Ana’s journey from nothing to nowhere
On 18 April, for fear of creating hotbeds of COVID 19 contagion, a Mexico City judge ordered the release of migrants from sixty-five overcrowded immigration centres in the country. By the end of that month, with both the northern and southern border lines under lockdown, the Mexican National Migration Institute (INM) estimated that over twenty thousand migrants were now stranded around border lines; under the lockdown, even appointments to identify refugees are suspended. Among those now either living in makeshift camps or left to their own devices in the country are an estimated four thousand Africans.
It was not yet like that, when Ana* arrived at in Mexico’s southern border town of Tapachula, in May 2019, but it was already bad enough.
A face from another universe
When I meet her in June that year her swollen face and dishevelled hair have long ceased to match the Ana from her WhatsApp profile photo. The smooth face, wavy hair extensions, outlined eyebrows, lipstick and big sunglasses; the golden necklace with a round green and white gemstone, all seem to have belonged to another time, another universe.
Ana, a 28-year-old Business Management graduate speaks three languages — Portuguese, English and French — but she could not find a job in her home country Angola. ‘I got tired of searching without finding anything’, she tells me. ‘I asked for a visa at the United States Embassy in Luanda, but they never responded. Some Angolan friends who live in America told me about this trip and I decided to take a risk. I went with my husband (who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and French-speaking, PC) and daughter, Amélia*’. She and her family now spend their days in the sweltering heat around Tapachula’s Siglo XXI Migratory Station, the largest migrant centre in Latin America.
Tapachula is the almost-final wall to scale for migrants travelling to the United States. The official estimate of the number of travellers waiting here is one thousand, but there are probably close to four thousand here in this city, surrounded by humid jungle.
Ana has travelled around twenty seven thousand kilometres from Maquela do Zombo, Angola, to get here in search of a better life: a trip that involves crossing wild seas in rickety boats and weeks of walking through narco-gang territory in dense humid forest. Having risked rape, detentions and mistreatment along many parts of the way as well, it is still the forest that haunts most. Ana recalls ‘the days sliding in mud, the nights with poisonous insects, the fear of gangsters and snakes’, as well as ‘coming across graves of others’ on the way. ‘When I even mention the forest to Amélia (now eight years old, PC) she panics and starts crying’.
‘Angola is no longer for anyone, that’s why I left’, says another migrant from Angola, who met up with Ana and her family along the way. João*, from Uíge, is 27 years old, with constantly darting, distant eyes in his small, frowning face. Like Ana, he lived in Luanda, with his wife and two children. ‘I worked at a store. They fired me overnight. I did odd jobs for a while but we could not live on that. I needed to support my family’.
Poverty without prospects
João and Ana are just two out of hundreds of Angolans who left Angola after 2014, when the oil price fell. Like Venezuela, Angola’s corrupt regime had relied on its abundant oil resources to keep the economy somewhat afloat. An ordinary Angolan could not get clean water or healthcare, but with oil money floating around most citizens could still grab a dollar here or there. However, when the oil wealth ended, while the elites had their billions safely stored off shore; many others faced a future in a broken country with no jobs and no hope.
Ana set out for the US with her Congolese husband and then seven-year-old Amélia, because that route, even if way longer, seemed more doable than trying to go via north Africa and the Mediterranean, where so many have been reported drowned. ‘We travelled to Namibia and took a plane to Quito, with a stopover in Amsterdam. That alone was six thousand dollars. And it was only the beginning’.
Brazil’s São Paulo is one of the first south American towns for many African migrants on their way to the US. Here, Angolans, like other Portuguese-speaking Africans, have a small advantage over others: thanks to a shared colonial history and Portuguese language, an Angolan passport can get you into Brazil legally.
Throughout our interviews, Ana keeps insisting that she is a legal migrant.
Raincoats and a flashlight
Once arrived in São Paulo you take a plane to Rio Branco, in Brazil’s extreme northwest, after which you cross through Peru. Quito, in Ecuador, is the hub. ‘We quickly found out how to move onward from other Africans, whom we met at a big square on the outskirts of the capital. We moved fast because every day you spend more money on food and a place to stay’, says Ana. Based on the advice they received they took an overnight bus from Quito to Colombia’s northern coastal cities of Turbo and Necoclí.
On web images the port of Turbo looks peaceful, with its mangroves, blue-and-white speedboats and fried fish market stalls. Daily, dozens of Africans pass here with camping backpacks on their backs, supporting the bustling street traders here with migrant dollars. Besides food, you buy a ‘travellers kit’ here: a plastic cover to protect cell phones and passports, plus a bigger one for around the back pack will set you back US$ 15. For US$ 20 more you obtain a special package that prepares you for the jungle: waterproof rubber boots, a flashlight and a plastic raincoat.
The trafficking of migrants through here is worth one million us$ Per week
Perhaps the plastic, the boots and flashlight should have forewarned Ana and the others of what lay ahead. Firstly, like the Mediterranean, Turbo’s Gulf of Urabá in this part of the ‘Colombian Caribbean’ is starting to become a watery grave for unlucky travellers: just a year and a half ago twenty-three travellers drowned on the coast of Sapzurro, a few kilometres from the Panama border. Secondly, the jungle you reach after the water, besides being just as wet, is even more dangerous. But leaving from the idyllic-looking beach town of Necoclí, fifty kilometres north of Turbo, ‘where customs controls are less’ and Ana’s family paid US$ 50 per person for the boat trip to Capurganá on Colombia’s border with Panama , they had no idea what awaited on the other side. ‘These were legal boats’, says Ana. ‘The local people use them too’.
According to Colombia’s state migration agency, almost eight thousand migrants left from Turbo and Necoclí in the first four months of 2019 alone.
The forest of hell
The Darién forest, known to tourists as the Darién National Park, is referred to simply as ‘the forest’ by the migrants; alternatively also as ‘the nightmare’, or ‘hell’, as Ana calls it. Measuring 750,000 hectares in total, the jungle that clogs the border between Panama and Colombia is so impenetrable that the Pan-American Highway stops dead at its doorstep. ‘The path is completely closed by trees and plants’, João says.
It is only sixty-five kilometers to get through, but you have to place your fate in the hands of the traffickers, nicknamed coyotes, who know the way. In Colombia´s coastal Capurganá, where they are based, the crossing of migrants through Darién is worth about one million dollars a week. Working as a ‘coyote’ is so lucrative that, according to Father Aurelio Moncada, a local parish priest in Capurganá whom I interviewed telephonically, ‘young people and children stop going to school to enter the migration business’.
Ana and family, lucky to have had a mostly smooth boat ride, hoped to cross the forest in one or two days. ‘But it turned out to be many days of climbing up and sliding down hills under heavy rains, with your feet dragging through the mud, carrying your bags and food. And there are mosquitos. We heard stories of people who drowned here after the rains caused the river to rise. They had been sleeping on the banks and the water just took them away’. ‘Sometimes groups have to leave behind those who do not have the strength to endure’, adds João.
Other travellers mention noticing the clothes, food, bottles and toys left on the jungle’s zigzag tracks by migrants who either had to ditch their belongings, lost them, or simply perished, and the narcos of the Colombian Gulf who force you to carry drugs for them or else; other bandits simply rob you. Jacqueline*, a traveller from the DRC who made it to Tapachula, recounts how ‘bandits appeared out of nowhere’ when her group was resting to drink water. ‘They brought very large weapons. They put their fingers in the anuses of men and in the vaginas of women to see if we were hiding money. They threatened to kill us’.
A zinc hangar
Exiting the jungle in March 2019, Ana’s family was given ‘a little rice and beans’, in the village of Bajo Chiquito. They then took a twenty-five dollar canoe to travel four hours down the Chucunaque River to the only migrant station that Panama’s migration agency Senafront operates in the region: the so-called Temporary Humanitarian Assistance Station (ETAH) at La Peñita.
ETAH’s own photographs show the station as a zinc hangar, surrounded by metal fences and soiled blue portable toilets. Equipped to deal with a hundred migrants at a time, the place usually overcrowds with over a thousand, many of whom spill over into the village and sleep under trees. Its ‘humanitarian assistance’ consists mainly of registering and vaccinating the migrants against tetanus, measles and rubella, while Senafront takes fingerprints ‘to track possible criminals sought by Interpol’. ‘There were lots of kids with diarrhoea there, and sick people, but no medicines. There was only dirty water to drink’, says Ana. ‘Still, it was better than the jungle’.
After weeks, Senafront transferred Ana’s family, João and others, on a bus to the Planes de Guacala migrant hostel — a converted old hydroelectric installation — more than eight hundred kilometres to the north. ‘At that moment, the worst was over’, says Ana. Travellers commonly praise Costa Rica, as a place of kindness and officials who actively help them. ‘It was undoubtedly where they treated us the best, people are very kind and we never lacked food, support or medication’, João confirms.
The migrants quickly received passes to move on to Nicaragua, where, it was said, one could pay at the border to get further north to Honduras. In March 2019, Ana, her husband and daughter paid an official US$ 150 each in order to be shown to a low wall of about a meter and a half next to the border post. ‘It was very easy to jump’. Nicaraguan police officers were already waiting for their share of the bribe money on the other side. Boarding the mini buses to Honduras from there was another US$ 30.
The trip of 330 km, between Peñas Blancas and Guasaule, on the northwest border with Honduras, was also a smooth one, Ana and João say.
The heavy hands of Trump
It is in Honduras that one starts to feel the heavy hands of Trump. In early 2019, the US president threatened to cut over US$ six hundred million in economic aid to the ‘northern triangle’ countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras if these did not block the caravans of people walking on sore feet towards the United States. The result was much tightened immigration policies, both against own citizens who want to leave — Honduras, like El Salvador and Mexico, is tormented by poverty and violent gang rule (1) — and migrants from elsewhere. ‘Some go missing. Many are deported back, sometimes maimed and disabled (2)’, says Karla Rivas, the regional coordinator of the Mexico-based Jesuit Migrants Service in Central America, in a telephonic interview. ‘It is a very harsh reality of poverty and misery’.
Ana’s family and João passed through here a few months before the restrictions came into effect. They entered Honduras through a ‘blind spot’ on the border at Choluteca, then ‘walked through a small bush for an hour or two, then took a bus to (the capital) Tegucigalpa, where we obtained a pass to Guatemala’, says João.
It would become much more difficult for those who came later. In the last six months of 2019, Honduras’ Police Force for Migration Control stepped up surveillance of nineteen blind spots on the Nicaraguan border, Choluteca among them, arresting thousands. Early in 2020 the Honduran Migration Institute would boast that ‘illegal migration’ in the southern region had ‘decreased by sixty-two percent’ compared to the same period in 2019. The described success, however, only means that migrants now wander the border, waiting for a moment of distraction from la migra to continue the journey north. ‘We have a couple of thousand deported back to Honduras every now and then’, says Karla Rivas, ‘but also still hundreds leaving every day’.
Honduras meets Guatemala (and other neighbour El Salvador) in Esquipulas, home of the Black Christ: a wooden and very black statue of Jesus that is worshipped here by those displaced by war, the homeless and otherwise downtrodden. Joao and Ana’s family managed to get through here just in time in late March 2019: taking a bus, moving quickly, not visiting the Christ, spending US$ 30 on a single ticket per person. Ten months later, in January 2020, the country’s police, in a display of force never seen before, stopped a caravan of hundreds of Hondurans here.
Those in the know say that this was mere window dressing to please Trump; that Guatemala’s police is not really that capable; and that, like in Choluteca, arrested and released, or even deported, migrants soon get back here. But the new harsh rules require legal proof of residence in Guatemala for anyone wishing to buy a bus ticket. Migrants now fork out over US$ 100 for a spot in a coyote minibus or private vehicle to the country’s border with Mexico.
The migrants now cross at more dangerous points
Tecún Umán, the main crossing point on the Suchiate borderline river between Guatemala and Mexico, has also become quiet since the new security measures. ‘The migrants now pass through more dangerous points, in the north, that are more isolated and controlled by organised crime’, Mario Montes, coordinator of the NGO Casa Migrantes in Tecún Umán tells me telephonically. ‘Or they cross the river a little further south, where it is wider and deeper’.
Ana, her family and João crossed the river at Tecún Umán in May last year, still just before the clampdown, on wooden and rubber rafts. ‘They rocked a lot. We paid just over a dollar per person’, says Ana. On the Mexican side they found minibuses to Tapachula and forty minutes later they were here, where I would meet them two weeks later: tired, thin, and frustrated, but hoping to regularise their status at the Siglo XXI Migration Centre.
Then, on 30 May 2019, Donald Trump threatened to raise taxes on Mexican imports and within days from Ana’s family and João’s arrival twenty thousand National Guard soldiers marched in to create an anti-migrant buffer. A little more than a month later the Mexican National Institute of Migration (INM) abolished the procedure to obtain a pass to leave Mexico on the northern side, towards the US. The only way out now — it was still before ‘corona’ — was south, where you came from. But Ana and her family had spent over ten thousand dollars by then; they were not going back. “We started to contact our relatives in the US and Canada to send more money.” Canada, rather than the US, is where they hope finally to make a new life for themselves.
Memories of broken glass
Out of a total of over thirty thousand migrants in Tapachula, an estimated four thousand are Africans. Most hail from the Democratic Republic of Congo (a quarter) and Cameroon (almost half).
In early October 2019, the bodies of three Cameroonians were found floating off Puerto Arista beach, two hundred and forty kilometers northwest of Tapachula. They had each paid fifteen hundred dollars to coyotes to bypass Mexican National Coast Guard controls, but shipwrecked. Eight survivors (seven men and one woman) were detained, then given papers to stay in Mexico for a year; they have since disappeared without leaving any contact behind. There had been eighteen passengers in total on the boat, but no trace of the other seven passengers has been found to date.
‘they can come from mars, but we will send them back’, said the commissioner of migration
You can’t go back to Cameroon, the West African country where a large majority of citizens starve under the kleptocrat regime of octogenarian autocrat Paul Biya and where the military violently oppresses dissent. In a mosquito-infested waiting room at the Tapachula Health Center, Favour*, who coughs incessantly, shows photos from her phone: houses with broken glass, burned buildings (‘this was the hospital’), shrapnel, soldiers, bloody bodies and corpses. This is the home town, Buea, in Cameroon’s south west, that she left behind four months ago, she says. ‘The military burned my parents’ and grandparents’ house with them inside. Then they arrived at my pedicure salon and forced me to see how my sisters were raped. Then it was my turn. I was four months pregnant’. She starts to cry. ‘That day they also took my 17-year-old son, I have known nothing about him since’.
