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The world is in polycrisis. From the Russia-Ukraine war in Europe, the Israel-Hamas fighting in the Middle East, the conflict in Sudan and in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the coups in West and Central Africa, to terrorism and the impacts of climate change, it has been one crisis after another.

So bad is the situation that research published by Save the Children in June 2023 estimated that there are 468 million children worldwide living in armed conflict zones – about 20 per cent of the world’s population of 2.4 billion children, based on UNICEF’s data.

The reaction to these crises and their handling has in most cases, if not all, escalated the problems, further exposing the hypocrisy in international politics.

Key questions emerge: How did we get here? What are the new realities brought about by these crises? Are we entering a new world order and what will it look like? What is Africa’s role in shaping these realities? 

Painting the situation

Until the razing of Gaza, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 had been presented as the biggest crisis facing the world. 

The war is reported to have claimed almost 500,000 Ukrainian and Russian troops as of August 2023, while at least 10,000 civilians, including more than 560 children, have been killed and over 18,500 others injured as of November 2023, according to the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), there were 23,074 reported deaths in Gaza between 7 October 2023 and 7 January 2024, following the Hamas attack in which 1,200 Israelis were killed, according to the Israel military, revising the toll downwards from 1,400. Palestinian health officials put the number of deaths at 27,000 as of February 2024 while Israel Defence Forces say that 564 soldiers, officers, and reservists have been killed in the fighting since 7 October 2023.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has said that the world is witnessing an “unparalleled and unprecedented” level of civilian death since he became Secretary-General in 2017, a period during which he has had to deal with one crisis after another while acknowledging that he has “no power at all”, even as the global powers flex their muscle.

“We have a level of division among superpowers that has no precedent since the Second World War. Even in the Cold War, things were more predictable than they are today,” Guterres told Christiane Amanpour of CNN.

On 8 February 2024, Guterres warned that the world was entering “an age of chaos”, with a deeply divided Security Council unable to address critical issues such as the Israel-Hamas war.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly presenting his 2024 priorities, the UN boss regretted that “the United Nations Security Council – the primary platform for questions of global peace – is deadlocked by geopolitical fissures”.

“This is not the first time the Council has been divided – but it is the worst. Today’s dysfunction is deeper and more dangerous … unlike during the Cold War, when well-established mechanisms helped manage superpower relations, those mechanisms are missing in today’s multipolar world.” 

“Our world is entering an age of chaos … a dangerous and unpredictable free-for-all with total impunity,” he warned, painting a dismal picture of the current global situation.

We have had worse crises in the past.

In Yemen, the almost 10-year war rages, causing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with 21.6 million people – two thirds of the population – in need of aid, including 11 million children, and with more than 4.5 million people displaced.

The UN estimates that 60 per cent of the estimated 377,000 deaths in Yemen between 2015 and the beginning of 2022 were the result of indirect consequences of the war such as food insecurity and lack of access to health services. Five million people are at risk of famine, and a cholera outbreak has affected over one million people.

“The United Nations Security Council – the primary platform for questions of global peace – is deadlocked by geopolitical fissures.”

The Campaign Against Arms Trade estimates that 150,000 people, including tens of thousands of civilians, have been killed in fighting. These numbers are based on data from 2021 and have since increased.

In Syria, UN Human Rights says that the over the last 10 years, an average of 84 civilians have been killed every day as a direct result of the war; by 2022, an estimated 306,887 civilians had been killed since the armed conflict began in March 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring.  

In Africa, data from the UN Displacement Tracking Matrix indicates that about 2.8 million children had been displaced by November 2023, accounting for 40 per cent of the total number of displaced people that has risen to 6.9 million from five million the previous July.

UN data shows that about 80 per cent of the internally displaced people in the DRC are in the eastern provinces of Tanganyika, North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri. The mineral-rich region is overrun by various rebel groups – chief among them the M23 – who are fighting over resources and power. In North Kivu and Ituri, armed groups and government forces killed more than 2,000 people between January and late October 2022, according to Human Rights Watch World Report 2023.

