By Tafi Mhaka
On March 30, just a day after a Russian missile hit an administrative building in the port city of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, killing at least 12 people, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the case for the establishment of a new world order. In a videotaped message to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Lavrov claimed the world is “living through a very serious stage in the history of international relations”. He added, “We, together with you, and with our sympathisers will move towards a multipolar, just, democratic world order”.
Lavrov’s sentiments echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s February 4 joint statement announcing the beginning of a new era in international relations. In that statement, the two leaders not only called for a new, multipolar order but lamented the West’s “unilateral approaches to addressing international issues”, claiming such attitudes “incite contradictions, differences and confrontation” and hamper “the development and progress of mankind”.
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Without a doubt, this is a credible observation, especially regarding the United States’ policies across the world. For example, Washington has sanctioned Zimbabwe’s government – and rightfully so – for committing gross human rights abuses, but continues to support the equally repressive Ugandan government with military hardware, cash and training.
Last month, the US Senate passed a resolution urging “international criminal courts to investigate Putin, his security council and military leaders for possible war crimes” in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, Washington still refuses to recognise the International Criminal Court (ICC), or cooperate in any way with its investigation into possible war crimes committed by US troops in Afghanistan. The hypocrisy of the US is also apparent in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And it is not only Russia and China that are disturbed by the West’s apparent hypocrisy in the international arena.
Africa too has grave concerns about the current global order, and has long been calling for the UN to undergo substantial reform to address the deep-rooted injustices in its handling of international affairs. In 2005, for instance, the African Union (AU) adopted the Ezulwini Consensus, calling for a more representative and democratic UNSC, in which Africa, like all other world regions, is represented.
In this context, it may seem understandable for Africa to support the multipolar world order Russia claims to be building with the help of China. However, Beijing and Moscow are not calling for any reform that would diminish the enormous sway they readily have over world affairs. They are also not acting in a way that demonstrates under this new order they would hold themselves to the same standards as everyone else or that less powerful states and peoples would have better access to justice. Indeed, as recently as in 2021, China blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup in Myanmar. And between 2011 and 2019, Russia vetoed no less than 14 UNSC resolutions on Syria.
These great powers are evidently selective and casual proponents of democracy and human rights – just like their nemesis, the US.
But African nations now appear hell-bent on ignoring the hypocrisy demonstrated by Russia and China, and eagerly awaiting the emergence of their new world order.
Putin’s popularity is at an outstandingly irrational and possibly dangerous high in Africa. Despite the illegality and brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, Putin’s name adorns long-distance buses in Zimbabwe.
And African leaders also seem reluctant to punish or even caution the Russian leader for its destructive “special military operation” in Ukraine. At the recent UN General Assembly vote on a resolution calling for Russia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), for example, the majority of African states either abstained – such as South Africa – or outright voted no – like Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s influential opposition leader Julius Malema has urged Putin to “teach” Ukraine and NATO a lesson because “we need a new world order”. He has also claimed that Putin has given the Russian army clear instructions to avoid “civilian casualties” in Ukraine. This is despite the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recording 1,900 civilian casualties – with 726 people killed, including 52 children – mostly caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
In light of the disdain for territorial integrity, humanity and the right to life Putin’s Russia is currently showing in Ukraine, Africans should stop and think how the Russian leader’s proposed new world order would likely work out for them.
And it is not only the carnage caused by Russia in Ukraine that should make Africa think twice about supporting the new world order promoted by Moscow and Beijing.
Under Putin, Russia has been inundated by state-affiliated and state-sponsored political filth and terror. Putin’s political rivals and anyone daring to act against the interests of the Kremlin, including journalists, have faced assassination attempts both in Russia and abroad. Many, including former Federal Security Service agent Alexander Litvinenko and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, have been killed. Human rights groups and independent media organisations have been targeted and shut down. Elections have been turned into a sham and private enterprise has been all but killed.
Similarly, China under Xi is a hotbed of repression. His administration has arbitrarily detained, tortured and mistreated millions of Turkic Muslims in the northwestern Xinjiang region. It has also frequently targeted intellectuals, civil rights activists and journalists and moved to restrict LGBTQ and women’s rights.
Thus, Malema and other African leaders who look forward to Putin’s new world order should stop and consider what they are wishing for. An illiberal world order led by despots with blood-soaked histories cannot help Africa fulfill its democratic aspirations.
Africa does not need to subscribe to Chinese, Russian or American interpretations or manifestations of democracy and multilateralism. It simply needs to secure equal rights and representations in a genuinely progressive multipolar international system that safeguards its democratic and economic interests as enshrined in the Constitutive Act of the AU.
The ill-advised and misplaced enthusiasm for Putin’s strongman politics is a sombre reflection of Africa’s failures and imprecise trajectory under the toothless AU. Almost 21 years after its establishment, the AU carries very little weight on the continent and it has almost no voice on the global stage. And while its pursuit of permanent representation on the UNSC is an extremely praiseworthy and essential exercise, it has gradually turned into an expedient and intermittently expressed soundbite.
Be that as it may, Africa should focus on establishing a world order that is defined by strong, independent and democratic multilateral institutions. Undoubtedly, that is what China and Russia are eager to avoid or destroy, because they want the licence to intimidate, repress, silence and kill, both at home and abroad.