and 2 – Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Bashir’s Sudan – voted against the resolution. These are the friends of Russia.
In the March 2 vote, 18 African nations either abstained or voted against the resolution that condemned Russia for its actions in Ukraine. In the April 8 vote, 30 African nations either abstained or voted against the suspension of Russia from UNHRC. Eight African nations, that is, Algeria, CAR, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Mali, and Zimbabwe, voted against the resolution.
One of the reasons most cited to justify Africans’ abstention is ‘non-alignment’. But what does non-alignment mean today? Is territorial integrity or freedom from military aggression less important an issue because it is a Russia vs America thing?
In 2014, when Vladimir Putin decided to annex Crimea, his main objective was to guarantee Russia’s access to the Black Sea’s warm water port of Sevastopol.
Low hanging fruits for the Russians
The decision was very unpopular in the West: Russia was duly slapped with sanctions and steps were taken to isolate it internationally. Vladimir Putin was forced to review Russia’s strategic positioning and Africa appeared to offer many low hanging fruits for the Russians.
First, Africa has many authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states which are already kept at an arm’s length by the West, these are states which could use friends who would not put a premium on their human rights record. This included Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Bashir’s Sudan, and Afewerki’s Eritrea.
Second, Africa is rich in mineral resources such as gold and diamonds which can be used to circumvent the West’s sanctions as an alternative payment system. Wherever Russia’s forces or mercenaries are stationed, there are significant natural resources around. For example, DR Congo, Mozambique, Central African Republic, Sudan, and Mali.
Third, Africa has many conflict zones and weak states which can be infiltrated and controlled by Russian forces to achieve its geo-economic and geopolitical objectives.
In Libya, for example, Russia’s support for the warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar provides Russia not only with a strategic access point to Europe but also with the capability to cause chaos in Europe through its control of African migrants’ pathways through Libya.
However, despite Russia’s braggadocio positioning, it is a weak state that is significantly constrained by its financial position.
Thus, the strategy it has chosen, that is, the use of mercenaries, the targeting of unstable partner states, the forging of connections with renegade states, and the provision of military and security services to state and non-state actors, is principally a pragmatic option. Russia doesn’t have too much room to manoeuvre.
Militarisation weakens states
Unfortunately, that is not a strategy that works for Africans. Militarisation weakens states. Autocracy promotes regression and oppression. Corruption prolongs the thievery of Africa’s natural resources. It is, in short, yet another episode of exploitation of Africa by a foreign power, a proposition that has serious implications for Africans.
In 2019, UN Security Council attempted to pass three resolutions that were aimed at promoting democratic reforms in Africa, namely a review of the presidential election in DRC, a condemnation of the coup in Sudan, and the calling for a ceasefire in Libya. In all three resolutions, Africa’s three members sided with Russia to block the resolutions. Russia compromises Africa’s aspirations for its own people.
There is a high cost to be paid for partnering with a renegade state. And this is what makes Africa’s support for Russia, or rather the withholding of support from Ukraine, quite baffling.
To Ukraine, Russia presents a model where an authoritarian leader controls the state and his cronies control the economy. This is the model that Ukraine, previously of the Soviet Union, is far too familiar with and has witnessed failing over and over. The Ukrainians are justified in rejecting that regressive model.
Similarly, aren’t Ukrainians justified to move towards something that works? The average per capita income in the EU is ten times that of Ukraine, at $3,500, and Poland, Ukraine’s neighbour and a nation that has shared much of the historical troubles which befell Ukraine in the 20th century has had its GDP per capita increase three times since joining the EU in 2003, from $5,700 to $17,400.
The two options facing African governments
Today, just like Ukraine, Africa is also presented with the two options, firstly, the one which Russia stands for, and, secondly, the one where people are free politically and economically, the model which the West stands for. Africa cannot have it both ways.
In the 1960s, Afewerki, went to China for training. That was the time of the Maoist Cultural Revolution which led to the deaths of millions. Recalling Afewerki’s experience in China, the Chinese ambassador to Eritrea said: “[Afewerki] learnt all the wrong things.”
Is it any wonder that Afewerki turned out the way he did? Isn’t this the price that Africans will continue to pay for courting autocratic systems?
Voting in support of Russia – even by abstaining – is a vote for regression and oppression rather than liberation. Africa should have learnt from its history but, alas, as they say, the only lesson we have learnt from history is that people don’t learn anything from history.
Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available at email@example.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.