By Tom Mboya in Nairobi
A hard hitting speech condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by Kenya and the announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa that South Africa had been requested to mediate in the ongoing European crisis serve to show that Africa has stakes in this war.
Through its ambassador to the United Nations Martin Kimani, Kenya took a tough stance asking Russia to read from history the fact that although African communities were torn apart and sent to different countries during the partition by European powers, the continent’s nations have not sought war but chose to live in harmony.
“This situation echoes our history,” Kimani said. “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. 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 based on ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later.”
There has been no love lost between Kenya and Russia (now representing the former United Soviet Socialist Republics) since its independence in 1963, when the East African nation aligned itself with former colonial master Great Britain and the United States. “The first U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Michael Attwood, captured this very well in his book ‘The Red and the Blacks: A Personal Adventure,’ in which he described how the Soviets and Chinese were keen on disrupting the newly independent state,” veteran journalist Kamau Ngotho said. Kenya’s ties with the U.S. have remained strong, and so far, President Uhuru Kenyatta remains the only African leader to have met U.S. President Joe Biden since he took office in 2021.
South Africa too has reasons to trust Russia and as Keith Gotschalk of the University of Western Cape argues in a separate article on this site, the two countries share ties going back to 1927 when a top ranking official of the African National Congress (ANC) visited the USSR.
During the polarized Cold War era, USSR and the communist bloc threw their weight behind ANC and a throng of nationalists in other African countries fighting mostly against British/American sphere of influence.
Now these are the ties that you do not throw away at a whim and those reasonable enough would understand South Africa’s position.
It was therefore not a huge surprise for those in the know when at the heated UN Security Council debate in Ne York and where Kenya gave Russia an earful, South Africa chose to abstain with the explanation that that it enjoys good relations with both Russia and the Ukraine; hence it abstained in the UN General Assembly vote condemning the Russian invasion.
Apart from the historical sensibilities, more modern tie South Africa could also have assisted in having Ramaphosa being fingered to spearhead the mediation efforts. This is because of South Africa and Russia being part of the BRICS market group. Others are China, India and Brazil.
“Based on our relations with the Russian Federation and as a member of BRICS, South Africa has been approached to play a mediation role,” the President was quoted saying.
The two different stances by South Africa and Kenya underscores the fact that in the Russia-Ukrainian rumble, African countries are charting their own courses and taking stands that are in the best of their national interests.
A good example: even as the Russian tanks and jet fighters pummeled parts of Ukraine spilling the blood of Ukrainian women and children, Sudan’s strongman Mohamed Hamdan Daglo seemed not to be bothered much by the happenings as he led Sudanese delegation to Moscow for an eight-day visit.
After army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led a military coup in 2022, Sudan has been a pariah in the West’s eyes and Moscow was waiting with open arms to embrace its longtime ally in Africa. The Russian mercenary outfit Wagner is said to be active in Sudan as in Central African Republic and Mali. It is said to have deep links in the Kremlin.
Meanwhile both Russia and Ukraine are leading exporters of wheat and fertilizer, two key commodities on Kenyans mal tables and farms. With the warring countries both banning exports. Kenya imports about 30 percent of its wheat needs from the two countries and with the ban it means prices will rocket for commodities like bread, pastries and chapatis, the nan like flatbread which is a must have delicacy on Kenyan tables especially during festivities like Easter which is just around the corner.
Cereal Millers Association has already expressed his pessimism on the unfolding scenario. CEO Paloma Fernandes was quoted saying: With the war between Russia and Ukraine, freight, fuel, fertilizer and ultimately food prices, especially wheat, are at relatively high levels.”
If the war continues into April, Kenyans might just be forced to forego their beloved chapati and opt for ugali (pap) or dig deeper into their pockets and disrupt other family budget lines.