Of all those stuck in Tapachula, many of the men do odd jobs on farms and in construction; for women, the main way to get money is sex work. Local trade benefits from the foreigners’ purchases of cell phones, food and clothes, with whatever dollars they have left. Tapachulans also gain from commissions they charge for helping the migrants receive money transfers from relatives.
Even so, the local right wing press has long campaigned against the foreigners, accusing them of bringing diseases, as well as of littering and violence. And Mexico’s government doesn’t want them either. In October last year, the INM’s National Commissioner, Francisco Garduño, thundered that ‘They can even come from Mars, but we will all send them to India, to Cameroon, to Africa!’
The commissioner’s simultaneous referring to African migrants as ‘black humans’, got him accused of racism. He later apologised, but met a storm of criticism again in April 2020, when a protest by migrants against abusive and unhealthy conditions in a detention centre at Tenosique resulted in a riot and a fire, and a Guatemalan migrant died of suffocation. Over a dozen of human rights organisations in Mexico then signed a petition demanding Garduño’s removal. The petition has so far been ignored by the authorities, however, and Garduño remains in office.
During the period when I met Ana’s family and João in June 2019, they were still continuing to try to get papers allowing them to leave in the northern direction. But ‘they (the authorities) don’t even talk to us’, Ana told me at one of the occasions I saw her. She was sitting on the ground then, next to a group of women queueing in front of the centre under a hellish sun. A few Africans, Cubans and Haitians wandered around and under some trees, a group of six or seven Indian men listened to frantic Bollywood-style music. The arrival of some buses disrupted the boredom and we watched as they entered the Migratory Station grounds empty, and left full. ‘Central Americans being deported’, said João.
Dreaming of Tijuana
On another occasion we met two Cameroonians who were suddenly very happy: they wandered around waving bus tickets and papers, and explained that they had managed to obtain a departure pass to Tijuana, border town with the United States. They were about to take the ‘Estrellas del Sur’ bus that was to leave at 2 30 PM to embark on the three day trip. ‘We have family in the US and we are going to apply for asylum’, one said with a big smile. In the background a radio played ‘Hoja en Blanco’, a hit from the 90s. ‘And fly, fly / In other directions / Go and dream, dream / That the world is yours’, the song went, in Spanish. The Cameroonians probably didn’t know Spanish, but the text fitted like a glove.
They had been gone before we could talk of the dangers that would await up north. The United Nations estimate that in 2019 alone close to five hundred people died on the Mexican border with the USA. Over a hundred of these drowned while trying to cross the Río Bravo or Río Grande; the rest lost their lives under the scorching sun of the desert. And those are only the recorded deaths. An estimated seventy thousand people have simply disappeared while crossing Mexican border territory: remaining under the radar at best, kidnapped or killed by organised crime at worst. In 2010, in the so-called Massacre of San Fernando, in Tamaulipas, Los Zetas, a syndicate regarded as one of the most dangerous of the country’s drug cartels, massacred seventy-two migrants who refused to join their ranks.
Those who survive the crossing but are caught by the US Border Patrol, are placed in detention centers. These have recently attracted much publicity for their appalling conditions, separations of children from their families, and children held in mesh cages. A wave of solidarity from empathetic Americans after the media reports has since resulted in many coming forward ‘who take in complete families of migrants, even without knowing them, just to help’, says Sara Sorto, a welfare worker at the Espacio Migrante in the border town of Tijuana, in a telephonic interview. The luckiest of migrants now benefit of such arrangements, allowed by American law, and wait ‘in controlled freedom’ until the day of their deportation hearing.
The national guard focuses especially on those with black skin
Meanwhile, thousands who are afraid of the desert, the narcos and US border control, wait in improvised camps at the various border towns in Mexico to apply for asylum. Others ‘live in cheap hotels or apartments which they almost never leave for fear of being arrested’, says Sara Sorto, adding that the National Guard in Tijuana focuses especially on ‘those with black skin’. ‘The military and migra agents go out at night in the centre or the beach area and arrest those who cannot prove they are legally in the country, -which at the moment goes for practically all migrants’. However, ‘without any strategy for what to do next’, they are often released a few days later, presumably after once more paying bribes.
The last time I saw Ana, she said that that night the family would sleep in a pension in the center of Tapachula since they had a bit of money sent by relatives. ‘When it runs out, we’ll sleep on the street’, she told me as we said goodnight. A mutual acquaintance would tell me later that she and her family finally did succeed in reaching Ciudad Acuña, on the border with Texas. He did not know if they managed to get into the US.
But I imagine her and her husband crossing the Rio Grande, with Amélia in their arms, on their way to Canada.
Update: Migrants in the pandemic
According to Mexico’s National Migration institute only just over a hundred migrants remained in its custody after the ‘COVID 19’ closure of the country’s immigration centres last April. Over three thousand people had been deported to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Under the rules of the lockdown, gatherings in public places like parks and squares are now forbidden in Tapachula. Hotels and restaurants are closed. Migrant rights NGOs say that, while those who still have money are still able to rent rooms, others sleep on the town’s deserted outskirts. They also say that many experience hunger. The few shelters that still exist are dangerously overcrowded.
The Suchiate border river has been fenced off completely and is guarded by soldiers with face masks. An estimated seventy people reside on the river banks on the Guatemalan side, waiting to be let in to that country again. All along the border, further up north, shelters run by NGOs have closed ‘to prevent contagion’; migrants now roam the border lines and sleep in makeshift camps. According to the NGOs around three thousand people have converged in the largest such camp, in Matamoros.
Even for those who have decided to go back south — presuming that Guatemala will let them back in — the trip won’t be easy. There have been attacks on migrants recently from locals who fear virus contagion: according to the UNHCR, a Returned Migrant Service Centre in Honduras has had to close ‘due to protests by the local population against the entry of these people into the country for fear of becoming infected’. Similar stories come from Mexico. ‘We have been asking the government for data on measures to protect migrants, both from the pandemic and from hostility’, says Irineo Mujica, director of the NGO Pueblos Sin Fronteras. ‘The authorities do not even answer us’.
- Mayhem caused by criminal groups such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 have turned Honduras and El Salvador, into two of the most violent countries in the world. Forced recruitment of young people by these gangs is one of the main reasons for them to flee the country.
- Many get injured on the trip; stow-away transport on La Bestia, the freight train that traverses Mexico, in particular, has led to hundreds of cases of mutilation when people fell off the roof or had limbs crushed between cars.
This report was published earlier this year in Angola’s Novo Journal.
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From Ukraine to Rwanda: Race, Asylum and Externalization in Europe-Africa Relations
After years of complaint about being “overwhelmed” by trickles of new arrivals, Europe has absorbed millions of refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine virtually overnight. However, the solidarity that underpins this dramatic turnaround would appear to exclude non-Europeans.
Europe’s embrace of Ukrainian refugees marks an historic departure from its increasingly restrictive stance towards asylum seekers in recent years. With the exception of Angela Merkel’s bold but isolated welcome of displaced Syrians (which generated a considerable backlash), efforts to elicit empathy for people escaping conflict zones have been met with indifference —and at times outright hostility — since the so-called migration “crisis” in 2015. Escalating border patrols and illegal “pushbacks” intercepting would-be asylum claimants have defined an ever-hardening border regime that led numerous commentators to pronounce the “end of asylum” prior to Russia’s invasion.
Against this backdrop, solidarity with refugees in countries as diverse as Hungary and Denmark has been something of a revelation. After years of internal wrangling and inaction over how to share the “burden” of asylum applications, policy has been dramatically overhauled by the decisive implementation of the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), granting millions of Ukrainian refugees right of residency with access to work and education outside their homeland. A comparable shift in Britain has led liberal commentators to proclaim, “The spasm of xenophobia that was spread by the Brexiteers has lifted”.
How to explain this so-called U-turn? For charity workers and activists accustomed to combatting negative perceptions of asylum seekers in Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ushered in a strangely disorienting scenario. On the one hand, the protection and dignity of displaced persons that they have long called for has arrived with bells on. After years of complaint about being “overwhelmed” by trickles of new arrivals, millions have been absorbed virtually overnight without a peep. On the other, the “solidarity” that underpins this dramatic turnaround would appear to exclude non-Europeans.
The very same border guards consigning asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Eritrea to detention or possible death by “push-back” into freezing cold forests are distributing soups and blankets to Ukrainians offered safe passage. Long after animals were evacuated from Ukrainian zoos, Asians and Africans are reported to be languishing in the EU’s Zhuravychi facility, close enough to the warzone to hear artillery and explosions. Such facts, together with scenes of non-white students being obstructed from reaching safety, raise the question of whether what we are witnessing is in fact a turning point at all, and not merely the latest chapter of an older story of European racism.
Migration researchers and policymakers have interpreted these differences technically, citing other factors: geographic proximity, legislative frameworks that give Ukrainians greater legal access to enter the EU, cultural, historical, ethnic and religious affinities that bind them to neighbouring Christian societies. Echoing the liberal centre of European politics, these voices insist the “opening of refugee corridors to Ukraine’s neighbours has little to do with race”.
Asians and Africans are reported to be languishing in the EU’s Zhuravychi facility, close enough to the warzone to hear artillery and explosions.
That the “legislative frameworks” privileging Ukrainians over migrants from the Global South might themselves be part of a racialized migration system is rarely considered by exponents of this technocratic analysis. Nor do they take into account the role of racial ideology in forging the so-called “ethnic, cultural and religious affinities” that bind white Europeans against groups deemed alien, summed up by Polish member of parliament Dominik Tarczynski before the current conflict: “We’ve taken over two million Ukrainians in Poland. We will not receive even one Muslim . . . This is why our government was elected; this is why Poland is so safe”. As for “geography”: how does proximity explain the greater willingness of Britain and Italy to receive Ukrainians rather than the Africans and Asians they seek to repel? Or, for that matter, the enthusiasm of the United States?
Statements professing solidarity with Ukrainians for their “blonde hair” and “blue eyes” did the rounds on social media during the early weeks of the conflict. Race is also at play, however, in subtler enunciations of difference — above all, the presumed contrast between the “economic” motivations of “illegal” entrants with the “political” drivers of Ukrainian flight. The propensity of Westerners to identify Ukrainian affluence as a basis of empathy underlines the class-based dimensions of race. The feeling that “they are just like us” because they travel with suitcases, own cars and live in cities like “our own” is intimately related to the perception of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans as covetous imposters who could never have been middle-class, and therefore had nothing to lose from the wars that plague their wretched countries of origin.
It is of course true that many of those who seek asylum in Northwestern Europe are fleeing marginalization and encampment in “safe countries”, in addition to the dangers that uprooted them from their countries of origin. The entanglement of “economic”, “political”, and indeed other motivations in each individual’s decision to move is beyond doubt. But the EU’s own recognition rates underline just how many non-Europeans who apply for asylum are in fact “authentic” refugees: last year 81 per cent of Eritrean asylum applicants were accorded protection; 79 per cent of Yemenis, and in October-November, over 90 per cent of Afghans. Britain’s processes of adjudication confirm a majority (around two-thirds) of all those who apply for asylum in the UK are entitled. All of which suggests the lack of empathy with these groups is about more than objectively observable difference.
Viral footage of African students prevented from boarding trains at gunpoint makes a similar point. Even as they fled a warzone alongside millions of other “genuine” (white) political exiles, a tiny trickle of highly educated, middle-class non-white people were pulled aside by Europe’s asylum system for less-than-equal treatment. To explain such blatantly racialized filtration away via legalistic reasoning or talk of geography is disingenuous. It also requires a short memory. Broaden the picture to encompass what we’ve learned about “traveling while Black” in other recent emergencies, and the curtailment of these students’ movement reflects a pattern.
To explain such blatantly racialized filtration away via legalistic reasoning or talk of geography is disingenuous.
As recently as November 2021, blanket flight bans were imposed on African countries following the discovery of the Omicron coronavirus variant by South African scientists. Racist photographic imagery and grotesque cartoons depicting the virus as Black figures in boats appeared in the European press. Nigeria and South Africa, two of the most affluent and politically influential nations in the African continent were powerless to protect the right of their middle-classes to cross international borders. “Had the first Covid-19 virus . . . originated in Africa,” remarked Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, an African Union vaccine expert, “it is clear the world would have locked us away and thrown away the key.”
Her words reflect an unspoken truth about Africa’s lowly position in the hierarchy that underpins international mobility. Yet, discriminatory policies and practices in Europe are just one pillar of this system. Another rests on mobility from and within the African continent itself, which is increasingly the site of exported European migration controls, a phenomenon known as “externalization”. Just how deeply the two are entwined was illustrated by the recent unveiling of Britain’s Rwanda deal, which envisages the deportation of “irregular migrants” without processing their asylum applications.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s framing of the plan to the British press began with a lengthy preamble on Britain’s proud history of refugee protection, including its recent acceptance of Ukrainians. He then presented the UK’s intention to export unwanted arrivals to Africa as a means of preserving its capacity for compassionate action. In spelling out the relationship between embracing some and removing others, he couldn’t have been clearer: Britain’s generous acceptance of Ukrainian and other “genuine” refugees is dependent on the successful removal of false pretenders via externalization.
This effective bifurcation of asylum seekers into (white) Europeans and non-whites from Asia and Africa is not a peculiarly British phenomenon. Denmark, which just passed an expedited law to ease Ukrainians’ access to labour markets and schools, is in the process of forging a similar arrangement of its own with Rwanda. The first European country to officially restrict migrants and refugees classified as “non-western” last year, it will not apply its “jewellery law” — passed in 2016 to allow confiscation of valuables from refugees claiming asylum — to Ukrainians. Syrians, in response to whose arrival the law was invented, witnessed their own rights of asylum revoked just months ago. Damascus was declared a safe country amidst Denmark’s drive to rid its territory of unwanted “ghettos”, but legal challenges have complicated the government’s attempts to force them to return. As for the EU, which has done so much to support the acceptance and integration of Ukrainians in recent months, it was reported on April 6th that the Commission is now proposing to levy punitive trade tariffs on countries that do not accept the return of citizens who have illegally entered Europe. A move that would tie trade to migration policy sounds less of a U-turn than a continuation of the hardening regime pursued by “fortress Europe” since the 1990s.
Denmark, which just passed an expedited law to ease Ukrainians’ access to labour markets and schools, is in the process of forging a similar arrangement of its own with Rwanda.
Could we be heading for a world in which Syrians, along with other Arab, Asian and African asylum seekers alike will be deported from Europe to the African continent to accommodate “genuine” refugees? If so, what does this mean, and how did we get here?
