Kisangani Hostage Crisis of 1964 Can Help Explain Africa’s Reaction to Russia-Ukraine Conflict

The nature of the hostage incident is quite different from the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But it involved human rights issues and the involvement of the West. But the reaction of African leaders shocked the West.
Damas Kanyabwoya21 April 202216 min

The international community is trying very hard to understand the attitudes and reactions of many African countries to the ongoing war between two Eastern Europe nations of Russia and Ukraine.

While 18 African nations either abstained or voted against the UN resolution that condemned Russia for its actions in Ukraine on March 2, the number jumped to 30 on April 7 when a vote was held to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

These countries’ reluctance to condemn Russia at the UN remains a puzzle that no experts can fittingly explain.

Most of the theories fronted just can’t capture the crux of African states’ reaction. Some of the theories claim that Africa still suffers from the pro-Soviet nostalgia.  This theory is too simplistic.  It seeks to portray Africa as static and African leaders as naïve and unsophisticated.

The truth is that Africa has moved on from Cold War politics that pitted the Soviet Union against the US. African countries’ foreign policies and international relations matrix is firmly rooted in the current unipolar world and is no longer defined by nostalgia or by anti or pro-Western propaganda.

African countries are now preoccupied with their economic interests, which precede other interests and determine their foreign policies and interactions with other nations. By this assertion, the plot thickens, understandably.

One might ask: if African countries care more about their economic interests, what economic or financial benefits do they stand to gain by refusing to condemn Russia? Russia doesn’t provide budgetary or development aid to African countries! Trade relations between the two pale in comparison with trade relations between Africa and the West!

Human rights

Another theory says that the failure of Africans to stand with Ukraine and condemn Russia’s human rights abuse – some of which is claimed to amount to war crimes – is because African leaders are also perpetrators of human rights in their respective countries.

Authoritarian African governments feel emotionally closer to Russia, the theory suggests, and so African leaders find no qualms in siding with Vladimir Putin.

The theories on the reaction of African leaders to the Russia-Ukraine crisis are many. And they are not totally useless as they give some clues.

What the theories have failed to take into account is the fact that Africa’s reaction to the Russia-Ukraine conflict is mostly knee jerk. It’s difficult to rationally explain that kind of reaction.

No theory can work perfectly here. Another issue is that Africa is not reacting against Russia’s aggression.

While the reaction and actions of most of the rest of the world are against Russia’s aggression, the reaction of African countries is determined by something else; economic sanctions against Russia and how effective they have been in decimating Russia’s economy since 2014.

This has produced some feelings of solidarity by African states towards Russia.

Feelings of vulnerability

Economic sanctions against Russia and how effective they have been remind Africans of how extremely vulnerable their own economies are. The feeling of vulnerability comes out of African leaders’ awareness that they can’t control their own economies; that their vast natural resources might be rendered useless in the case of an economic assault by the West.

It’s unlikely that African leaders actually support Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. African leaders know that Putin’s actions in Ukraine set a dangerous precedence. That explains why many of them chose to abstain from UN votes rather than voting in favour of Russia.

But to African governments, the feelings invoked by the fragility of their economies in the face of any possible sanctions override any sympathy they might have towards Ukraine.

This makes African leaders appear indifferent to human rights concerns in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It is appalling. Human rights violations anywhere in the world should concern Africans.

Unfortunately, African leaders feel that Africa is itself a permanent victim of human rights abuse by the West most often perpetrated in economic terms. They feel, I think, no obligation to “side” with the West in condemning Russia while the same Western countries are assaulting Russia using the same weapons (sanctions) that have already been used against them or might be used against them in future.

African countries might not, necessarily, be anti-West but they have deep misgivings about the way the West uses sanctions to punish weaker economies. And African economies are weak.

Now the thinking is ‘If they can do that to Russia, a nuclear power and a comparatively bigger economy, what will they do to us?’ And so the manner in which the West reacts to the Russia-Ukraine conflict alienates the support of many African leaders.

The Stanleyville hostage crisis of 1964

The reaction of African leaders to the hostage crisis in Stanleyville (today Kisangani city) in 1964 might help to shed some light on how Africans have responded to the Ukraine crisis.

The nature of the hostage incident is quite different from the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But it involved human rights issues and the involvement of the West. But the reaction of African leaders shocked the West.

At a certain stage in the Congo crisis of the early 1960s rebels in Kisangani and surrounding areas took thousands of foreigners hostage. The hostages, who included Christian missionaries, were mainly Belgians but others were Americans, British, Canadians, French, Greece, Italians and so forth.

The West embarked on an exercise to rescue the hostages, some of whom had already been killed by the rebels. Belgian paratroopers were airlifted to Kisangani using the United Air Force planes flown by pilots supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency without seeking prior approval from the Congo-Leopodville (now DRC) government.

African leaders reacted very strongly against the rescue operation. This baffled the West. The West failed to understand why African leaders should criticize, in the strongest terms possible, an operation that was conducted purely on humanitarian grounds and which was aimed at saving the lives of the hostages.

The West was also irritated that African leaders said little or nothing about the killing of more than 50 hostages by rebels. What the West failed to understand was that flying-in commandos into an African territory for a military operation regardless of its aim, without even seeking the approval of the responsible government, invoked the feelings of vulnerability.

Most of these countries were very young, not even five years old. They were susceptible to foreign interference that could lead to destabilization.

In the book entitled Nyerere of Tanzania: The First Decade 1961-1971 the author William Edgett Smith quotes Tanzania’s founding President Julius Nyerere trying to explain the reaction of African leaders to the Stanleyville debacle.

Nyerere said: “The best thing that can happen for us in Africa would be for the [West]… to understand us. Our continent is a continent we don’t control, and we feel strongly about this.”

Damas Kanyabwoya is a veteran journalist and a political analyst based in Dar es Salaam. He’s available at dkanyabwoya@gmail.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and it does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com for further inquiries.

Damas Kanyabwoya

One comment

  • Charles Makakala

    22 April 2022 at 11:56 PM

    An excellent article, Damas. Very informative. Lots to ponder. More like these, please.

    Reply

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