The Ukrainian citizenship of Russian speakers is dismissed by Russia as secondary to their ethnic origin. They are Russian first, Ukrainian by accident, Moscow’s story line states. Russian speakers were/are then said to be in danger, firstly from discrimination and then physically. This was the pretext for Russian military movements into Crimea. Ironically this seems to be the main reason behind last Sunday's independence referendum in others eastern Ukrainian regions.
While the international community led by the US would not recognise the Ukrainians pro-Russia Separatists referendum, African’s reactions are muted. No African nation wishes to put forth an opinion, much less a condemnation. What most impressed African leaders, who are power pragmatists and judge all territorial developments, not on the basis of morality, but on results at the end of the day, is that Putin’s land grab is working.
They have learned that the process of annexing territory calls for a combination of adroit propaganda and military might. Both are put in the service of aggression founded on the pretext that a group of people who are of the aggressor’s own ethnicity are imperilled within a coveted territory. Once this premise is established, evidence of the people’s danger is manufactured by a full-scale media assault while, quickly, troops are moved into place. The military personnel and weaponry’s placement can then ensure a ‘’fait accompli’’.
There is nothing stopping African despots with territorial ambitions from studying Putin’s playbook to see if they too may grab land as successfully. Africa has always been a tremulous patchwork of illogical national boundaries, simmering ethnic hatreds that sometimes rise to genocide, national resources coveted by neighbours and authoritarian leaders whose imperialistic desires could be met if only they could find a way to get away with land grabs.
In contrast of what's happening in eastern Ukraine, history has taught us that African land grabs process is successfully done by way of domestic genocide and the vulnerability of neighbours. The danger of regions taken over by powerful neighbours was on display in Central and East Africa in early 2014, and exists in lesser and incipient movements elsewhere. These developments are not new and have been a part of Africa’s post-colonial history.
This excuse has been favoured by authoritarian governments throughout Africa as their reason ‘’du jour’’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union retired the long-running excuse for foreign aggression and domestic oppression in the name of “battling Communism.”
Idi Amin’s military incursion into Tanzania in 1977-78 was a land grab. The original pretext for the invasion into the Kagera region of Tanzania was to pursue anti-Amin army forces that had taken refuge there. However, Amin proceeded to annex Kagera, claiming that the land had always belonged to Uganda. The Africa continental body of the day, the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), was a fragmented and militarily powerless entity compared to today’s African Union (AU). It was up to Tanzania to mount a counter offense, which led to the collapse of the Amin regime and his exile to Saudi Arabia.
Uganda’s impulse to annex by way of military action and expand its borders into neighbouring regions continued in 2014. The pretext for Uganda’s attempt at territorial expansion in South Sudan, its northern neighbour, is ‘security’ against ‘terrorists’.
Uganda’s president since 1991, Yoweri Museveni, had a role in Amin’s overthrow but evidently learned from Amin lessons on cross-border incursions. Days after South Sudan’s capital Juba was shaken by factional fighting in December 2013, Ugandan troops moved northward into the country, ostensibly to protect Ugandan citizens there. However, the troops remained after the Ugandans were evacuated, and the occupation further destabilised the young country. Peace talks stalled as the rebel groups made withdrawal of Ugandan soldiers conditional to discussion of any treaty.
Rwanda’s genocide was based on a desire for territory. A populous country where tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes centred on the joint sharing of a single place, ethnic cleansing was seen as the answer by Rwanda’s Hutu-led government in 1994. The ethnic cleansing playbook was followed.
First, people of the Tutsi tribe were demonised in the propaganda of government its co-conspirators. Marginalisation and discrimination of Tutsi followed, and then their forced removal from homes and businesses. Then the actual killing began, and an estimated 800,000 Tutsi’s were massacred.
No ethnic considerations were used as an excuse by foreign powers to invade the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). DRC land was sought by Rwanda and Uganda so mineral resources might be looted. Rwanda’s aggressiveness turned external following the genocide. Rwanda’s financing of rebel groups in DRC was done not to destabilise a country on ethnic grounds as part of an overt annexation, but rather to destabilise the DRC to achieve an invisible annexation, for economic benefits.
According to a June 2013 UN investigation, anti-government M-23 rebels received support from both Rwanda and Uganda who, in turn, were able to access the DRC's mineral wealth through illicit means. More than 20 million of Congolese lost their lives in 20 years of civil war in eastern DRC by Rwanda and Uganda invasion.