The EU-Africa ‘Partnership’
More than racism, geography, or indeed any of the other factors listed above, the revival of European asylum policy to address the plight of Ukrainians has been framed geopolitically. Putin’s misadventure, according to security experts and aficionados, presents a more flagrant, clear-cut breach of legal and political norms than other messier conflicts around the world. As a threat to the territorial integrity of a nation-state, the invasion undermines a sacred principle of the Westphalian international order: national sovereignty. Ukraine’s women and children, according to this view, embody the stakes of a universal struggle waged by their gallant menfolk.
Revealingly, Sir Tony Blair, whose punditry is otherwise ubiquitous these days, is nowhere to be seen making this point. The gist of those who do is that Ukraine and its human casualties matter for global order in a way other conflicts and theirs do not. Whatever one makes of the threat posed by Putin, this kind of rationale misses the whole point of refugee protection: to ensure fair treatment for those whose claims to asylum might be prejudiced by such distortive considerations, which, within a just legal order, cannot determine who receives protection, and who does not.
Sensing the need for a less Hobbesian, value-based argument to justify the elevation of Ukraine above other conflicts, Europe’s liberal centre has expanded on what this particular national liberation struggle means for people: “This is not only an attack on Ukraine”, tweeted Ursula von der Leyen on March 10th: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “a defining moment for the European Union”, because “it is an attack on people’s freedom to choose their own destiny. The very principle our Union is based on.”
Just how committed Europe is to ideals of sovereignty and democratic freedom beyond the Global North is evident in the “externalization” of its borders. An approach to migration policy that relies upon the willingness and capacity of sending and transit states to prevent irregular migratory outflows to Europe whilst accepting the “return” of deportees and “voluntarily” repatriated migrants, externalization has been the preferred strategy of the EU and individual European countries seeking to rid their shores of undocumented arrivals from Africa for close to a decade. Advanced under the umbrella of “cooperation”, it was ramped up in 2015 via the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), launched to tackle the “root causes of irregular migration” holistically through development, job creation, and by creating legal pathways of mobility.
The single largest tranche of funding — around a quarter of the EUTF’s five billion Euros — has been spent on “migration management”, the meaning of which was analysed by a study that compared the rhetoric of cooperation agreements with policy implementation. It found that between 2005 and 2016, European discourse on “managing” the movement of people obscured a reality of restriction: when it came to action, the EU’s focus was on halting all migration from Africa to Europe — so much so that the number of first time visas for employment of African citizens was reduced by approximately 80 per cent between 2010 and 2016. Six years on, this remains the pattern. In a recent webinar, Professor Mehari Taddele Maru, a leading analyst of EU-Africa cooperation on migration, described the anticipation of African policymakers for regular migratory alternatives that seem never to materialize: waiting for the EU’s legal pathways is “like waiting for Godot”.
Externalization has been heavily criticized by civil society actors in both Africa and Europe, who view it as a form of domination through which a powerful economic block advances its agenda over “partners” on unequal footing, for the most part bilaterally. The inequality at its heart is reflected in disregard for the sovereignty of African nation-states. A fortnight before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson suggested sending EU border forces to Senegal, a country whose constitution upholds the right of its citizens to migrate and settle abroad. The proposal, which would see Frontex — the EU’s border and coastguard agency — operating on non-European territory for the first time, was promptly greenlighted by Dakar for technical discussions. Bilateral “cooperation” led by individual member states has raised similar protest given the power imbalance that underlies agreements with countries such as Niger, one of the poorest nations in the world, which was persuaded to host an Italian military mission to support increasingly militarized attempts to combat irregular migration in 2018.
Just how committed Europe is to ideals of sovereignty and democratic freedom beyond the Global North is evident in the “externalization” of its borders.
Aside from the symbolic connotations of European police making arrests on African soil, opposition to externalization stems from the lack of transparency and accountability that often accompanies this type of collaboration, which critics view as undemocratic. Predicated upon opaque, high-level deliberations between foreign powers and political elites that are seldom subject to meaningful public debate or participation by civil society, externalization is associated with the adoption of donor-oriented policies in exchange for funds spent without oversight. It is revealing that European overtures are least successful in contexts such as Gambia, where the government’s accountability to the electorate has prevented its acceptance of returnees from Europe, and Tunisia, where civil society raised concerns about EU attempts to create disembarkation zones.
In so far as externalization has succeeded in stemming the flow of emigration from Africa, it has done so by bolstering the coercive capacities and border controls of countries such as Libya, with grave consequences for human rights. From 2017, Italy and the EU’s empowerment of the quasi-military Libyan Coastguard through provision of funding and equipment contributed to the development of a sadistic, state-sponsored machinery of emigration control linked to industrial-scale trafficking by militias. Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, some of whose interception was enabled by European aerial surveillance, were systematically extorted in a network of black prisons where excessive force, violent abuse, murder and rape are known to have occurred. The UN is currently investigating reports of mass graves filled with the bodies of migrants in the desert city of Beni Walid.
A less extreme version of this story unfolded in Sudan, where EU finance for President Omar al-Bashir’s border police was linked with human rights abuses committed by the army’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a reincarnation of the Janjaweed paramilitary group, accused of war crimes during the Darfur conflict. In Niger, a clampdown on smuggling since 2015 led to the adoption of longer, riskier, more expensive routes through Chad and Sudan, increasing the scope for police forces to extract bribes for facilitation. Migrants now pay more, and experience greater danger to reach the same destinations. In each case, the effect of EU support for state-led crusades against smuggling has been to render migrants more vulnerable.
Proponents of externalization (who rarely refer to it as such), like to claim it is part of a collaborative project that improves migration governance in African states by strengthening their capacity for border-management. National-state sovereignty is in fact reinforced, they argue, by enabling African policymakers and officials to administer mobility with support from migration agencies such as the IOM and UNHCR, and by building border posts and installing new architectures of computerization to digitize the identities of citizens and migrants alike. Through technology transfer and training, Europe is professionalizing the management of mobile populations in Africa, all in the spirit of “cooperation”.
Others are more sceptical about the value of surveilling, assigning and binding African populations to national-state territories through what is, after all, an EU-driven project to concretize borders drawn up by Europeans in the previous century. In West Africa, externalization is imbricated within a gambit of multilateral counter-terrorism measures. Financial, military, and technological support have poured into securitizing hubs along Niger’s borders. With Frontex at the forefront of collating biometric information about African bodies in these laboratories of digital governance, it seems reasonable to assume data could be used to return and confine Africans on the move to their countries of origin.
Externalization is associated with the adoption of donor-oriented policies in exchange for funds spent without oversight.
More than just keeping Africans in Africa, however, externalization threatens to undermine intra-African mobility, which accounts for by far the largest proportion of international African migration. Consider: Nigeriens, Malians, Burkinabès, Ivorians, and others formerly employed in the trans-Sahelian transit economic hubs shut down by the EU’s anti-smuggling drive, are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), whose Common Approach on Migration legitimates freedom of movement for citizens across the region. Collateral damage in the war against ‘trafficking’, these traders and transporters might wonder: what right does a union of states thousands of miles away have to shut down a busy crossroads of intra-African migration integral to their livelihoods? Similarly, nomadic and pastoral populations whose lives have depended on seasonal, cross-border migration for centuries, and transnational populations such as Somalis in northern Kenya being turned into “machine-readable” refugees might feel similarly ambivalent at Europe’s support for “better migration governance”. Intervention of this kind, whatever its intentions, has a tendency to add bureaucratic layers to “migration management”, formalizing previously porous or unregulated spaces, creating de facto restrictions and inhibiting traditional patterns of trade and transhumance.
Herein lies the troubling essence of externalization, a project that protects the integrity of migration and asylum systems in Europe by undermining prosperity, mobility and human rights in Africa. Bilateral cooperation led by the EU contains a special layer of hypocrisy given the block’s espousal of regional integration and human mobility between neighbouring states in Europe: in its own backyard, it celebrates cultural exchange through schemes such as ERASMUS and Schengen’s integrated trans-national labour market. In Africa, it dissuades young people from emigration through “information campaigns” and promotes nationally self-contained development projects that implore them to stay put, stigmatizing mobility and shrinking their horizons of travel in the name of tackling (irregular) migration’s “root causes”.
Britain’s Rwanda Deal
If the EU’s approach to externalization involves maintaining the appearance of value-based cooperation and includes broader consultation, for example with the African Union, no such parameters constrain individual Western countries engaged in secretive, bilateral talks to secure the reception of deportees. Pioneered by Israel, which quietly used Rwanda and Uganda to rid its territory of African “infiltrators” for several years from 2013, this type of externalization makes little pretence at submitting itself to public scrutiny. Neither African country publicly acknowledged their receipt of unknown numbers of Eritreans and Sudanese. The scheme came to light in 2018 when Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government attempted to ramp up repatriations through increasingly coercive measures, embarrassing both Rwanda and Uganda, which to this day, deny colluding in the removal and transfer of African asylum seekers from Israel under degrading and illegal conditions.
Given the covert nature of this type of sordid transactional migration diplomacy, the detail of what gets proposed for barter is mysterious, though leaks suggest offerings go well beyond the usual development aid. Israel reportedly extended assistance in Defence to Uganda and Rwanda. Earlier this year, Denmark was credibly reported to have tried to give Rwanda 250,000 COVID-19 vaccines to host asylum processing centres. Despite being rejected, this last “donation” underscores the depths to which this type of exchange can sink: exploiting an African country’s inferior access to life-saving medical technology during a pandemic as a basis of negotiation.
Bilateral cooperation led by the EU contains a special layer of hypocrisy given the block’s espousal of regional integration and human mobility between neighbouring states in Europe.
Against this background, Britain’s agreement with Rwanda feels more like a place we’ve been headed to than a diplomatic breakthrough. That’s not to deny elements of genuine innovation in Home Office Priti Patel’s proposition, which goes further than Australian-style “offshore processing” and Israel’s undocumented deportations. Crucially, the scheme does not envisage the re-entry of successful asylum applicants. The radical aspect, then, is Britain’s not-so-tacit admission that it doesn’t actually matter whether individuals are “genuine” refugees. (The possibility they might be is acknowledged by the plan’s offer of safe haven in Rwanda.) Instead, their fates hinge on whether they arrived by legal invitation. Here too, the plans break new ground, in that the government has been unusually candid about the typical profile of those they wish to see removed without UK asylum processing. “Only adult males would be sent to Rwanda,” Welsh Secretary Simon Hart briefed the press. A subsequent statement by the Home Office has cast some doubt over whether such a rule would in fact apply, but there’s little doubt whom the new order would target. Like talk of “economic motivations”, gender too now functions as a language of difference that signifies non-European identity without referring to it explicitly.
Despite the astronomical cost, bureaucratic and legal complexity of the scheme, which is unlikely to be implemented any time soon, its significance as a barometer of right-wing European attitudes to migration and asylum from Asia and Africa could not be clearer: A government that airlifted dogs from Kabul during the chaos of Western withdrawal last year, is this year rolling out a legal framework for Britons to (literally) open their homes to Ukrainian women and children. Simultaneously, it is planning large-scale expulsion of predominantly male, non-European asylum seekers to Africa.
Like talk of “economic motivations”, gender too now functions as a language of difference that signifies non-European identity without referring to it explicitly.
If any of this sounds like a U-turn, the direction of travel is toward the original Eurocentric scope of the Refugee Convention, which, at its inception in 1951, was designed to protect Europeans uprooted by the Second World War. Like the still largely colonial world of that era, today’s European system of migration and asylum governance offers sanctuary to Europeans whilst saying little about Europe’s responsibility to displaced populations elsewhere. With climate catastrophe looming, we can see where such a framework might lead. Perhaps, in years to come, the period between 1990 and 2022 will be retrospectively viewed as an historically exceptional interval during which Europe received significant numbers of asylum seekers from Asia and Africa. Its increasing reluctance to do so over these three decades, manifested in the rise of openly racist, xenophobic political parties and externalization policies, would appear to be culminating in the present bifurcation, catalysed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
What does this mean for Africa? Achille Mbembe has described European migration policy as wanting to turn Africa into a “Bantustan”. Yet the Rwanda plan envisages a curious and unprecedented multiracial role for Africa as a point of disembarkation, not just for Sudanese, Eritreans, Maghrebi and other cohorts of the continent’s own returnees, but Asians from just about anywhere else. Some of these exiles may have transited Africa en route to Europe; others are being offered one-way tickets to a country they’ve never visited, and whose credentials to safely host and integrate refugees have been questioned by leading asylum and human rights experts.
Denmark was credibly reported to have tried to give Rwanda 250,000 COVID-19 vaccines to host asylum processing centres.
The Tories are spinning this, as one might expect, in terms that flatter Rwanda as a safe and stable country with a powerful economy — evidence that Africa is held in high esteem. Their scorn for the unwanted human surplus they’re shipping from their shores suggests they feel otherwise. Notwithstanding Rwanda’s status as a dynamic economy (though not as strong as is being suggested), the plan brings to mind Lawrence Summers’ infamous 1991 World Bank memo about the “impeccable” economic logic behind “dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country”. Like European diplomats pushing externalization over the last decade or so, Summers too had Africa in his sights — not because he viewed it on equal terms, but because he saw it as the ideal cite of expulsion to absorb that which is unwanted or discarded by the rich world.
Needless to say, European policymakers preaching democracy and anti-imperialism against the tyranny of Putin would firmly dispute any such suggestion. Whatever their commitment to these values in Europe, the global direction of migration policy more broadly suggests the sovereignty and freedom they have in mind when calling for protection of Ukrainian refugees is rather different from that which is envisaged for non-Europeans they wish to keep in/send to Africa, where the post-colony is being fashioned, , into a receptor and container of bodies and aspirations.
None of this is to lessen the case against Russian territorial imperialism and its associated crimes, which are rightly being condemned in the strongest possible terms. Nor is it to question Ukrainians’ right to protection. They deserve all the political and material support they have received and more. Indeed, given the complex position of East Europeans within the Northwest European racial imaginary, and its well-known fickle tolerance for strangers in general, it would be misplaced to assume their position is secure, or to exaggerate their privilege within an international migration system that treats all displaced persons inadequately. Incidentally, the “welcome” of the hollowed-out British state, which is sourcing out a significant proportion of the burden of hosting Ukrainians onto society, actually risks placing individuals in situations of vulnerability within private homes. Without questioning the generosity of the vast majority of those extending support within communities, the motives behind the enthusiasm of a small minority of those who wish to shelter East European women could well be less than innocent, a possibility not lost on refugee charities that have expressed well-grounded concerns about the dangers of trafficking.
