The empire strikes back!

The empire strikes back!

By Prof John Harbeson

At the beginning of March, the United Nations General Assembly voted 141 to 5 to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It demanded the immediate and complete withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine. Twenty-five sub-Saharan African delegations voted for the resolution, including Kenya, Djibouti, and Somalia from the Horn of Africa region. Of the nearly one-third of the UN delegations that did not support this resolution, twenty-five African sub-Saharan delegations were among thirty-five abstained, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. Eight African countries did not vote at all, including Ethiopia. Eritrea voted against the resolution joining the company of Russia, Belarus, North Korea, and Syria. Outside of the Horn countries. The abstentions of China and South Africa were especially noteworthy.

Every UN member has their reasons for voting or not voting — as many chose to do. There are, of course, any number of familiar, often complex bi-lateral relations among members outside and within the UN context that members could offer to explain their votes. But six decades after most African and other Global South countries achieved independence from imperial colonial rule, and three decades after the end of the Cold liberated many nations from authoritarian rule, it is sobering that so many former victims of imperialism would decline to vote to condemn Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine. Why would a third of the world’s nations shrink from defending three-quarters of a century of international law outlawing such assaults on liberty, from which their independence movements benefitted and, indeed, have themselves been instrumental in establishing? How can they look away from the principles of responsible sovereignty and responsibility to protect citizens that oblige states to honour each other’s sovereignty and rescue victimized citizens when, as in the case of Russia and Ukraine, those principles are flagrantly violated?

In the UN debate, Kenya’s ambassador, Martin Kimani, reminded the Assembly of the difficult paths African and other countries had taken to achieve freedom and independence and turn their backs on just the evil of imperialism that Russia has now visited on Ukraine. He recalled that the Organization of African Unity (precursor to the present African Union (AU) had directly confronted the irrationality of its imperially imposed country boundaries in one of its earliest actions. With near unanimity, only Somalia dissenting, it determined to accept these boundaries as permanent. It recognized that doing so was the only realistic means of preserving domestic peace within, between, and among its states and the indispensable foundation for pursuing the dreams that drove the quest for independence: lifting from their millions of citizens the yokes of poverty, ignorance and disease. In its brutal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Ambassador Kimani chided Russia for ignoring Africa’s collective hard-earned wisdom that boundary issues are no cause for war nor any justification for imperial aggression. 

With continuing determination, the AU has implicitly required that any boundary adjustments disputed be mediated peaceably even though boundaries are a focal point for much larger, unresolved issues that continue to beleaguer the continent. The prevailing Weberian conception of the state has a monopoly of coercive capacity to compel membership in a territorially defined community. Yet, the annual all-country surveys by the Washington-based Fund for Peace have continued to report that, by multiple criteria, most African states have remained profoundly fragile.  

For example, an estimated 32 million Africans are internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, and refugees, continuing a decade of forced displacement throughout the continent, a sobering counterpoint to obligatory inclusion within African polities. 

Ethnic conflicts and wars have raged across state boundaries, perhaps most dramatically in the Hobbesian state of nature in the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa involving Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Political and economic elites have siphoned tens of billions of dollars, legally and illegally, out of their countries to tax shelters abroad that are needed to advance their citizens’ social and economic welfare. After a decade and a half of post-Cold War democratization in sub-Saharan Africa, since about 2006, democracy has receded across much of the continent, obstructing measures to alleviate these and other indicators of state fragility. 

The ongoing Ethiopian civil war excavates a rarely addressed fundamental issue for African states. African nationalist movements arguably generally did a fair job of persuading their diverse ethnic communities that they belonged together in their respective new states. Perhaps because it lacked a comparable nationalist movement in the last century, Ethiopia has yet to discern from its very diverse ethnic constituencies, most of whom were incorporated by the conquests of late 19th Century emperor Menelik II, to what extent and/or on what terms might they assent to sharing governance within a viable post-imperial state. 

End Russia’s genocidal war so the family of nations can refocus on the shared fragility of their states.  ( 

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