The UN says that, as a result of the insecurity and instability, more than 26.4 million people need humanitarian assistance in the DRC, or about one in every four people, including 14.2 million children.

“Rape and other acts of sexual violence against children and abduction of children are also on an upward trajectory. In both 2021 and 2022, DRC had the world’s highest levels of verified cases of sexual violence against children committed by armed forces and armed groups. Moreover, in 2022, 730 children were verified as abducted, making it the highest number of abductions ever verified by the United Nations in the DRC,” UNICEF said in its September 2023 brief

After Sudan, the DRC now has the second-highest number of displaced persons.

Having suffered at least 19 coups d’état, seven of which were successful, Sudan is now at war following the fighting that broke out in Khartoum on 15 April 2023 after disagreements between the rogue generals that led the October 2021 coup.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan of the Sudan Armed Forces and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo of the Rapid Support Forces, who assumed power as the leader and deputy leader of the interim government (Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council) respectively after the fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, derailed the transition to civilian leadership when they led a coup in October 2021.

The mineral-rich region is overrun by various rebel groups – chief among them the M23 – who are fighting over resources and power.

In April 2023, the two generals’ greed took the country back to war over disagreement concerning the dissolution of the Rapid Support Forces. The UNHCR says the war had displaced almost 4.3 million people internally by October 2023 and forced over 1.1 million people into the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, which is also dealing with its own displaced populations. 

These coups have been an emerging problem in Africa, further worsening the instability, governance and the humanitarian situation on the continent.

Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embalo survived a coup attempt on 30 November-1 December 2023, while he was away attending the COP28 meeting in Dubai, UAE, following another attempt in February 2022. Similarly, Sierra Leone’s President Julius Bio survived a second coup attempt on 26 November 2023. 

There have been nine successful coups since 2020 and this escalation of attempts to overthrow governments on the continent, particularly in West Africa, Central Africa and the Sahel region, is worrying. The coups have initially enjoyed massive popular support, with the military celebrated in the streets of capital cities, only for the citizens to quickly find that they have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. 

Arguably, some of the coups have also been a product of misgovernance, as well as a protest against the chokehold of former colonial masters.

The spate of coups begun in Mali in August 2022, where Col. Assimi Goita led the army in removing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita from power. That was followed by another coup against the interim administration in May 2021. Four months later, in September, Guinea President Alpha Conde was deposed. 

In Chad, the army seized power after President Idriss Deby was reportedly killed in April 2021 while visiting troops fighting rebels in the northern part of the country. In January 2023, Chadian security forces said they had foiled a coup attempt by a group of army officers to seize power. 

There were two coups in Burkina Faso in 2022, the first in January in which Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba was installed after the overthrow of President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, and the second eight months later led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré.

These coups have been an emerging problem in Africa, further worsening the instability, governance and the humanitarian situation on the continent.

On 26 July 2023, the presidential guard in Niger overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum, who had been in office for two years. A few weeks later, on 30 August, the government of Gabon was overthrown a day after the announcement of the contested presidential election results.

There have also been unsuccessful coup attempts in São Tomé and Principe (November 2022) and the Gambia (20 December 2022). In September, the government of Congo Brazzaville had to refute social media claims of a coup attempt against President Denis Nguesso, who has held power for 39 years, as he attended the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, in New York.

The humanitarian crisis caused by these security and political crises has been exacerbated by climatic disasters, droughts (such as in the Horn of Africa, the worst in 40 years), floods, the COVID-19 pandemic, and choking debt, which have hit economies hard, skyrocketing the cost of living. According to the UNDP, 24 of the 54 lower-income countries at high risk of debt distress are in Africa.


It is not surprising to note that geopolitics have played a significant role in the current conflicts, and that the major powers feature prominently – instigating, funding, or prolonging them.

Take, for example the Ukraine crisis. 

In his lectures and writings on the Ukraine crisis, John J. Mearsheimer, an American International Relations scholar of the realism school of thought, is convinced that the West bears the blame for the war and its escalation. This contrasts with the belief held by the majority in the West that the war is to be entirely blamed on Russian aggression and has been escalated by President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea region and later Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia.