Progressive voices within Europe and the West have called for the generosity shown to Ukrainians to be extended to other groups. Optimistically, perhaps, they imagine the outpouring of support for refugees in Ukraine as the potential starting point for a genuine U-turn in asylum policy — one that would acknowledge the humanity, needs and entitlements of all displaced persons, irrespective of origin or geopolitical salience. If such a scenario seems unlikely in Poland and Hungary, it may well be that in other countries, the hostility of prominent actors and voices towards non-European asylum seekers is not quite as widely shared by all parts of society as policymakers seem to believe. An Ipsos survey conducted before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine found a majority of Brits backed giving refuge to those fleeing war, suggesting the bifurcation scenario being advanced by political elites, in which racism and externalization reconfigure asylum and migration in ways that threaten to introduce an apartheid in global mobility, is neither necessary nor inevitable.
The plan brings to mind Lawrence Summers’ infamous 1991 World Bank memo about the “impeccable” economic logic behind “dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country”.
As for progressive voices within Africa: policymakers, officials, intellectuals, experts and civil society will not be waiting for Europe to reach particular conclusions about international migration and asylum from Africa to Europe. Nor will they wait for Europe to extend the generosity it has shown to Ukrainians to the people of their respective regions, within which most African migration takes place. Even before the West was faced with the burden of absorbing the largest exodus since World War II, its externalization agenda in Africa was criticized for lack of attention to intra-African migration and displacement. Given its new strategic priorities, increased costs of living and the Western media’s uninterrupted focus on the war in Ukraine, it seems less likely than ever such attention will finally materialize. If anything, there are already signs that Europe’s disproportionate fixation with Russia’s invasion is resulting in the direction of funding away from humanitarian crises in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, for instance, where acute hunger linked with climate change is contributing to internal displacement.
In the longer term, the strength of political and diplomatic resistance to the troubling aspects of Europe’s externalization agenda will depend in some measure on the African Union. The latter has been critical of Europe’s evasion of its responsibilities to accept immigration from Africa whilst offering its own genuinely exciting vision (2063) for intra-African migration, which unapologetically advocates free movement as a pathway to peace and prosperity. Together with East and West Africa’s respective regional political communities, IGAD and ECOWAS, the AU could continue to be a vehicle for progressive change. Historically, in its incarnation as the OAU, it has led the world in refugee protection by broadening the original Eurocentric focus of the Refugee Convention in 1969, and again in 2012, when the Kampala Convention on internal migration was signed. Leading analysts of East Africa and the Horn of Africa point out that the region is exemplary in the extent of protections provided by states and institutions to displaced persons. This is not to suggest they don’t have their own problems. Shrinking space for asylum in Kenya and Tanzania, for instance, has led to threats of camp closures and repatriation. South Africa, where immigration and asylum have been politicized in toxic ways with violent consequences, is wracked with xenophobia. It is to point out, rather, that they have little to learn from Europe.
The motives behind the enthusiasm of a small minority of those who wish to shelter East European women could well be less than innocent.
The agency of African society will also be asserted through the policies of individual African states, particularly where democracy and civil society are most vibrant. It is no coincidence that EU overtures have been least successful in contexts where governments are accountable for their migration policies to civil society and electorates — that is, where greater degrees of popular sovereignty and democratic culture are in evidence.
Finally, the role of the African diaspora had a noticeable impact during the Ukraine crisis, not least the actions of social worker Tokunbo Koiki, Barrister Patricia Daley and medical student Korrine Sky studying in Ukraine, who together formed a humanitarian social organization, BL4BL (Black Women for Black Lives), that raised funds to support the evacuation of Black students caught up in the warzone. In drawing attention to the neglect and in many cases, discrimination that led to the abandonment of these individuals, BL4BL made a powerful connection that points to the ways in which the global Black Lives Matter movement could in years to come expand into opposition against policies that have led to the suffering of migrants from and within Africa. The deaths and disappearances of tens of thousands who attempted to cross the Mediterranean or the Niger desert during the peak years of externalization since 2015 have thus far figured surprisingly little in debates about migration policy, except where their tragedy is used to stigmatize irregular migration and vilify “traffickers”, justifying evermore draconian controls without addressing the single biggest “root cause” of irregular migration — the absence of legal pathways to migrate. Despite the transformative impact of BLM in so many other spheres of life within the West, a certain disconnect exists between its advances and the field of migration, where, as noted earlier, experts who stubbornly downplay the importance of racism tend to dominate the conversation.
This article is published in collaboration with the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
Africa and Its Diasporas: From Pan-Africanism to Developmentalism to Transnationalism
We need to candidly interrogate relations between the diaspora and the continent and among the diaspora along the enduring inscriptions of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, class, sexuality, and other social markers including colorism.
Studies of Africa and its diasporas have largely been framed through the paradigms of Pan-Africanism and developmentalism. The persistent and pressing demands of Pan-African unity and African development have increasingly privileged the engagements of the new extra-continental diasporas that have grown rapidly and eclipsed previous preoccupations with the historic diasporas that remain globally dominant.
The former number more than 15 million and the latter nearly 200 million, the largest number being in Brazil with approximately 97 million, the United States with 43 million, and the Caribbean with 28 million. In 2020, Africa had 40.6 million emigrants (14.5% of the world total of 280.6 million), Asia (114.9 million (40.9%), Europe 63.3 million (22.6%), Americas 47.2 million (16.8%), and Oceania 2 million (1.1%). Twenty-five million of the continent’s international emigrants lived on the continent representing 1.9% of the population. Globally, emigrants represented 3.6% of the world population up from 2.8% in 2000 (or 183 million).
This data underscores that despite widespread hysteria the share of international migrants remains small, Africa lags behind Asia in international migration, and the bulk of African emigrants reside in other African countries; 7.4 million of them are refugees second to Asia’s 16.2 million, followed by Europe with 2.9 million, and the Americas 1.1 million. This requires more nuanced analysis of African diasporas as both extra-continental and intra-continental.
While both the historic and new diasporas are invested in Africa, their imaginaries of Africa and modalities of engagement with the continent vary. The divergences in analyses of the two groups are constructed and reinforced in the disciplinary gulf between African studies and development studies identified by Alfred Zack-Williams in 1995. He bemoaned development studies ignores “questions of race and cultural identity,” while diaspora studies “tend to focus on cultural and racial links with Africa to the exclusion of questions of political economy.” His appeal was only partly answered as scholarship on diaspora and development blossomed. However, the focus was largely on the contributions of the new diasporas to African development.
The question remains: how do we create an analytical balance between the new and historical diasporas, the cultural and developmentalist imperatives of diaspora engagements, merge the epistemic foci and inquiries from African studies, development studies, and diaspora studies? In my work over the last two decades, I have tried to map out the historical dynamics and global dimensions of African diaspora formations, flows, and activities that encompass both the historic and new diasporas across Afro-Asia, Afro-Europe, and Afro-America and the multiplicity of domains of their engagements with the continent.
I am increasingly drawn to the insights that may be derived from international relations perspectives in so far as diasporas emerge out of transnational processes and phenomena that are engendered and transformed by the interplay of the structures of globalized and racialized capitalism and the human agency of its subjects including the diasporas themselves. This is the focus of my presentation. I will begin by making brief notes on the Pan-African and developmentalist imperatives in African diaspora studies that we are all familiar with, then turn to the role of the new diasporas, and conclude with key analytical frameworks in international relations that might fruitfully expand the exploration of linkages between Africa and its diasporas.
The Pan-Africanist and Developmentalist Imperatives
Pan-Africanism as an idea, philosophy, and movement was developed in the diasporas of today’s global North. It was an ideology of racial solidarity and resistance against the denigration and subjugation of African peoples in the Euroamerican capitalist world spawned by enslavement and colonialism. African peoples in the diaspora were the first to systematically experience racialized oppression. They were homogenized and came to see themselves as one people earlier than peoples on the continent divided as they were into different colonial states and enveloped in the various social identities of ethnicity, religion, and culture.
Moreover, in the 19th and early 20th centuries educational opportunities were better developed in the diaspora than on the continent which facilitated immersion in global political discourses of nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and human rights through which Pan-Africanism was articulated. Out of diaspora Pan-Africanism were incubated continental Pan-Africanism and territorial nationalisms propagated by the founding presidents of several African states who were socialized and politicized in diaspora institutions and communities. They include Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Nigeria’s Nnandi Azikiwe, and Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States. Other leaders in British, French, and Portuguese colonies were schooled in the diaspora political and social milieus of their respctive imperial metropoles.
Eventually, six versions of Pan-Africanism emerged: Trans-Atlantic Pan-Africanism that promoted connections between the continent and its diasporas across the Atlantic; Continental Pan-Africanism that culminated in the formation of the OAU; Sub-Saharan Pan-Africanism that embraced the Eurocentric construct of Hegel’s “Africa proper” and the excision of North Africa; Pan-Arabism that envisaged North Africa in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s view as the center of Pan-African, Pan-Arab, and Pan-Islamic circles; Black Atlantic named after Paul Gilroy’s book that prioritizes intra-Atlantic diaspora relations excluding Africa; and what Ali Mazrui called Global Pan-Africanism that encompasses African diasporas everywhere in Afro-Asia, Afro-Europe, and Afro-America.
Following decolonization continental Pan-Africanism triumphed with the formation of the Organization of African University out of a historic compromise between conservative and progressive states grouped into the so-called Casablanca and Monrovia blocs, respectively. The nationalist project pursued what Thandika Mkandawire called five humanistic and historic tasks: decolonization, nation-building, development, democratization, and regional cooperation. The postcolonial state was under enormous pressure to rectify the huge economic, political, and social deformities and legacies of colonial underdevelopment and dependence.
Developmentalism became an all-encompassing drive, the altar at which the political class prayed and justified state intervention in the organization of economic, social, cultural, and political processes. Statism and developmentalism were reinforced by the drive for accumulation by the small indigenous capitalist class and the legitimacy imperatives of the state to deliver the fruits of “uhuru” as it mediated global capitalism and negotiated the Cold War. As the multiple contradictions and frustrations of the neocolonial order built on limited sovereignty, political posturing without economic power, and Africanization without genuine indigenization deepened and became more open, authoritarian developmentalism intensified. In Joseph Ki-Zerbo’s inimitable phrase, African populations were admonished: “Silence, Development in Progress!”
During the first phase of authoritarian developmentalism, African countries experienced relatively rapid rates of economic growth and development. Altogether, between 1960 and 1980 African economies grew by 4.8%, a rate that hides wide divergences between high growth, medium growth, and low growth economies, as well as between sectors. There were wide ideological divergences and disputes between states and regimes within states pursuing the capitalist and socialist paths of development or muddling through mixed economies, which were variously inspired by modernization, dependence, and Marxist perspectives. However, no model held a monopoly on rates of economic growth, and all states pursued developmentalism and fetishized development planning.
It was during the second phase of neo-liberal authoritarian developmentalism, 1980-2000, that brought Africa’s new diasporas into developmentalist discourse. The imposition of structural adjustment programs (SAPS) reflected the global ascendancy of neo-liberalism as an ideological response to the world economic crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s that ended the postwar boom. It marked the collapse of the Keynesian consensus and political coalitions that had sustained it, and the rise to power of conservative, ‘free’ market-oriented governments in the leading industrial economies. Neo-liberalism turned into triumphalism following the collapse of socialism in Central and Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
SAPs threatened to undo the developmental promises and achievements of independence, to dismantle the postcolonial social contract, to abort the nationalist project of Africa’s renewal. They were pursued with missionary zeal by the international financial institutions and western governments and accepted by hapless African states as part of conditionalities for balance of payments support. They called for currency devaluation, interest and exchange rate deregulation, liberalization of trade, privatization of state enterprises, withdrawal of public subsidies, and retrenchment of the public service (what Mkandawire labels getting prices right, governance right, property structures right, politics right, culture right, and policy ownership right).
The introduction of SAPs reflected the conjunction of interests between fractions of the national bourgeoisie keen to expand and global capital seeking to dismantle the post-war fetters of Keynesian capitalist regulation. SAPs were welcomed by fractions of the African capitalist class and were applied in the core capitalist countries themselves. The harsher consequences of SAPs for Africa and other countries in the global South reflected the enduring reality that economically weaker countries and the poorer classes always pay the highest price for capitalist restructuring.
This era coincided with the rise of globalization discourse characterized by celebrations and condemnations of the intensified flows of all manner of phenomena from capital, commodities, and culture, to images, ideologies, and institutions, to values, viruses, and violence, to people, plants, and pollutants. The emergence of African diaspora studies coincided with the spread of globalization studies, both of which gathered momentum in the 1990s and 2000s and reflected complex cross fertilizations with postmodernism and postcolonial studies.
The Role of the New Diasporas
African diasporas, especially the new international migrants, whose waves were generated by the ravages of neo-liberal restructuring, tend to be constituted and conceptualized as the “new diasporas.” They are perceived and analyzed through the complex prism of developmentalism, globalization, and diasporization. The discovery of “new diasporas” by governments, development agencies, civil society, and academics was premised on the mobilization of their political, economic, and social capitals, African international migration as an important feature of globalization, and lingering homage to the diaspora as a powerful force for Pan-Africanism.
I have written extensively on the histories of African diasporas, both the historic and new, and their complex, contradictory, and always changing political, economic, and cultural engagements with Africa. In 2005, I embarked on a project, funded by the Ford Foundation that took me to sixteen countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia to map out the global dispersal of African peoples over the past millennium, the processes of diasporization in the different world regions, and the modalities of engagements between the various diasporas and Africa.
Later, in 2011-12, I undertook research for the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY) on African born academics in Canada and the United States and how they work with higher education institutions on the continent. This resulted in the formation of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program that by 2021 had sponsored nearly 500 fellows to more than 150 African universities. I regard this as part of “intellectual remittances” from the new diaspora to the continent. Reports and scholarly studies on diaspora financial remittances, philanthropy, and investment continue to mushroom.
A 2019 report by the African Development Bank affirms “Diaspora contributes positively, significantly and robustly to the improvement of real per capita income in Africa… Improvements in human capital, total factor productivity and democracy are effective transmission channels of this impact.” According to the World Bank’s Migration and Development Brief 33 published in October 2020 amid the COVID-19 crisis, global remittances were expected to decline by 7.2 percent, to $508 billion in 2020, followed by a further decline of 7.5 percent, to $470 billion, in 2021. This was due to increased unemployment which in many countries was more pronounced for non-native born immigrants, reduced immigration, and increased return migration.
However, remittances remained critical for low- and middle-income countries. In 2019 they had reached “a record high of $548 billion, larger than foreign direct investment (FDI) flows ($534 billion) and overseas development assistance (ODA), around $166 billion).” In 2020, the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa and the Middle East received $44 billion and $55 billion, respectively, which was -8.8% and -8.5 below 2019. In 2019, African countries collectively were projected to receive $84.3 billion, led by Egypt with $26. 4 billion (8.8% of GDP), Nigeria $25.4 billion (5.7% of GDP), Morocco $7.1 billion (5.8% of GDP), Ghana $3.7 billion (5.5% of GDP), Kenya $2.9 billion (2.9% of GDP), Senegal $2.5 billion (9.9% of GDP), and Tunisia $1.9 billion (5.3% of GDP).
