When Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, the whole world seemed to draw its breath in shock. Then it unleashed a torrent of gestures of solidarity with Ukraine and condemnation for Russia, which is yet to ebb. For many, this was a natural reaction to an unthinkable and barbaric event. The entire civilised world had an obligation to stand with Ukraine.
Given this, it may be surprising to my readers that the shock didn’t exactly register as deeply in Africa. Many Africans seem to be indifferent to this tragedy. Worse, a few have even gone ahead and defended the invasion. Why? Is it possible that Africa simply isn’t part of the civilised world, and so doesn’t have to stand with Ukraine? Or are there other reasons?
Well, there are real reasons for the muted response from ordinary Africans, and they have nothing to do with civilisation. In the main, they boil down to the simple fact that, for many of us, the invasion really wasn’t such a shock.
For one, major Western governments tracked the build-up of Russian forces on the borders of Ukraine and warned about an invasion for over a month; it was obvious that an invasion was on the cards. Besides, Russia still holds onto Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and has been fomenting a separatist insurgency in the country’s east for years.
Additionally, over the past two decades, the same Western governments that condemned the invasion, and praised the involvement of Ukrainian civilians in the resistance, have rolled into countries in the Middle East and Africa with much the same intentions as Russia claims to have in Ukraine, and labelled domestic resistance as terrorism.
In essence, Africans are just more realistic. The invasion wasn’t unthinkable. The rising of Ukrainian civilians against it wasn’t unthinkable. The resulting refugee crisis wasn’t unthinkable. That it could be considered so is perhaps an indication of how naïve many in the West are about human nature, ensconced in lifetimes of peace, and isolated from the fact that their own civilisation conquered the world as much by force of arms as by the attractiveness of their values, as they have been.
A question of race
But that isn’t all. Many people in Africa (and outside the West in general), have chalked up the West’s shock to more than just naivety. After all, the West has consumed news about invasions for decades. What is distinct about this invasion, and therefore counts as a more cogent reason for the shock, is that the invaded country is European, and Europe is supposed to be above the banality of war.
It didn’t take long for this sentiment to be vindicated. Right from the outset of the invasion, major Western news outlets emphasised that Ukrainians are quite similar to other Europeans, socially and culturally. A commentator even waxed lyrical about the “blue eyes and blonde hair” of those suffering in the conflict.
Noting the surge of refugees from the country, now nearing a million, a reporter made sure to emphasise their middle-income status and Europeanness, in obvious contrast to earlier groups refugees from Syria and Africa, who have been seeking respite in Europe after being driven from their own benighted lands.
Europeans, in short, aren’t supposed to be invaded, killed, or turned into refugees, unlike the rest of blighted non-European humanity.
As if this wasn’t enough, multiple accounts and videos soon emerged, claiming to show racial discrimination against black African refugees trying to leave Ukraine. A lot them were students, a particularly vulnerable lot in the diaspora, even in the absence of conflict. Many were shoved out of trains in their attempts to leave the cities, and, when they finally made it to the borders, were barred from neighbouring countries that claimed to be open only to Ukrainian citizens.
Now, this is hardly an apologia for Russia’s unprovoked belligerence, nor a castigation of the West for its righteous anger over the invasion. I share this anger, in its purest form. No country should be invading another in this century. We are lucky to have many other tools with which to solve international disputes in our times, and it is the height of folly to resort to war, by far the costliest of them all.
Besides, a lot of the aforementioned factors behind Africans’ apathy are based on simplistic narratives that can’t encapsulate the full complexity of the situation. Take, for the example, the accusation of racism. First, there’s a sudden war going on; there’s bound to be confusion.
Second, African countries could have done more to liaise with their European missions to secure (in fact, a number of them did arrange, with the European countries bordering Ukraine) safe passage for their citizens.
Third, Western media’s seemingly racist emphasis on the outward similarity of Ukrainians to Europeans, though stupid, cringey, and unnecessary on all counts, can also just as easily be explained by in-group preference, a psychological universal; in fact, such an explanation is often more convincing in these cases.
Nevertheless, the apathy of many Africans regarding this invasion is also not entirely unreasonable. It is hardly the biggest part of the story of Ukraine, but it is worth noting. It is our reminder to the world that, though we might lose sight of it, for extended periods even, we cannot erase human nature, and we shouldn’t be shocked when it rears its ugly underbelly, wherever that may be.
In the final analysis, for as long as we remain human, we retain an endless capacity for great evil. We in Africa might be more aware of this than the West, not least because of the West’s own historical crimes against us, but perhaps now is an opportunity for the West to remember it too.
But herein also lies a moral obligation for us Africans. We, who have suffered the consequences of being invaded and subjugated, should be the last to ignore or, worse, to celebrate the invasion and subjugation of another people.
Though we might try to justify such a reaction as necessary for the education of those to whom this comes as a shock, it is a rather inelegant way to educate. Not just because it rests on the suffering and death of innocents, but also because it dehumanises us, for in the process we end up ignoring or celebrating the death and suffering of innocents, which is hardly a virtuous path.
Apathy is not the answer. We are not above the humility of condemning evil. We are not above the burden of standing with suffering people everywhere in the world. We are not too broken to commiserate with the poor people of Ukraine. Слава Україні! Slava Ukraini! Glory to Ukraine!