To be clear, Russia was not justified to invade Ukraine and annex any part of the sovereign country. It is a violation of territorial integrity and a contravention of the UN Charter. Moreover, as a sovereign country, Ukraine has every right to defend itself and conduct its foreign policy as it deems fit in the pursuit of its national interests. 

This, however, should not dissuade us from reviewing why and how we got here. 

First, the claim that the invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked is not entirely true: the United States and its European allies share responsibility for the crisis. 

In international politics, the realism school of thought holds that leaders and decision-makers of the state are rational actors in pursuit of selfish national interests, key among them being national security.

Russia is reacting to several issues touching on its national security such as the enlargement of NATO, which President Putin highlighted in his address at the UNGA meeting in New York in 2015. This is widely seen as a central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and consequently integrate it into the West, which doesn’t sit well with Moscow, of course.

Russia has been against NATO enlargement and would certainly not accept that Ukraine – its immediate neighbour with which it shares a 2,292.6 km border – turn into a Western bastion. This security dilemma can be traced back to the end of the Cold War when the leaders of the Soviet Union preferred that US forces remain in Europe and that NATO remain intact.

It is not surprising to note that geopolitics have played a significant role in the current conflicts, and that the major powers feature prominently – instigating, funding, or prolonging them.

Moscow has been against NATO expansion towards Russia and has made this known to the West, obtaining assurances that NATO would not extend an inch extra, assurances belied by the recent admission of new members.

The Clinton administration pushed for NATO expansion in the mid-1990s, admitting the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999, and Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004. The 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit considered admitting Georgia and Ukraine. Finland joined on 4 April 2023.

Admitting Ukraine and Georgia would represent a direct threat to Russia, much as the Soviet missile installation in Cuba posed a direct threat to the US, a threat some predicted would result in war, as William R. Polk notes while comparing the Ukraine crisis with the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

A former diplomat in President John F Kennedy’s administration, Polk acknowledged that the US-Russia confrontation was potentially a military one that could become a Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse. In 2015 he observed, “Putin Is responding to the West’s pressure as we would respond.”

During the Cuban Crisis, in the face of the most unimaginable danger, the US demonstrated that it would not countenance intrusion into its zone. The Russians are reacting in a similar manner. 

There is the other issue of the European Union’s expansion eastward and the West’s backing of pro-democracy movements in Ukraine that led to the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Maidan Revolution of 2014.

This is viewed in two ways. 

One, as a win for democracy and freedoms against dictatorship and corruption in Ukraine, and two, as the West’s social engineering in Ukraine, as happened with Chile during democratic socialist Salvador Allende’s time.

The West’s funding of pro-Western values and democracy in post-Soviet states was already causing dissatisfaction in Moscow, and it is estimated that between 1991 and 2013, the US had spent US$5 billion funding opposition-linked civil society groups in Ukraine. Russia termed the removal of its ally, President Viktor Yanukovych, as the “illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected leader”.

It was then that Putin responded by annexing Crimea which he feared would host a NATO base, a claim that EUvsDiSiNFO says is misleading as “NATO did not have any views on the ports of Crimea before it was annexed”.

It is thus not surprising that observing the Western social engineering in Ukraine, Russia was concerned that it might be next. A 1+1 situation. However, inasmuch as this explains the context in which it happened, the invasion was not justified.

The hypocrisy

While it is acknowledged that there is no military solution to the Russia-Ukraine proxy war, the US and the West continue to prolong the conflict instead of seeking a negotiated settlement. 

The Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research body, reports that the Biden administration and the US Congress have directed more than US$75 billion in assistance to Ukraine, which includes humanitarian, financial, and military support. On the other hand, the EU has provided over US$91 billion.

A similar situation prevails in Gaza where, despite UN member states voting overwhelmingly for a ceasefire, the US vetoed the ceasefire resolution in December last year and instead sent more weapons to Israel

All right-thinking global citizens condemn violence and acts of terror wherever they happen and regardless of who is responsible. Therefore, October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel is unacceptable and must be condemned. 