As I have written elsewhere, the diasporas also serve as major philanthropic players and mobilize philanthropy in their countries of residence to the continent. Philanthropy is pronounced among the offspring of first-generation migrants and the historic diasporas. No less important is the deployment of human capital comprising temporary, permanent, and circulatory repatriation, as well as business investment ranging from purchasing equity or lending to local businesses to direct investment in industry and services. It is encouraging that plans are advanced to establish the African Diaspora Corporation (ADFC) to facilitate diaspora investment. It will “develop, issue and manage diaspora bonds and mutual funds, to harness and channel diaspora resources into socially responsible and impactful ventures.”
One recent study on the UK “demonstrates that the diasporas use the new knowledge, skills and wealth they have gained in the UK in tandem with support from trusted family, kinship and business ties at home to develop enterprises… institutional barriers which served as push factors that encouraged or forced migrants to leave their home countries to seek greener pastures abroad may later become pull factors that enable them to engage in diaspora entrepreneurship which is often characterized by paradoxes. Particularly, the informal institutions that constrain foreign investors can become assets for African diaspora entrepreneurs and help them set up new businesses and exploit market opportunities in Africa.” In this context, diaspora tourism seems to have special meaning for African descendants, enhances understanding, and brings economic benefits to local economies.
As for political, social, and cultural mobilization the historic and new diasporas play different and complimentary roles. I noted earlier, the role of Pan-Africanism in the development of territorial nationalisms. The involvement of both diasporas in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa is well documented. The new diasporas tend to gravitate to politics in their homelands in which they play complex and contradictory roles as purveyors of democratization and authoritarianism, perpetrators of conflicts and wars, and promoters of peacemaking and post-conflict reconstruction. Equally intriguing is the role of the diaspora in the transnationalization of old and new social movements, and brokering the growth of new forms of global interconnectedness and consciousness with Africanist inflections.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the cultural and social capitals of both the historic and new diasporas has been important in the development and globalization of African and diasporic cultural and creative industries, the construction, transmission, and performance of diaspora identities, the processes of digital diasporization, and the circulation of professional skills, philosophies and values, and other forms of soft power that have been harnessed by states and various publics in both the homelands and hostlands.
Recasting the Diaspora
The last set of comments suggest the analytical possibilities of recasting the study of the diaspora through international relations perspectives. The study of international phenomena and processes encompasses a variety of approaches. Conventional approaches include realism, liberalism, and Marxism and their iterations, neo-realism, neo-liberalism, and neo-Marxism, while the relatively newer ones include critical theory, post-modernism, constructivism, feminism, and ecocentricism.
Realism focuses on states as rational actors protecting their interests in a competitive and anarchic global system. Liberalism embraces the power of human reason and progress, the plurality of state actors and multidimensionality of state actions, and the role of institutions and international organizations in mitigating anarchy and conflicts. The question that arises from the two perspectives is the extent diasporas operate as political actors, from city mayors to members of Congress or parliament and cabinet to prime ministers as in the Caribbean and the presidency as with the Obama administration. More broadly, is the influence diaspora citizens, activists and their supporters on the continent exert on state actors and international organizations, including the United Nations, the African Union, and the Regional Economic Communities, and the distribution of capabilities that shape outcomes at national, regional, and global levels.
Marxist ideas on capitalism and imperialism, which stress the primacy of economic and material forces—historical materialism— in international relations focus on the interplay of states and markets, power and production, and the states-system and world capitalist economy. They stress global inequalities arising out of the internationalization of relations of production, how the developed capitalist countries exercise hegemonic power on the world order to maintain material inequalities through coercion and consent.
For diaspora studies, several important questions arise including the ways in which transnational capitalist development produces and reproduces diasporas, how the latter mediate its global hegemony and its associated inequalities of power, resources, and opportunities, as well as the resistances it engenders. Such an approach forces us to ponder critically the export of diaspora political, social, cultural, and economic capitals instead of complacently celebrating it.
Critical theory, which borrowed insights from Marxist ideas and other traditions in seeking to explain how the existing global order came about, changes, and can be changed. Initially focused on individual societies, international critical theory extends the focus from the domestic realm to the global realm. It stresses the connection between knowledge and interests, that theories of international engagements are conditioned, like any form of knowledge, by history and social, cultural, and ideological contexts so they are not objective or neutral.
Postmodernism incorporates elements of critical thought in its analysis of power and knowledge, that the production of knowledge is a normative and political process, and operations of power fit within existing structures and discourses. It sees many of the problems studied in international relations also as matters of power and authority, of struggles to impose authoritative interpretations. This calls for deconstruction and double reading of how any totality, whether a text, theory, discourse, or structure is constituted and deconstituted.
For diaspora studies critical theory and postmodernism help in advancing reflexive theorizing, critiquing dominant conceptualizations of the diaspora, seeing diaspora communities as socially and historically determined, and exploring the avenues and trajectories of change and emancipation from existing constraints. Post-modernism helps us understand how boundaries between home and abroad are constructed, spatialized political identities developed, how violence, boundaries and identity reinforce each other in the construction of contemporary states, and how the latter are naturalized and normalized as a mode of national and international subjectivity.
As for constructivism, while it derives its roots from critical international theory, it developed after the end of the Cold War to explain world politics, which the neo-realists and neo-liberals had failed to predict, and the critical theorists could not adequately explain. Constructivists contend material and ideational or normative structures shape the identities, behavior, and actions of social and political actors whether states or individuals through the mechanisms of imagination, communication, and constraint. They stress that agents and structures are mutually constituted. While some constructivists focus on the domestic or international, holistic constructivists bridge the two domains and focus on the mutually constitutive relationship between the international social and political order and global change.
This approach can help advance diaspora studies by exploring the mutual constitution of agents and structure in diaspora communities, the interlocking nature of the domestic and international domains, and the international social, economic, and political order and national and global change.
Feminist perspectives gained currency from the 1980s. They stress the importance of gender relations as an analytic category in studies of all domains of social, economic, political, and cultural life, as well as foreign policy, security, power, and the global political economy. Empirically, feminists have produced voluminous scholarship recording women’s experiences, restoring the exclusions, and reading the silences in conventional malestream scholarship, including studies on women in international development, gender and development, the gendered dynamics of globalization, international division of labor, the gendered construction of international organizations, non-state actors in global politics, and transnational women’s networks.
Analytically, feminism focuses on deconstructing the gender biases that pervades core concepts in the disciplines, many interdisciplinary fields, and international relations that prevent comprehensive understanding. They critique the separation of private and public spheres, domestic and international politics, see the state and international institutions as architects of gendered power, and posit an empowering model of agency as connected, interdependent, and interrelated. Normative feminism offers a feminist agenda for global change. They problematize the dominant dichotomies and hierarchies in global relations that replicate the male-gender dichotomy. Within feminism there have been debates between white feminists and feminists of color, and feminists in the global North and from the global South, which challenges global feminist solidarity.
Diaspora studies stand to gain enormously from feminist theoretical and methodological interventions, reconstructions, and insights in exposing the experiences of women, exploring the gendered dynamics and dimensions of diaspora phenomena, processes practices, policies, programs, and paradigms, as well as the need to produce gender disaggregated data.
Finally, there is what is variously called ecocentricism, environmentalism or green theory that emerged out environmental politics and movements and recast how we study and analyze humanity and nature, history and geography, society and ecosystems, and economic growth, development, and sustainability. This body of thought provides a holistic view about the interconnectedness of all ecological relationships including the human and non-human worlds, current and future generations, the need for the ethical and sustainable use of resources because economic growth and development is often anti-ecological and there are limits to growth of human societies in a finite ecosystem.
Ecologists offer a sharp and distinctive critique of the prevailing state and international system and propose a restructuring of the global order. They advocate decentralization of political, economic, and social organization as evident in the phrase, “think globally, act locally.” They propose “reclaiming the commons” and global environmental governance that doesn’t depend entirely on sovereign states. They seek to integrate facts and values, normative and explanatory concerns, focus on concentration of power and homogenizing forces, political economy and global inequalities, and embrace the emancipatory possibilities of theory and an ecocentric ethic.
What can diaspora studies benefit from these perspectives? It would entail critically examining diaspora environmental ideas, interventions, and movements, the environmental impact of diaspora economic, political, and social contributions and engagements with the continent, and their advocacy in domestic and international forums on issues of climate change and mitigation, one of the most important agendas of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals upon which the future of humanity, nature, and our fragile planet rest. A recent study covering 22 African countries suggests “diaspora income has a negative and statistical impact on ecological footprint.”
I have tried to suggest the analytical possibilities of recasting African diaspora studies through intentional, interdisciplinary, and systematic engagement with conventional and more recently developed theoretical and methodological paradigms in international relations, the need to critically engage and integrate epistemological, ontological, and ethical insights from diverse disciplines and modes of thought. The historical processes and realities of diasporas as social formations, embedded as they are in globalized and racialized capitalism, world system, global order, international division of labor—take your pick—is too complex and contradictory for exclusive claims to truth by any one discipline or perspective
We need to candidly interrogate relations between the diaspora and the continent and among the diaspora along the enduring inscriptions of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, class, sexuality, and other social markers including colorism. In a paper I wrote years ago on intra-diasporas relations in the United States among the four waves of diasporas—the historic communities of African Americans, migrant communities from other diasporic locations such as the Caribbean and South America, recent immigrants from the indigenous communities of Africa, and African migrants who are themselves diasporas from Asia or Europe—I placed their relations along a continuum of antagonism, ambivalence, acceptance, adaptation, and assimilation. In my global diaspora project I have found this schema broadly applicable to other regions with some modifications.
The challenges are evident even in relations between academics from the new diaspora and their counterparts on the continent. In my report presented to CCNY in February 2013 on “Engagements between African Diaspora Academics in the U.S. and Canada and African Institutions of Higher Education,” I identified five sets of obstacles: first, lack or inadequate administrative and financial support on both sides; second, rank and gender imbalances in accessing resources and opportunities for internationalization; third, attitudinal problems and stereotypes on both sides; fourth, hurdles arising from differences in academic systems; and finally, questions of citizenship and patterns of diasporization. These challenges persist and have been substantiated more recently in a report also funded by CCNY on African Academic Diaspora Toolkit.
I would like to end with an observation and some questions. In discourses and conferences on African diasporas the discussion is often about what the diaspora can do for the motherland. What can and does the continent do for the diaspora? For example, in shoring diaspora struggles for civil rights and against white supremacy, and diaspora demands for reparations so forcefully articulated by historian Hilary Beckles, my former colleague at the University of the West Indies and its current vice chancellor. How can there be a true mutuality of support and engagement that empowers and transforms both Africa and its diasporas.
Europe at War: The Specter of Competing Imperialisms
That is the tragedy of history, of Europe’s regional wars that have been resurrected from the past. The relatively long lull from regional wars that Europe enjoyed in the post-World War II era, which survived during the nerve-wracking tensions of the Cold War, is over.
The cataclysm of war is convulsing the European subcontinent following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, shattering more than seventy years of relative peace since the end of World War II. Europeans had brashly and complacently convinced themselves such a conflagration was buried in their war-ridden pasts, banished to the unfortunate lands of the global South struggling with the modernity, development, democracy, and advancement Europe and its civilizational outposts in North America and Australasia had bequeathed to the world. The nightmare of war has returned with a ferocity that has shocked Europe and threatens to upend the already unstable global order.
The Postcolonial Unconscious
From the vantage point of African history, this is a post-colonial war, a war between a former colonial power, Russia, and its former colony, Ukraine. It is inflamed by the combustible logic of post-Cold War competitive imperialisms of a resurgent, belligerent, and repressive Russia seeking to recover great power status from the demise of the Soviet Union, and a triumphalist, assertive, and expansive NATO determined to maintain its supremacy in Euro-America.
We live in a world driven at its core by the memories, legacies, and contestations of imperialism and colonialism that created the modern world system with its hierarchies, divisions, inequalities, and conflicts. This postcolonial unconscious is readily apparent to many of us reared in the global South where the colonial permeates and perverts the mentalities and materialities of social life from the mundane to matters of state and global relations. Not surprisingly, some of the most powerful speeches at the emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the cusp of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were delivered by African diplomats.
One went viral, the riveting speech by Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Martin Kimani. He captured quite poignantly the unacceptable and tragic imperialist impulses and dynamics behind foreign invasions and the redrawing of boundaries. He reminded the world, “Kenya and almost every African country was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris and Lisbon with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.”
This created a treacherous cartographic mosaic that separated people who had been together and brought together people who had been separate in the memorable phrasing of Kenya’s great public intellectual and iconoclast, the late Ali Mazrui in his brilliant television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage. In Kimani’s words, “Today, across the border of every single African country, live our countrymen with whom we share deep historical, cultural and linguistic bonds. At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later.”
At independence, African states made a fundamental decision, enshrined in the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each state and for its inalienable right to independent existence, and to uphold the sovereign equality of all member states, non-interference in the internal affairs of states, and affirmed a policy of non-alignment with regard to all blocs. The OAU was a flawed organization, which became a talking shop for presidents, and besides its successes in driving decolonization, its record on promoting social and economic development was abysmal. Its non-interference commitment allowed repressive governments to get away with impunity.
Its successor, the African Union, reiterated the principles of respect for borders existing at independence, prohibition of the use of force or threat to use force among members states, non-interference, but allowed for, in a crucial corrective, “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” This enshrined the pioneering interventions undertaken by the Economic Community of West African States in the civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, and the humanitarian intervention principle of right to protect .
Africa has of course been bedeviled by conflicts and wars since independence. However, hardly are they about redrawing borders and they are not fomented by rival regional blocs. The regional economic communities that have been formed have security protocols to deal with internal threats, but they are not pitted against each other. Europe, on the other hand, has remained wedded to rival alliances and militarized blocs that brought it endless regional wars, which turned in the 20th century to the calamities of World War I and World War II.
Europe’s regional wars turned into world wars because of the dominance of Europe and its settler outposts in the Americas and Australasia in the world system created from the 15th century. The current Russian-Ukrainian conflict is already internationalized in a way that is unthinkable for regional African, Asian, and Latin American conflicts. It reflects the persistence of imperial mindsets in Euro-America. Ambassador Kimani implored the world to “complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
He informed his audience African countries resisted looking “ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia… because we wanted something greater, forged in peace.” He bemoaned, “The Charter of the United Nations continues to wilt under the relentless assault of the powerful. In one moment, it is invoked with reverence by the very same countries who then turn their backs on it in pursuit of objectives diametrically opposed to international peace and security.” It was a powerful rebuke of the Russian invasion as well as the impunity of all great powers including those in NATO that flout international law.