Carving ethnic enclaves out of sovereign nations has been a form of territorial acquisition found whenever there is a civil war in Africa. All the self-declared ‘break away regions’ and ‘autonomous homelands’ are attempts by niche populations to replace democracy, where a country’s peoples work toward a common cause while safeguarding the rights of minority groups, with autocratic enclaves that serve one group while excluding others.
The Séléka militant group overthrew the government of the Central African Republic (CAR) on 24 March 2013, to create an Islamist state. Séléka’s atrocities were so widespread prior to their ouster from the capital Bangui in February 2014 that a subsequent anti-Muslim backlash created its own atrocities. African and European peacekeepers were positioned with a mandate to ensure the country is not ethnically torn asunder.
In Nigeria, the jihadist group Boko Haram seeks to overthrow government and create an Islamist state, where citizenship would be based on ethnicity and religion. The jihadist group occupies a part of Nigeria land where it is keeping the 100 girls it kidnapped.
Zimbabwe’s autocratic president Robert Mugabe’s ethnic cleansing of his country of white farmers and businessmen occurred 30 years later, when a less jaundiced international community responded by imposing sanctions because of the property seizures and other political and human rights violations.
Mugabe’s political cronies now occupy, but do not make productive use of confiscated properties. State propaganda demonised white Zimbabwean’s, whose lack of popularity amongst Zimbabwean’s of other races made their victimisation a populist triumph for government, the way Hitler’s seizure of Jewish property was achieved by exploiting German’s emotions and prejudices.
Hitler committed genocide, and while the murders of white farm owners in Zimbabwe and post-apartheid Africa were a trend in the 1990s and 2000s, with state-sponsored thugs implicated in Zimbabwe, fears of genocide did not become reality. However, seizure of territory (massive amounts of farmland and businesses) by playing the race card did succeed, and racist demagoguery is still as common in Africa as homophobia.
South Africa’s former African National Congress (ANC) Youth Leader Julius Malema exemplifies this in his habitual advocacy of shooting “Boers” which he sings at rallies of his supporters. Political demagoguery founded on ethnic or racial hatred is a form of aggression. In South Africa hate speech is actively prosecuted. Enlightened Africans recognise that such demagoguery is the first step toward conflict, land grabs and genocide.
The conclusion drawn from Russia’s take-over of Crimea and now pushing to establish Russia’s control over eastern Ukraine regions, through Ukrainians pro-Russia Separatists, by Africa’s aggressors, from warlords to national dictators, is that ‘might makes right.’ Aided by a state-run propaganda apparatus and enforced by superior military force, an aggressive act done in the name of nationalism or ethnic pride is a certain short-term domestic success.
A disapproving international community may be again powerless to stop (or as often in the case of Africa, uninterested in stopping) the aggression, while at home the popularity of the country’s leadership will soar. As for long-term complications, such as harm to a national economy from sanctions, African leaders feel that Russia’s situation is much like their own. Like the proud Russians, Africans have long-held grievances and decades of poverty inoculating them against any inconveniences or economic setbacks that sanctions might bring.
When Russia annexed Crimea, the country resounded with nationalistic pride; the type of consequences-be-damned pro-war hysteria that commonly enthuses people at the start of conflicts. The country may suffer in the long term because of Western counter-measures, but Putin’s policies are intended to be generational, methodically expanding the Russian Orthodox Empire in a push that absorbs temporary setbacks, such as market declines and currency devaluations, to achieve a Russian-speaking hegemony over Eurasia that, unlike Hitler’s Reich, would be intended to last a much longer than 1,000 years.
African leaders also follow similar generation timelines, and like their conservative, tribally and ethnically-centred peoples are motivated by centuries-old memories. Museveni’s championing human rights abuses in Uganda was a calculated political move, and considerations of consequences beyond immediately-achieved objectives were of no interest to him.
Museveni and Putin were voicing identical sentiments at the very same time when they condemned the ‘decadent West’ and claimed for themselves ultimate moral authority – a morality that allows for the persecution of all people considered ‘others’ by the politicians’ political base.
Russia’s successful annexation of a portion of a neighbouring country has raised the likelihood of similar land grabs in Africa. As soon as an opportunity arises, land grabs will be made by African leaderships remembering Putin in Crimea, not Saddam Hussein in Kuwait.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
African Affairs Expert
Photo-Credit: United Nations-archives-photo- Russia's President Vladimir Putin in United Nations General Assembly-New-York-United States of America