But as UN Chief Guterres said, the attack did not happen in a vacuum; the Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of “suffocating occupation”, an issue I discussed at length in a previous article in The Elephant

While it is acknowledged that there is no military solution to the Russia-Ukraine proxy war, the US and the West continue to prolong the conflict instead of seeking a negotiated settlement. 

In a previous interview with the Palestine Ambassador to Kenya Hazem Shabat, I asked him whether Palestinian authorities recognise Hamas as a legitimate liberation movement. He was straightforward: “Hamas is a component of the Palestinian social structure in the sociopolitical structure.”

Acknowledging that there is a rift between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people – and Hamas, Ambassador Shabat, described Hamas as “a component that exists in your society that believes the ending of the occupation should be done by military means”. He went on to explain further that “this conviction is because after 30 years of negotiating with Israel, the situation has not only stayed the same but also deteriorated beyond redemption, beyond salvation. So basically, the signal that is given is that these negotiations or the political cause will not yield any results. And by so doing, we’re just prolonging the misery of the Palestinian people as Israel only understands the language of power and this is how we should speak to Israel. This is the position of Hamas.”

“Now, how can we convince them that no, this is not entirely true, that there are other ways to reach the same goal? This is the responsibility of not only Israel but also the international community, which has the duty to force Israel into compliance with international law just like it does with any other country that breaks international law.”

The struggle for a free Palestine resonates with South Africa, which has been among its key supporters. So strong are the ties that Pretoria cut off diplomatic relations with Israel, citing civilian deaths in Gaza, and even took Israel to the International Court of Justice.

One vocal voice is that of Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor. Speaking at her appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, Pandor regretted the hypocrisy of big powers in the application of international law.

“This notion of international rules is very comfortable to some people when it suits them. But it is not when it doesn’t because they don’t apply international rules/law equally in all circumstances. You can’t say that because Ukraine has been invaded that suddenly sovereignty is important. But it wasn’t important for Palestine. It is very peculiar. 

The struggle for a free Palestine resonates with South Africa which has been among its key supporters.

“If you believe in international law truly, wherever sovereignty is infringed, it must apply. This is the point we have been making that we use the framework of international law unequally depending on who is affected. We want that to change,” she said.

US double standards then make any intervention in any conflict suspect. In whose interest is it intervening?

Africa’s role and place in shaping the realities

The ongoing geopolitical realignments towards a multipolar world with the US, China and Russia at the centre have not made things easier for Africa. For instance, the Ukraine war has caused global food shortages, with Africa being among the worst hit

While the Kremlin denies responsibility for the shortages, former African Union Chairman and Senegal President Macky Sall said in June 2023 that he was “reassured” after talks in Russia with President Vladimir Putin concerning food shortages caused by the war. 

“President Putin told us with regard to Ukraine that there are several ways to facilitate exports, either through the Black Sea port of Odessa, which is difficult because Ukrainians have to clear mines, or via the Russia-controlled port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov,” Sall said in Sochi on the 100th day of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.

Not much came of that reassurance.  

African leaders have attempted to get involved and offer a solution to the conflict through mediation.

In June 2023, a delegation of African leaders from South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, Congo-Brazzaville, Comoros, Zambia, and Uganda led by South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa launched what was called the peace initiative, seeking a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict. However, their 10-point proposal to deescalate the conflict was ignored by both Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky.

The delegation returned to Africa where, even under the umbrella of the African Union, leaders have not found solutions to the ongoing conflicts in the eastern DRC, Sudan, and the Maghreb, among others. Nor have they been able to stem the tide of coups on the continent despite the oft-repeated mantra, “African Solutions, to African problems”. Beyond suspending states that undergo coups, the AU has not achieved much and has been referred to as a toothless bulldog for its failure to ensure respect for electoral processes.


The admission of the African Union as a permanent member of the G20 in September 2023 in India was celebrated as a win in as far as inclusion of the continent’s interests at the global decision-making table is concerned.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the host, termed the move as one that would strengthen the G20 and amplify the voice of the Global South.

The AU had been lobbying for inclusion in the “premier forum for international economic cooperation” for years, arguing it would boost the continent’s efforts to have a more effective voice in addressing global challenges.