Many Africans remember how the NATO alliance supported the Portuguese fascist regime in its savage colonial wars against the liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau. NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 over the objections of the African Union and many African nations, left the country in political tatters that it has yet to recover from. Former President Barack Obama calls it the worst mistake of his presidency. Between 1960-2005, France undertook 112 military interventions in its former African colonies. Since 1945 the United States has made more than 80 military interventions, most recently in the widely opposed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that devastated those countries, and eventually exhausted the United States itself.
I have found watching the American television coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war quite revealing. If I lived in Kenya, where I spent the past six years, I would have been able to watch on cable television stations from several parts of the world, such as the US itself, China (CGTN), the Middle East (Al-Jazeera), various European countries including Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, as well as many countries across Africa from South Africa to Nigeria, and Kenya’s neighbors. This demonstrates the narrow international and ideological bandwidth of the American media.
So, I tend to spend my time reading the high quality newspapers and magazines that I subscribe to, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian from Britain, The Globe and Mail from Canada, The Economist, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and Foreign Affairs, among others. I’ve been struck, as an African diaspora scholar and student of world history and politics, by several themes and recurring tropes in Euro-American discourse on global issues and conflicts. Eight stand out.
First, there’s a tendency to personalize, psychologize, and pathologize the Russian leader, President Vladimir Putin. Second, is the moralization and dichotomization of the conflict as one between the forces of good and evil, the promises of democracy and authoritarianism, peace and progress, and anarchy and atavism. Third, is the propensity to universalize idealized Euro-American self-perceptions and project them into expectations from the rest of the world. Fourth, there’s a tendency to amplify the power of punitive sanctions to avenge aggression.
Fifth, those enamored by their predictive prowess authoritatively pronounce on how the conflict will unfold. Sixth, some seek to decipher how the crisis is being filtered in polarized domestic politics and its potential impact on the political fortunes and electoral prospects of beleaguered Western leaders. Seventh, some are preoccupied by the implications of the crisis on the fragile world economy that is tentatively recovering from the devastations of the Covid-19 pandemic. Eighth, there’re dueling historicizations of the crisis.
The Russian leader has been depicted as a deranged dictator, a megalomaniac, kleptocrat, possibly unhinged by the isolation of Covid-19, pathologically consumed by imperial nostalgia and hellbent on recreating the Soviet Union, whose unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has spectacularly backfired and united NATO instead of dividing it. To some President Putin is the Russian state, its lone and lonely embodiment.
Peter Pomerantsez pulls no punches. “You’ve all seen it now. The small, mean, vicious yet weirdly blank eyes. The stubby stabbing fingers that jab as he humiliates his underlings, making them shake with fear… The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in his great study of the Nazi mind, described how for the Nazis claiming they were victims was really a way to excuse how they would victimize others. It’s the same for Putin.”
Simon Tisdall, The Guardian columnist drips with disdain, calling President Putin a mafioso-president ruling a rogue regime, a twisted little coward, who must “be toppled from his throne. Only decapitation can save Ukraine, the global order – and Russia itself. The west should publicly assist all those Russians who want new leadership in their country. Feed Putin’s paranoia. Erode his base. Make him fear his friends.’”
Others offer more nuanced readings of the Russian leader by contextualizing his actions in terms of the dynamics of the Russian state and national psyche. Chris Miller, writing a guest column in The New York Times, argues, “There is no world leader today with a better track record when it comes to using military power than President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Whether against Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 or in Syria since 2015, the Russian military has repeatedly converted battlefield successes into political victories… So it is no surprise why Russia feels emboldened to use its military power while the West stands by.”
Jonathan Steele, the reputable journalist and former correspondent in Moscow for The Guardian insists, “The Russian president is a rational man with his own analysis of recent European history… It is crucially important for those who might seek to end or ameliorate this crisis to first understand his mindset… There is clear strategy here. His bulwark against Nato is to create a ‘frozen conflict’, like those in Georgia and Moldova.”
For Robyn Dixon and Paul Sonne in The Washington Post, Putin’s “actions reflect a man steeped in Soviet geopolitics and traditional Russian Orthodox conservatism, fired with an almost spiritual view of his historical mission to transform his vast nation. At home, that has come with increasing repression – with his government removing opponents, quashing dissent and hobbling internet and press freedom with evermore vigor as his government ages.”
In an article published in 2016 in Foreign Affairs, Stephen Kotkin contended that Putin was returning to the historical pattern of Russian geopolitics. “For half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities. Beginning with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, Russia managed to expand at an average rate of 50 square miles per day for hundreds of years, eventually covering one-sixth of the earth’s landmass.”
Angela Stent also in Foreign Affairs elaborates on what she calls “The Putin Doctrine.” She opens her essay, “The current crisis between Russia and Ukraine is a reckoning that has been 30 years in the making. It is about much more than Ukraine and its possible NATO membership. It is about the future of the European order crafted after the Soviet Union’s collapse. During the 1990s, the United States and its allies designed a Euro-Atlantic security architecture in which Russia had no clear commitment or stake, and since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has been challenging that system.”
Then there are the rightwing populists and pundits who remain infatuated with Putin’s pugilistic politics and authoritarianism and regard him as a strategic genius. In former President Trump’s opinion, speaking after the invasion, “The problem is not that Putin is smart, which of course he’s smart, but the real problem is that our leaders are dumb.” On their part, some leftwing critics and activists are so focused on the moral, social, and political deficits of the arrogant western powers that they tend to excuse Putin’s actions and peddle equivalences.
Individualizing and demonizing adversaries is quite common in domestic and international political discourse. However, it oversimplifies complex global politics and conflicts. Moreover, it infantilizes the society of the culprit, and absolves the opposing states and their leaders of any culpability in the conflict. It recalls how in some circles and countries the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were depicted as the delusional machinations and masculinist pretensions of a single man, an insecure, incompetent, idiotic President George W Bush, rather than as the product of longstanding ideological tendencies among some key actors in the American polity.
The Morality of War
There can be no doubt wars raise difficult ethical issues. There is a vast body of literature on just war theory or doctrine that discusses the right to go to war, the right conduct in war, and the morality of post-war settlement and reconstruction that are enshrined in various international instruments. Pacificists believe there cannot be a justifiable basis for war. The ethics of war has been debated in various philosophical, religious, and political traditions around the world for a long time. For Africa, it goes back to the pharaonic tradition, ancient Christian (several of the early Christian theologians such as St Augustine were Africans) and Islamic traditions, to modern traditions informed by the continent’s various wars and conflicts.
In a two-volume edited study of conflicts in Africa, The Roots of African Conflicts and The Resolution of African Conflicts, I identified five typologies of war. First, imperial wars comprising Africa’s participation in the two world wars and the Cold War that engendered proxy hot wars on the continent. Second, anti-colonial wars encompassing wars of resistance against colonial conquest and anti-colonial liberation wars. Third, intra-state wars including secessionist wars, irredentist wars, wars of devolution, wars of regime change, wars of social banditry, and armed inter-communal insurrections.
Fourth, inter-state wars, such as the Uganda-Tanzania war of 1978-1979, the Eritrea-Ethiopia war of 1998-2000, and the first and second Congo wars of 1996-1997 and 1998-2003, respectively, that are often called the African World War. Fifth, international wars involving deployment of African troops in peacekeeping forces outside the continent, the Arab Israeli wars, recruitment of African combatants and mercenaries, and Africa’s entanglement in America’s “war on terror”. Some of these may be considered just wars, others are not. Wars against colonial conquest and for national liberation were certainly justified despite their high costs. For example, Algeria lost more than one million people in its liberation war against France.
From a postcolonial perspective, there can be no justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is an exercise and projection of Russian military might. The larger context of the conflict between NATO and Russia, in which Ukraine has been turned into a hapless proxy, as many countries in the global South including Africa were during the Cold War, is not a morality tale of the good guys and the bad guys. Rather, it is a lethal struggle between two powerful military camps over unresolved contestations from the past intended to reshuffle the present and reconstruct the future to their respective advantage.
There’s considerable debate, which can only be expected to grow, about the responsibility of the different parties to the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Most western commentators blame Russia. But there are some who criticize the role played by the West after the end of the Cold War. Peter Hitchens in The Daily Mail is unequivocal in blaming what he calls “the arrogant, foolish West. We have been utter fools… We have treated Russia with amazing stupidity. Now we pay the price for that. We had the chance to make her an ally, friend and partner. Instead we turned her into an enemy by insulting a great and proud country with greed, unearned superiority, cynicism, contempt and mistrust.”
Some blame the western powers and their allies for misreading President Putin. Michael Gordon, Stephen Fidler, and Allan Cullison in The Wall Street Journal claim, these countries “have lined up to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. They can’t say he didn’t warn them. Fifteen years ago, the former KGB officer railed against U.S. domination of global affairs and assailed the post-Cold War security order as a threat to his country. In the years that followed, he grabbed portions of Georgia, annexed Crimea and sent troops into Ukraine’s Donbas region.”
“Mr. Putin sent repeated signals that he intended to widen Russia’s sphere of influence and cast the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to Moscow’s security,” Gordon et al. continue. “Yet until recently few Western leaders imagined Mr. Putin would go through with a full-scale invasion, having miscalculated his determination to use force… The costs of the West’s failure to deter Russia are now being borne by Ukraine, which for 14 years has existed in a strategic purgatory: marked for potential membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but never admitted into the alliance and the security guarantees that it provided.”
Thomas Friedman, the liberal columnist in The New York Times, blames both sides. “This Is Putin’s War. But America and NATO Aren’t Innocent Bystanders.” He asks “why the U.S. — which throughout the Cold War dreamed that Russia might one day have a democratic revolution and a leader who, however haltingly, would try to make Russia into a democracy and join the West — would choose to quickly push NATO into Russia’s face when it was weak… A very small group of officials and policy wonks at that time, myself included, asked that same question, but we were drowned out.”
One of those opponents to the eastward expansion of NATO into the “backyard” of the defunct Soviet Union was the renowned diplomat and architect of America’s policy of containment at the onset of the Cold War, George Kennan. Friedman interviewed him on May 2, 1998 and reproduces quotes from the interview. Keenan warned, “‘I think it is the beginning of a new cold war… I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else…. Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.”
Peter Beinart takes a similar approach in The Guardian. He writes, “Saying the US stands with Ukraine because America is committed to democracy and the “rules-based international order” is at best a half-truth. The US helps dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates commit war crimes in Yemen, employs economic sanctions that deny people from Iran to Venezuela to Syria life-saving medicines, rips up international agreements like the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accords, and threatens the international criminal court if it investigates the US or Israel.”
Beinart casts an equally scorching gaze at Russia. “Vladimir Putin’s Russia is neither as powerful nor as genocidal as Hitler’s Germany. But Putin’s claim that historical and cultural affinity gives Russia the right to bludgeon Ukraine into submission is a total lie. It is no less of a lie because the US – by pushing Nato ever-further eastward after 1989 – exploited Russian weakness and compounded Russian humiliation.”
Some seek to frame the conflict through the rather ill-fitting prism of clash of civilizations as Ross Douthat, the thoughtful New York Times columnist, does. He recalls, “When the United States, in its hour of hubris, went to war to remake the Middle East in 2003, Vladimir Putin was a critic of American ambition, a defender of international institutions and multilateralism and national sovereignty. This posture was cynical and self-interested in the extreme… But now it’s Putin making the world-historical gamble, embracing a more sinister version of the unconstrained vision that once led George W. Bush astray. And it’s worth asking why a leader who once seemed attuned to the perils of hubris would take this gamble now.”
The Privileges of Hegemony
Countries, like individuals, tend to construct identities that vary in degrees of reflexivity and integrity. The more narcissistic, the greater the self-delusions. Euro-America idealizes itself as the progenitor and custodian of modernity, democracy, and human progress. However, this did not prevent it from perpetrating the horrendous barbarities of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, the two World Wars, other imperial wars, genocides of native peoples in the European settler colonies, the Holocaust, and supporting dictatorial regimes across Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
One could add the despoilation the environmental global commons that threatens the very sustainability of our shared planet, the perpetration of global socioeconomic inequalities including most recently during the Covid-19 pandemic, the worst health crisis in a century, of vaccine apartheid, not to mention the assaults of white supremacy and racialized capitalism on diasporas from Africa and Asia and the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia.
Euro-American inconsistencies, contradictions, and hypocrisies are not only staggering, but they also make a mockery of the West’s professed affinity to humanistic and progressive values. This is the filter through which global events and crises are read from the postcolonial perspective in much of the global South. This includes the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
In his intriguing commentary, Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist in The New York Times asks: “Who are we, with our long history of invasions and interventions, to lecture Vladimir Putin about respecting national sovereignty and international law? Who are we, with our domestic record of slavery and discrimination, our foreign record of supporting friendly dictators, and the ongoing injustices of American life, to hold ourselves up as paragons of freedom and human rights? Who are we, after 198 years of the Monroe Doctrine, to try to stop Russia from delineating its own sphere of influence? Who are we, with our habitual ignorance, to meddle in faraway disputes about which we know so little? Such questions are often put by people on the left, but there’s a powerful strain of the same thinking on the right.”
The logic of Euro-American global hegemony is the expectation that other countries are either with them or against them. This was apparent during the Cold War and articulated explicitly by President Bush in America’s ill-fated “war on terror.” Forgotten is the simple fact that other countries, even poor and weak ones, have their own interests that guide their perceptions and actions in international politics.
David Lammy, the Black British parliamentarian, and Labor Party’s shadow minister for foreign affairs reprises this script. “To defeat Putin,” he proclaims, “we need to unite against the ideology of Putinism. This is an ideology of authoritarianism, imperialism and ethno-nationalism. It is not unique to Russia.” He stresses, “the opposition to Putinism needs to be broader than the G7, the EU or Nato. We need to rally the world against this threat and widen the international coalition that will oppose this grievous act of war, and counter Putin’s ideology of nationalistic expansion.”
I suspect many African leaders, social activists, and intellectuals are abhorred by the Russian invasion. They probably wish the world got as worked up about the continent’s crises. Predictably, their energies are invested in the regeneration of their continent from centuries of imperial, colonial, and neo-colonial underdevelopment and dependence than in becoming foot soldiers in Europe’s current war triggered by the Russia’s wanton invasion of Ukraine, overarched by the Russian-NATO conflict, let alone the brewing hegemonic rivalry between the United States and China that is likely to dominate global politics in the next few decades.
