Kenya's moving UN speech on Ukraine is backed by African history

Africa offers lessons to the myriad forces across the globe that are tempted to turn their backs to multilateralism

Martin Kimani, Kenya's ambassador to the UN, gave an impassioned speech on the parallels between the Ukraine conflict and African history. AP Photo

At the East African village of Chepkube, the international boundary between Kenya and Uganda is still demarcated by a stream. Here, the two countries are connected by a narrow, rickety log bridge that can be crossed only on foot. The villagers can wash their clothes in Kenya and dry them in Uganda. They speak the same language and attend the same cultural ceremonies. They are neighbours. They are relatives. To them, the international border – a relic of British colonialism – is an irritant at best, and a nuisance at worst. To survive, they simply ignore it.

The Chepkube example is not a bug but a feature across much of post-colonial Africa. More than a century ago, clans, tribes and linguistic groups were torn apart by imaginary lines, after the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 kickstarted the Scramble for Africa and the subsequent Age of New Imperialism.

Indeed, many of Africa's nations-states today were conceived to serve as European spheres of influence. And so, the post-colonial identities that were forged within these unnatural boundaries could become, if exploited for political purposes, the perfect powder-keg that ignites the embers of ultranationalism, jingoism, xenophobia and irredentism.

Despite having been retained on paper, just as they were imagined by colonial cartographers, national boundaries continue to be porous in most parts of the continent. But Africans, broadly speaking, seem to have accepted the status quo and, so far, escaped war-inspired state formations as has happened in Europe over the ages.

When Martin Kimani, Kenya's permanent representative to the UN, last week urged the Russian government to reconsider its war with Ukraine in his address during an emergency session of the Security Council, these were his reference points. "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," Dr Kimani said.

There certainly are lessons for Moscow to draw from the African experience, at a time when its recognition of Ukraine's predominantly Russian-speaking regions Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states and its use of military force across that country could instigate ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe.

During the post-imperialism phase of the 1950s and 60s, Africa kept its own fairly widespread ethnic nationalism at bay. This was in large part thanks to the leading lights of the many freedom struggles across the continent, who were focused on a pan-African agenda that rose above narrow interests.

The most vocal among them was Kwame Nkrumah, independent Ghana's first leader, who regarded pan-Africanism as an essential building block that could help forge a "United States of Africa" one day. The country's first constitution even gave its parliament the power to "surrender the sovereignty of Ghana … [but only for the] furtherance of African unity".

Together with Algeria, Egypt, Guinea, Libya, Mali and Morocco, Ghana led the so-called Casablanca Group in pushing this idea. But with opposition coming from other countries who preferred to create sovereign and independent states, the continent's leaders found a middle-ground. In 1963, they established the intergovernmental Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – the precursor to today's African Union.

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Leading lights of the many freedom struggles across Africa were focused on a pan-African agenda that rose above narrow interests

African nations were, thereby, spared the agony of "looking ever backwards into history with a dangerous nostalgia", as Dr Kimani put it. They chose, instead, to be guided by the OAU and the UN charter, "not because our borders satisfied us, but because we wanted something greater, forged in peace".

The African story is, of course, complicated. The continent has had its share of irredentist and expansionist chapters. Parts of it experienced cycles of convulsion from time to time, which undeniably left scars.

In 1963, for instance, ethnic Somalis living in Kenya began a secessionist campaign that led to the Shifta War. In the late 1960s, Igbo nationalists in Nigeria's east unsuccessfully waged a war of independence that left more than one million people dead. In 1977, Somalia went to war over a region inhabited by ethnic Somalis in the Ethiopian province of Ogaden.

The continent also learnt the hard way from Ethiopia's annexation of Eritrea that culminated in a three-decade-long conflict that was only resolved recently.

In Africa, similar tensions have often been contained at the regional level through multinational organisations such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the East African Community, the Economic Community of West African States, and the Southern African Development Community. These forums have not only mitigated against tensions threatening to destabilise a particular region but, better still, helped create the conditions that would allow for the free movement of peoples, goods, services and capital either under bilateral arrangements or regional ones.

The Congo conference, 1884-1885, Berlin laid the basis for the scramble for Africa. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

Dr Kimani was, therefore, not off the mark when he suggested that Africa offers lessons to the myriad forces across the globe that are tempted to turn their backs to multilateralism and are seeking to form nation-states along ethnic, religious and cultural lines, by force if necessary.

Many Africans still struggle to make sense of their national boundaries, as they were pencilled in Berlin and elsewhere more than a hundred years ago – and which follow the contours of physical geography, such as mountain ridges, hills and water bodies. Maintaining their national identities, which some view to be little more than artificial constructs, isn't easy either. And yet, this arrangement, however imperfect, has presented them with the opportunity to look outward rather than inward.

Surely, that is something the rest of the world can strive to replicate.

John Kamau is a Kenyan journalist and historian

Published: March 02, 2022, 2:00 PM
John Kamau

John Kamau

John Kamau is a Kenyan journalist and historian