But for it to effectively do this, the AU needs to own its place at the table by leveraging on its resources as a bloc, which will not be easy with the multi-actor and multifaceted nature of the continent, and the wars, instability, poverty and external interference from global powers.

The diverse economic, political, and social contexts among the south, eastern, western and northern blocs/regions, make it an extreme challenge to converge the respective interests and have a shared perspective, compared to the European Union, which has most of its powerful members directly represented in the G20. The African Union only has South Africa as a member state of the G20.


In August 2023, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Argentina, the UAE and Ethiopia were invited to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc in January 2024. Of the six, only Argentina did not join following a change of regime in the country. They were among the more than 40 countries that had expressed an interest in joining BRICS – those from Africa being the DRC, Algeria, Comoros and Gabon.

But BRICS has been seen as an alternative to the West, an anti-Western platform and a shelter for states that feel targeted by the West, with a 2023 communiqué expressing concern about the use of “unilateral coercive measures”. 

The impression created is that you are either for the US-led axis or for China/Russia/BRICS. So, how will Africa use its membership of BRICS to address its unique challenges?

The point I am driving at is that, for Africa to address its problems and have leverage at the global level, it has to reform, fund and own its multilateral mechanisms. Not jumping onto bandwagons and being used as pawns.

As HL Mencken observed, economic independence is the foundation of the only sort of freedom worth a damn.

How, then, can it be okay that the headquarters of a 55-member African Union is a gift by China, a foreign power? How is it acceptable that, by its own admission, the AU budget is heavily dependent on donor funding to run its programmes and operations?

This unfortunately extends to other critical regional organisations such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and ECOWAS. 

Having no control over their affairs, the AU and regional organisations have been unable to swiftly and conclusively deal with emerging disagreements and wars, resulting in protracted conflicts.

How, then, can it be okay that the headquarters of a 55-member African Union is a gift by China, a foreign power?

Positions on the global financial architecture, responses to pandemics and climate change will only be tailor-made for Africa’s unique challenges if and when they are formulated locally, not imposed.

The chaos on the continent has left it open to a new scramble and partition, presenting an opportunity for external powers to exercise influence and gain access to resources, often provoking protracted conflicts such as those in the DRC, Sudan, Central African Republic and Mali, among others. A continent rich in resources continues to suffer while its citizens perish at sea while trying to reach Europe. 

Getting out of the mud 

But there is an opportunity to take the inward-outward approach to first fix politics and governance, and exercise independence in extricating ourselves from the morass.

There is an opportunity to reform the African Union, fund it and make it relevant and responsive to the challenges facing the continent. The same approach should be applied to other regional organisations such as the East African Community, the Southern African Development Community, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and the Economic Community of West African States. 

But this must be implemented from the bottom-up: Stable countries will form stable regional blocs that in turn will ensure strong continental unity under the African Union.

The departure of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso from ECOWAS signals two things: The failure of electoral democracy in these and many other states on the continent, and a vote of no confidence in the regional bloc, which has been accused of being a French puppet.

There is an opportunity to reform the African Union, fund it and make it relevant and responsive to the challenges facing the continent.

As noted during the July 2016 AU Summit at which the AU Assembly officially launched the African passport, the continent must also open itself up to intra-African trade for economic progress and sustainable development.

While the African passport presents Schengen-like opportunity, it faces many challenges; some countries remove barriers to movement by lifting visa requirements, while others remain rigid, making trade and human/labour resource movement difficult.

To foster economic development, African states must also promote intra-African trade through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). It is not acceptable that intra-African trade represents a mere 14.4 per cent of total African exports whereas UNCTAD forecasts indicate that the AfCFTA could boost intra-African trade by some 33 per cent and cut the continent’s trade deficit by 51 per cent. 

It is therefore time to build on the various regional economic communities and fully operationalize the AfCTA instead of running to foreign-controlled institutions whether in the West or in the East. But for this to happen, Africa will need strong leadership right from the domestic level up to the level of the African Union. And it is for Africa’s peoples to elect these leaders.