Sanctions and Punishment
One of the privileges of global hegemony is that sanctions are never imposed on NATO countries that invade other countries. Many Africans remember how the United States and its allies bankrolled the white apartheid regime in South Africa and refused to impose sanctions for decades. The US finally did so after President Reagan’s veto was overridden in Congress in 1986 following years of mobilization by the civil rights movement led by TransAfrica and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Sanctions are increasingly popular in Africa as noted in a recent article in The Washington Post. Commenting on the recent spate of coups in Africa, of which they have been 11 attempts since 2019, it notes the African Union has suspended governments formed through coups since 2003 “and imposed sanctions 73 percent of the time.” Thus, the imposition of western sanctions on Russia would be well understood in many African quarters. However, the question of the unevenness of the global sanction regime remains.
After the first tranche of sanctions were imposed on Russia following its recognition of the breakaway republics in Ukraine, President Putin remained defiant, demonstrating according to Paul Sonne in The Washington Post “the limits of relying on the threat of economic pain to change behavior by a government such as Putin’s—a highly personalist regime that has weathered Western sanctions for eight years, elevated hard-liner members of the security services to its most influential positions and clamped down on domestic dissent.”
Russia paid no heed. It proceeded to invade Ukraine, triggering the escalation of sanctions. At the time of writing, they include asset freezes on major banks and wealthy individuals including President Putin and his foreign minister, Mr. Sergei Lavrov, restrictions to conduct transactions in the US dollar and British pound that were later followed by cutting some Russian banks out of the SWIFT international payment system and freezing the assets of Russia’s central bank to limit the country’s ability to access its overseas reserves, limiting Russia’s access to energy and military technologies, and other high tech equipment, and closing EU space to Russian aircraft.
This constitutes the harshest regime of sanctions ever imposed on any country. Undoubtedly, they will gravely undermine the Russian economy. But it remains to be seen what effect they will have on the war and Russia’s conduct. As important as economics is, the power of nationalist and cultural forces in determining the behavior of state actors should not be underestimated. Cuba has survived the America embargo since its revolution more than sixty years ago. The regimes of heavily sanctioned countries from Iran to North Korea to Zimbabwe remain in power.
Joshua Keating observes in The Washington Post, “Putin seems to have priced sanctions into his calculations. In an era when sanctions often feel like the default U.S. response to every international crisis, Russia is already the second-most sanctioned country by the United States, after Iran… Politicians love sanctions for an obvious reason: They’re a way of taking concrete action to address wrongdoing—terrorism, illegal weapons programs, human rights abuses, invading another sovereign nation—without committing U.S. military force or putting American lives at risk.”
He notes data shows sanctions accomplish their goals only a third of the time and comments on a recent book, The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War by historian Nicholas Mulder, which argues that sanctions were initially developed after World War I as a tool meant to outlaw war. Instead, sanction “simply blurred the line between peace and war, normalizing the use of policies meant to destroy the human lives and economic resources of another country during times of nominal peace… Today, they often feel like the last flailing attempts to keep that order from breaking down.”
Writing in Foreign Affairs a month before the Russian invasion, Alexander Vindman and Dominic Bustillos insisted the sanctions would work. “Some might question the effectiveness of sanctions as tools for deterrence or behavioral change. Indeed, with $630 billion in international reserves, increased indigenization of critical industries, a favorable energy market, and alternatives to SWIFT in the form of the domestic Russian System for Transfer of Financial Messages and the Chinese Cross-Border Interbank Payment System, Russia may be able to weather the storm. Such concerns, however, overlook the fact that sanctions will still impose costs and weaken the Kremlin’s networks of malign influence.”
The power of Euro-America to impose sanctions, and not to have sanctions imposed on it for its own repeated breaches of international law, is a poignant reminder of its hegemony over the world economy and international financial institutions. In the 1970s, developing countries sought the establishment of a new international economic order, which languished as neoliberalism imposed its uncompromising restructuring of the world economy. Even the emerging and rapidly growing economies of India and China succumb to the logic of neo-liberal global capitalism, and have not established an alternative to it, although China has been trying to create new international financial institutions, a drive that can only be expected to continue and intensify as the century unfolds.
The Arts of Forecasting
Whenever there’s a major world crisis or event, policy wonks and pundits inundate the media with their crystal balls boldly predicting the future, notwithstanding their often-flawed forecasting records. Many see the Russian-Ukrainian war as a watershed in European and global politics that will usher a new era of disorder. Others believe Russia will be permanently isolated from the “civilized” world. Others fear the conflict will spread across Europe, and even trigger the unthinkable, nuclear war.
The latest reports at the time of writing that Russia has put its nuclear forces on high alert are deeply concerning. In response, the Biden administration apparently chose to de-escalate by not putting nuclear forces on high alert. The echoes of some of the tense moments of the Cold War are chilling.
For an unfolding story as complex as the current one with so many actors, multiple dimensions, and unpredictable dynamics the dizzying flow of news can be confusing. It is possible, however, to discern several tendencies in the avalanche of media reports, pronouncements, and public discourse, a few of which are identified below.
Commenting in Foreign Affairs about Russia’s use of overwhelming force in Ukraine, Michael Kofman and Jeffrey Edmonds, posit, “A war between Russia and Ukraine could prove to be incredibly destructive. Even if the initial phase were quick and decisive, the conflict could morph into a dragged-out insurgency featuring a great number of refugees and civilian casualties—especially if the war reached urban areas. The scale and potential for escalation of such a conflict are difficult to predict, but they would likely produce levels of violence unseen in Europe since the 1990s, when Yugoslavia tore itself apart.”
Russia experts at Harvard as reported in The Harvard Gazette, “say that it’s difficult to predict exactly what Putin’s next move will be. But it seems likely that he will avoid taking on NATO directly as that could lead to a nuclear standoff, and so will avoid member states. Much will depend, however, on how much resistance he meets in Ukraine and how unified NATO remains through the crisis.”
The experts agreed that “for the short term, “Russia is going to have its hands full with Ukraine. Russia’s larger and far superior military would likely overwhelm Ukraine’s in head-to-head combat, but it seems likely the Ukrainians will continue to offer armed resistance. Beyond that, it’s still unclear what Putin’s ultimate objectives are… That said, once shooting starts, the threat of the crisis escalating into nuclear war, while remote, nonetheless exists.”
Robert Kagan, a neoconservative advocate of muscular “liberal interventionism”, and a columnist at The Washington Post, posits possible strategic and geopolitical consequences if Russia succeeds in gaining full control of Ukraine. “The first will be a new front line of conflict in Central Europe… The most immediate threat will be to the Baltic states… The new situation could force a significant adjustment in the meaning and purpose of the alliance. Putin has been clear about his goals: He wants to reestablish Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe.” Chillingly, Kagan expects Ukraine “will likely cease to exist as an independent entity… Setting history and sentiment aside, it would be bad strategy for Putin to allow Ukraine to continue to exist as a nation after all the trouble and expense of an invasion. That is a recipe for endless conflict.”
Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian offers a four-point plan. “First, we need to secure the defence of every inch of Nato territory, especially at its eastern frontiers with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine… Second, we have to offer all the support that we can to the Ukrainians, short of breaching the threshold that would bring the west into a direct war with Russia… Third, the sanctions we impose on Russia should go beyond what has already been prepared… a final, vital point: we must be prepared for a long struggle. It will take years, probably decades, for all the consequences of 24 February to be played out. In the short term, the prospects for Ukraine are desperately bleak.”
He observes that the map of Europe “has experienced many changes over the centuries. Its current shape reflects the expansion of U.S. power and the collapse of Russian power from the 1980s until now; the next one will likely reflect the revival of Russian military power and the retraction of U.S. influence. If combined with Chinese gains in East Asia and the Western Pacific, it will herald the end of the present order and the beginning of an era of global disorder and conflict as every region in the world shakily adjusts to a new configuration of power.”
Caution is needed in predicting the future of the conflict, urges Walter Mead in The Wall Street Journal. “As for the future of American foreign policy, we should not underestimate the difficulties ahead. This is not only about Ukraine, and Mr. Putin will not rest on his laurels if his gamble succeeds… He aims to topple the U.S. from its global position, break the post-Cold War world order, cripple the European Union and defeat the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russia, even with the addition of Ukraine, does not have China’s superpower potential. But given the incompatibility of its goals with American interests and its demonstrated ability to punch above its economic weight, Russia poses threats that the U.S. cannot afford to ignore.
A fascinating question is the crisis’s likely impact on wider global politics especially relations between the US and China, the current superpowers that are locked in a rising hegemonic rivalry that is likely escalate. Some believe President Biden’s tough response to China is in part meant as a warning shot to China. Others contend the crisis has scuttled his administration’s pivot to China as America’s geostrategic rival.
Presenting the second position, Jeremy Shapiro in Politico Magazine, argues that the Russian invasion has given NATO renewed unity and purpose. However, “The outbreak of war is in this sense a failure in and of itself” for NATO. “Russia’s war has done similarly grievous damage to the Biden administration’s overarching foreign-policy framework… Recognizing that the China challenge required nearly the full measure of US resources, the administration had intended to use its political capital with European allies to get them on board with its Indo-Pacific policy. That policy has now nearly completely collapsed.”
Shapiro and others now fear the relationship between China and Russia will be strengthened. However, in the immediate term, the crisis has put China in rather delicate situation. To quote the title of one article, “China keeps walking its tightrope between Russia and the West as tensions flare in Ukraine” as it seeks to manage its warming ties with Russia and deteriorating relations with the United that it does not want to make worse.
Simon Jenkins in The Guardian believes that the US and its allies need China’s intervention with Russia “as the only people President Putin will listen to are China’s Xi Jinping and a circle of rich cronies. Only they may be able to prevent huge bloodshed,” which represents “the true failure of European diplomacy over the past 30 years.” Before the outbreak of the war, China is reported to have repeatedly rebuffed US entreaties when presented with “intelligence on Russian troop buildup in hopes that President XI Jinping would step in.”
Yu Jie in The Guardian contends China has been unsettled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and believes “Beijing will tread carefully, and weigh up whether its strategic alliance with Moscow is worth the cost of this reckless invasion… cooperation would have to come with some substantial limits to avoid undermining Beijing’s own priorities and interests in the eyes of Chinese foreign policy planners. For various reasons, the Kremlin’s latest military exercise is both a conundrum and a source of equally unexpected opportunities for Beijing.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Liling Wei reports that following the Russian invasion, President Xi contacted his Russian counterpart and urged President Putin to negotiate with the Ukrainian government. “In recent days, Beijing’s response has been vacillating between more clearly opposing an invasion and providing moral support for Moscow’s security concerns, all the while continuing to blame the U.S. and its allies for hyping the threats from Russia.”
For the longer term, some expect the Ukraine conflict to fuel superpower struggle between the US, Russia, and China. To quote Michael Gordon also in The Wall Street Journal, “The challenges are different than those the U.S. and its network of alliances faced in the Cold War. Russia and China have built a thriving partnership based in part on a shared interest in diminishing U.S. power. Unlike the Sino-Soviet bloc of the 1950s, Russia is a critical gas supplier to Europe, while China isn’t an impoverished, war-ravaged partner but the world’s manufacturing powerhouse with an expanding military.”
“This emerging order leaves the U.S.,” he submits, “contending with two adversaries at once in geographically disparate parts of the world where America has close partners and deep economic and political interests. The Biden administration now faces big decisions on whether to regear its priorities, step up military spending, demand allies contribute more, station additional forces abroad and develop more diverse energy sources to reduce Europe’s dependence on Moscow.”
Countries around the world are carefully calibrating their responses. Among Russia’s partners in the BRICS, a group that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, only the latter has spoken out unequivocally. In an official statement, South Africa stated it was “dismayed at the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. We regret that the situation has deteriorated despite calls for diplomacy to prevail.” It called “on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter,” and reaffirmed the country’s “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.” It reminded the world that “As a nation birthed through negotiation, South Africa is always appreciative of the potential dialogue has in averting a crisis and de-escalating conflict.” However, many people on social media said that South Africa should not get involved in the conflict, while others asked how South Africans in Ukraine would be helped.”
India abstained on the UN Security Council vote against Russia joining China and the United Arab Emirates. According to Ashok Sharma and Aijaz Hussain, this decision “does not mean support for Moscow, experts said, but reflects New Delhi’s reliance on its Cold War ally for energy, weapons and support in conflicts with neighbors… In the past, India depended on Soviet support and its veto power in the Security Council in its dispute over Kashmir with its longtime rival Pakistan.” India rebuffed appeals from the US, which envisages creating a coalition of democracies in which India is the largest, and a member of the Quad nations, a linchpin of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China.
“Indian sympathies for Russia — and Russia’s support for India — reach back to the early decades of the Cold War,” observes Gery Shih in The Washington Post, “when Washington often sided with India’s archrival, Pakistan, over issues including the contested Kashmir region… Today, Russia has leased a nuclear submarine to India. Russian scientists are helping develop India’s hypersonic missile program… And yet, one other realpolitik consideration could tip India’s hand… India now considers China—which is increasingly embracing Russia diplomatically and purchasing more Russian energy and now wheat—to be its biggest threat and one that could be countered only with American help.”
Similar ambivalence is evident in Israel, America’s strongest ally in the Middle East as Shira Rubin reports in The Washington Post. This arises out of the complex and combustible politics and alliances in the region. She writes, “Israel is increasingly going public with its support for Ukraine while avoiding public condemnation of Russia, the primary backer of the Syrian regime, which is classified by Israel as an enemy state on its northern border.” This underscores the complex dynamics of global geopolitics, regional, and national politics and interests, and the fact that even allies can differ on some major issues.
Rubin reports the statement from Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, “‘We are praying for the well-being of the citizens of Ukraine and hope that additional bloodshed will be avoided… We are conducting a measured and responsible policy…’ On the ground, Israel stands with Ukraine… Bennett, however, has avoided criticizing Russia, or even mentioning it by name… Israel has not replied to several outreach attempts by Zelensky, the only other Jewish head of state outside of Israel and whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust.”
The reaction of African countries to the crisis are quite varied given their diversity. However, at the time of writing, no African country had come in support of Russia, “not even Mali and Central African Republic, where Russian forces are helping the governments fight insurgencies,” reports the BBC. “But – in a sign that autocratic regimes will stand by it – Sudan’s powerful military commander, Gen Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagolo, arrived in Moscow just as the war in Ukraine started. His trip was aimed at strengthening ties with Russia, at a time when the junta has become a pariah in the West for derailing the transition to democracy after the overthrow of long-serving ruler Omar al-Bashir.” African countries are likely to come under increasing “diplomatic pressure to take sides in the escalating feud between Russia and Western powers.”
In the meantime, African students in Ukraine, who made up 20% of international students in the country in 2020, find themselves stranded and scrambling to leave. Stories of racist abuse of these students by some Ukrainians will not endear the beleaguered country to people on the continent. In such situations, the support by African embassies tends to leave a lot to be desired.
Domestic and international crises, however grave, are always mediated through the lenses of prevailing national and international political and social polarizations. In the United States, there’s the yawning Republican-Democratic divide, which is currently reflected in some of the early divergent views on the Russian-Ukrainian war. Some Republican politicians including former President Donald Trump, and pundits on Fox News such as Carlson Tucker, are loudly partial to President Putin, while many other conservatives are more inclined to blame President Biden’s “weakness” for the imbroglio.
George Will, the witty conservative columnist at The Washington Post, thinks “Putin, in his feral cunning, is Bismarckian, with a dash of Lord Nelson.” Kori Schake, who worked under the George W Bush administration, contends “The real problem in administration policy is President Biden. The insular nature of his decision-making, including his reliance on like-minded advisers, lacks rigorous thinking and fuels a kind of arrogance that can lead to unforced errors… Most egregiously, Mr. Biden let Russia know it need not fear the prospect of U.S. troops fighting to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine and postwar order, saying publicly that ‘there is not going to be any American forces moving into Ukraine.’
Nahal Toosi claims that all along President Biden has been played by President Putin. “Biden’s appeals to Putin’s geopolitical ego didn’t work. Neither did threats of sanctions, words of condemnation, emotional appeals on human rights grounds, deployments of U.S. troops to NATO countries and weapons to Ukraine, or the relatively united front put forth by the United States and its allies. Even an unusual tactic employed by the Biden administration — publicizing significant amounts of intelligence about Putin’s plans — didn’t stop the dictator. And actions that might have — maybe — changed Putin’s calculus, such as deploying U.S. troops to Ukraine itself, were not ones Biden would consider.”
On the other hand, there are those who applaud President Biden’s handling of the crisis. Jennifer Rubin, the well-known columnist in The Washington Post, concisely represents such views. She believes, “This is a defining moment for Biden, NATO and a rules-based international order… It will also test Republicans to see whether they can finally wean themselves from the increasingly anti-American former president and support Biden during the most acute international crisis since the end of the Cold War. So far, the West is performing well. The Republicans? Not at all.”
Crises also offer leaders respite from their current woes and an opportunity to show leadership. French President Macron, who undertook frantic shuttle diplomacy with Moscow is facing elections in April 2022 and hoped success would strengthen his chances for re-election. The crisis certainly provides welcome diversion for the besieged British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, barely hanging to office because of an avalanche of scandals, and an opportunity to channel his inner Churchill that he admires and fancies himself.
President Biden has seen his polls progressively drop, his agenda stalled in a recalcitrant Congress, and the prospects for the Democrats in the mid-term elections in November 2022 currently look dim. The new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who succeeded the indomitable and widely admired Angela Merkel in December 2021, has much to prove. His government suspended the massive Nord Stream 2 gas project, and upended decades of security policy by significantly expanding the defense budget and “committing to exceeding the NATO defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP ‘from now on, every year’ — a target that Germany had long failed to meet.”
The club of authoritarian populists in Europe from Britain’s Nigel Farage, France’s Marie LePen, to Italy’s Matteo Salvini, and across the Atlantic to Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro who was apparently the last major leader to meet President Putin before the invasion, have apparently been left squirming by the aggressive actions of the Russian strongman they idolized and who showered them with financial support. They looked upon him, Jason Horowitz tells us in The New York Times, “as a defender of closed borders, Christian conservatism and bare-chested machismo in an era of liberal identity politics and Western globalization. Fawning over him was a core part of the populist playbook.”
It is difficult to know with certainty the political fallout in Russia itself. A story in The New York Times by Anton Trojanovski and Ivan Necgepueenko paints an ambivalent picture. “Despite the ubiquitous propaganda machine, the economic carnage and societal turmoil wrought by Mr. Putin’s invasion is becoming increasingly difficult to obscure… Still, it appeared on Saturday that the Kremlin’s enforced blinders were doing their job, as were the clear dangers of voicing dissent… The main determining factor for what comes next, of course, will be what happens on the battlefield in Ukraine — the longer the war lasts and the greater the loss of life and destruction, the more difficult it will be for the Kremlin to cast the war as a limited operation not directed against the Ukrainian people”
There are indications that Britain and the US “are secretly preparing to arm resistance fighters in Ukraine in the event of an invasion [which] should raise red flags, and not just of the Russian variety,” reports Simon Tisdall. “The effectiveness and wisdom of intervening in other people’s conflicts by proxy, however vital the principle and however seemingly justified the cause, are open to serious question, as much of cold war-era history suggests.” He lists America’s failures in fighting proxy wars from Cuba in the 1960s, to Nicaragua in the 1980s, to Iraq in the 1990s. However, he concedes, “Most public opinion undoubtedly sympathizes with the Ukrainian citizens contemplating the destruction of their country’s independence and democracy at the point of a gun.”
The war threatens global economic recovery. The stock markets fell precipitously as war broke out and swung wildly in its immediate aftermath as sanctions against Russia were imposed and oil prices rose to a seven year high. Larry Elliot in The Guardian explains, “sanctions against Russia come at a cost to the west,” and quotes “Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, [who] pointed out to the Guardian, the crisis in Ukraine is happening at a time when the world economy is only just emerging from the pandemic. ‘It adds to uncertainty when there is already plenty of it.’”
Laura Reiley warns, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could push U.S. food prices even higher, as the region is one of the world’s largest producers of wheat and some vegetable oils. And the disruptions could drag on for months or even years, as crop production in the area could be halted and take a long time to restart.”
She enumerates several factors. “Russia’s attack has imperiled shipping in the Black Sea region, which is where much of the area’s wheat shipments are exported. And the Russian attacks could disrupt the ability of Ukrainian farmers to plant and harvest crops in 2022…. Ukraine is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of both corn and wheat. It is also the world’s largest exporter of sunflower seed oil, an important component of the world’s vegetable oil supply. Together, Russia and Ukraine supply 29 percent of all wheat exports and 75 percent of global exports of sunflower oil,”
The Harvard economist, Kenneth Rogoff, thinks Russia’s attack “threatens to exact painful economic hardships… The conflict is also forecast to worsen existing pandemic-related inflation, supply chain delays, and labor shortages in the U.S. and various nations around the world… Europe already was facing massive increases in energy prices. In Germany, natural gas prices were 10 times higher this winter than before. That’s been a big driver of inflation in Europe.”
Moreover, “Russia supplies one-third of the natural gas to Europe… Russia is also a very important supplier of many minerals; there are a lot of flight routes that go over Russia. But these economic considerations are small compared to the risks and uncertainty that are being created for Europe… Businesses don’t like uncertainty; consumers don’t like uncertainty, either. The macroeconomic effects have just started to unfold.”
Commenting in The New York Times, Patricia Cohen and Stanley Reed, examine “why the toughest sanctions on Russia are the hardest for Europe to wield… Noticeably missing from that list [of sanctions] is the one reprisal that would cause Russia the most pain: choking off the export of Russian fuel. The omission is not surprising. In recent years, the European Union has received nearly 40 percent of its gas and more than a quarter of its oil from Russia. That energy heats European homes, powers its factories and fuels its vehicles, while pumping enormous sums of money into the Russian economy.”
Blair and Dunford assert in The New York Times, “Russia’s belligerence against Ukraine is underscoring once again the inextricable link between national security and energy security. Today, Russia is flexing its energy dominance over a dependent Europe… In recent years America has been lulled into a false sense of energy independence. The shale revolution of the past decade has generated incredible supplies of vital natural gas and oil… But that is changing. Germany now depends on Russian suppliers for as much as two-thirds of its natural gas and the European Union for about 40 percent.”
Another columnist in The Guardian, Bill McKibben, stresses this is defining moment the West should seize to “defeat Putin and other petrostate autocrats.” He recalls, “After Hitler invaded the Sudetenland, America turned its industrial prowess to building tanks, bombers and destroyers. Now, we must respond with renewables… Russia has a pathetic economy – you can verify that for yourself by looking around your house and seeing how many of the things you use were made within its borders. Today, 60% of its exports are oil and gas; they supply the money that powers the country’s military machine.” This is time for Europe to invest seriously in green energy. “That Europe would not be funding Putin’s Russia, and it would be far less scared of Putin’s Russia.”
Europe will try to lessen its energy dependence on Russia by getting more gas from other regions including North Africa. Efforts to replace old fossil fuels with green energy might slacken, and global negotiations on climate change be undermined as global tensions rise. “Tackling climate change is a security threat that requires accelerated action even as international attention is focused on Russia and Ukraine, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said on Monday during a visit to Cairo,” Reuters reported. “Egypt will host the COP27 climate conference in November… But I am concerned in terms of the climate efforts that a war is the last thing you need with respect to a united effort to try to deal with the climate challenge,” Kerry said.
As for the potential impact of the crisis, given the small size of many African economies, which were gravely weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic, it will likely add to their economic woes the longer it lasts and shave rates of economic recovery and growth. According to the IMF, global growth was already expected to moderate to 4.4% in 2022 from 5.9% in 2021, and for sub-Saharan Africa from 4.0% to 3.7%. However, rising energy prices are likely to benefit the oil and gas producing countries in Africa.
In a powerful essay in the South African progressive blog, The Daily Maverick, Mark Heywood lamented the negative impact the invasion was likely to have on social justice issues. Instead of focusing on social justice day, which fell on 20 February and “the issues of hunger, inequality, a pandemic that has taken a far heavier toll on the poor – the world’s attention was elsewhere… Even before the first missiles have been fired this war has taken a dreadful toll: diverting billions of dollars into rearmament and away from tackling poverty, pandemics, education, inequality and the burgeoning climate crisis in a critical year…”
The Ghosts of History
Contemporary conflicts are invariably rooted in contested histories. The history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, and the larger history of post-World War II, the end of the Cold War, and its disputed aftermath, are extraordinarily complicated. History like any field of knowledge is littered with divergent and conflicting epistemological, ontological, and normative claims that often reflect the intellectual, ideological, and institutional proclivities and even the social biographies of the historians concerned. What can be said with considerable confidence is that the historical dynamics that unleashed the current Russian-Ukrainian war will become clearer over time.
History of course never exactly repeats itself. However, it carries useful analogies, and above all, it is a powerful repository of memories, imaginations, values, beliefs, discourses, and legacies that inform the identities, behaviors, and actions of subsequent state and non-state actors at national, regional, and global levels. Therefore, it is critical to examine the historical roots of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, to appreciate the predictable ideological and intellectual divergences of opinion on the unfolding war, the fierce struggles over representation, the combating texts and propaganda perpetrated by the opposing protagonists and pundits.
Many Euro-American leaders are haunted by memories of appeasement to the Nazis in the 1930s which, they believe, emboldened Nazi Germany and its allies to throw Europe and the world into the cataclysm of World War II. In the words of Ian Bond in The Guardian, “Despite many differences, there are echoes of 1938 in current developments. Putin may not be Hitler; Ukraine in 2022 isn’t Czechoslovakia in 1938; and French president Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, and their western colleagues aren’t some sort of collective Chamberlain. But 1938 does carry important lessons: the most important being that deterrence may seem more expensive and riskier than accommodation today, but it is essential for Europe’s long-term security.”
Peggy Noonan, the celebrated columnist in The Wall Street Journal, and a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, resists comparisons to 1938, arguing “The point is we are not repeating history. This war is uncharted territory… All the West is going to have to play a long, cool, careful game. Leaders and officials should do nothing to provoke. In Europe they should speak in one voice to the extent possible: define, describe, be precise, no histrionics. Don’t taunt. Sometimes it’s good to quiet your rousing voices and concentrate on not letting this become World War III.”
Timothy Gartin Ash, another Guardian columnist says, “Putin knows exactly what he wants in Eastern Europe—unlike the West.” He contends, “The west has contributed to this crisis by its confusion and internal disagreement about its strategic goal in eastern Europe. Essentially, the west – if one can still talk of a single geopolitical west – has spent the years since 2008 failing to decide between two different models of order in Eurasia, instead pursuing a bit of both and neither properly. We can call these models, in shorthand, Helsinki and Yalta.” Helsinki is a model for equal democratic societies, while Yalta acceded to great powers carving Europe up into western and eastern spheres of influence.
Others see parallels between the end of World War I and end of the Cold War. The former led to the vengeance of the victors in the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919, the latter in the eastward expansion of NATO into the satellite states of the defunct Soviet Union. The first left defeated Germany humiliated, and the second did the same for Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union. The Versailles settlement of 1919, some argue, facilitated the rise of the Nazis, while post-Cold War triumphalism paved the way for Russian revanchism that Europe and the world are now currently witnessing.
Intra-regional conflicts of course have never been a monopoly of Europe. All continents including Africa are littered with the destructive pulverizations of war. The difference is that since the emergence of the “new imperialism” in the late 19th century, Europe’s intra-regional and inter-state war wars have tended to engulf much of the world, most horrendously in World War I and World War II. While they were many factors behind the outbreak of those wars their ferociousness and geographical spread was exacerbated by the existence of rival alliances. At one level, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a product of the enduring rivalries between NATO and Russia since the end of Cold War as noted above.
They are reports that when Russian leaders including President Putin expressed concerns about the expansion of NATO in the 1990s and 2000s and even expressed interest in joining NATO they were brushed aside. Europe is ripping the whirlwinds of its enduring attachment to rival alliances. No continent is divided into such lethal geopolitical rivalries encrusted in formal and heavily armed rival blocks. Never having learned from history, Europe is repeating that history in this gruesome conflagration. It is a tragic irony that the contested settlement of the Cold War that had sustained strained peace in Europe, while exporting proxy wars elsewhere including Africa, should rise from the ashes and plunge Europe in a horrendous hot war.
Ukraine is in better shape than it was in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and began arming and supporting separatists in the Donbas region through “a program of radical reforms, Western military training and a significant increase in military funding [that] has left Ukraine with modern well-equipped armed forces numbering over 200,000 service people. They could put up serious resistance to a further Russian invasion. The Ukrainian army has also been bolstered by Western military aid.” At the time of writing, the Russian blitzkrieg had not yet vanquished Kyiv, or the other major Ukrainian cities as the Ukrainian army and enraged armed civilians put up fierce resistance. These are still early days of course.
Whatever the immediate outcome of the current Russian-Ukrainian war, its end will simply inscribe new memories for the protagonists that will stoke future confrontations. That is the tragedy of history, of Europe’s regional wars that have been resurrected from the past. The relatively long lull from regional wars that Europe enjoyed in the post-World War II era, which survived during the nerve-wracking tensions of the Cold War, is over.
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