Last month, thousands took to the streets of China in response to the Chinese Communist Party’s severe pandemic lockdowns. The demonstrations were not only a rallying cry for the end of the country’s rigid COVID restrictions; they were also a showcase of the people’s determination for freedom and human rights.
We have seen time and time again that when faced with repression by authoritarian regimes, seemingly ordinary individuals step up to become champions of change in their communities. While governments and multilateral organizations are often slow to react to international crises, brave individuals leap into action — often at significant personal risk — to protect freedom, expose corruption, and reform unjust systems.
As we head into 2023, we reflect on several regional trends in our end-of-year blog series, “Champion of Change: 2022 in Review,” that have manifested themselves in the face of a global rise in authoritarianism. Through this series, we celebrate the activists who have bravely challenged these trends and championed human rights around the world.
Champion of Solidarity: African Democracy Defenders Standing With Ukraine
By HRF Senior Policy Officer, Mohamed Keita
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin directed efforts to foster public and diplomatic support for its actions across Africa. Because of historical Soviet ties, growing public cynicism about democracy, and Moscow’s rising influence in the region, there was little to no public condemnation of Russia’s violation of international law. Notwithstanding, a few African voices emerged to champion solidarity with Ukraine in its struggle to defend its democracy and freedom.
Three weeks before Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia and China issued a joint statement outlining their vision for a new world order. The manifesto castigated the world’s “power politics, bullying, [and] unilateral sanctions” and denounced “certain States, military and political alliances and coalitions” for fueling confrontation and seeking “unilateral military advantages” over other states. Simultaneously, it called on countries to “champion such universal human values as peace, development, equality, justice, democracy, and freedom” and to “respect the rights of peoples to independently determine the development paths of their countries and their sovereignty.”
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine underscored the hypocrisy of their rhetoric, yet many African governments — including some of the continent’s democracies such as South Africa and Namibia — refused to condemn the invasion. This played out most dramatically at the United Nations.
In March, 17 African countries abstained from voting on a United Nations resolution condemning the invasion; in October, 19 abstained on another vote on the Kremlin’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories; and in November, 25 abstained on a vote calling for Russia to pay damages to Ukraine.
Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s ports was a particularly sensitive issue for African governments as it left tons of food and agricultural goods destined for the continent in limbo, prompting supply disruptions, shortages, and soaring prices. While Western countries accused Russia of stealing the grain and weaponizing food, Putin’s authoritarian regime blamed Western sanctions and Ukraine.
Hardly any African nation pointed a finger at the real culprit: Moscow.
In July, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia. In each country’s state newspaper, Lavrov published the same column thanking Africa for its refusal to yield to Western pressure and condemn Russia.
The Kremlin even received praise and endorsement from influential figures in the region. South African opposition leader, Julius Malema, for example, urged Russia “to teach a lesson’ to the West.” General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of Uganda’s dictator Yoweri Museveni, tweeted, “Putin is absolutely right!” in blaming NATO for the war. “Ukraine is full of neo-nazis,” tweeted Pan-African political activist Nathalie Yamb. In Egypt, pro-regime journalist Amr Adib voiced that Putin’s actions were justified.
Pro-Kremlin media outlets such as the Cameroon-based Afrique Média and Russian state media agencies broadcasting into the region amplified these views.
Support for Russia also manifested offline. In April, volunteers seeking to fight for Russia in Ukraine queued up outside the Russian embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Pro-Kremlin groups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and the Central African Republic (CAR) also staged public demonstrations in support of Putin.
“Putin’s popularity is at an outstandingly irrational and possibly dangerous high in Africa,” wrote Tafi Mhaka, a columnist who often comments on human rights and democracy in the region. “Despite the illegality and brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, Putin’s name adorns long-distance buses in Zimbabwe.”
Few champions of solidarity, however, spoke out against the Kremlin’s invasion and in support of democracy and human rights.
As Russian forces launched their attack, Ghana’s foreign minister, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, and the West African bloc, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), issued a rare condemnation.
At the UN Security Council, Kenya’s UN ambassador, Martin Kimani, became the lone African voice of public denunciation. “The Charter of the United Nations continues to wilt under the relentless assault of the powerful,” he said. “In one moment, it is invoked with reverence by the very same countries who then turn their backs on it in pursuit of objectives diametrically opposed to international peace and security.” The only more forceful rebuke came from Mhaka, who, in several columns called out Russia and China’s despotic world order, condemned “uncritical acceptance of Russian narratives” and urged African leaders not to “whitewash Russia’s aggression under the facade of impartiality.”
In October, African diplomatic pushback came from an unlikely source: the foreign minister of Madagascar, Richard Randriamandrato, whose government is very friendly with Russia. Breaking with his administration, Randriamandrato voted in support of the UN resolution condemning the Kremlin’s unlawful Ukrainian war. Illustrating Russia’s influence on the Malagasy government, Randriamandrato was fired immediately.
Street protests against the invasion were rare. And yet, in Sudan, pro-democracy demonstrations against the country’s military regime expressed solidarity with Ukraine. Small groups demonstrated in Kenya and South Africa, where the Ukrainian Association of South Africa partnered with the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation to curate an art exhibition about the effects of the war on women and children.
Celebrities across Africa were largely silent about the war, with a few notable exceptions. Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka and Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee joined 163 other Nobel laureates in co-signing an open letter in The Economist condemning Russia’s aggression. Nigerian-American musician Davido posted a message urging his fans to pray for Ukraine, and Ugandan pop singer Bobi Wine and Ivorian musician and activist Tiken Jah Fakoly publicly condemned Russia on social media.
In addition, Wine, a leader of Uganda’s pro-democracy movement, co-authored a column with Tanzanian opposition leader Zitto Kabwe, former Zimbabwean finance minister Tendai Biti, and South African author Greg Mills, calling for African democrats to “close ranks with Ukraine.” He also visited Ukraine and recorded two solidarity songs with the Ukrainian band String Mockingbird: Alone But Altogether and Brothers In Freedom.
Another meaningful example of solidarity came from Congolese surgeon and Nobel laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege whose foundation campaigns globally for holistic care and justice for victims of sexual violence in conflict. Since Russia’s annexation of Donbas and Crimea, the Mukwege Foundation had already been helping Ukrainian civil society setup advocacy and support groups for victims of sexual violence from those wars. Amid fresh allegations of conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine, the Mukwege Foundation continued to offer assistance to ensure holistic care and reparations for Ukrainian victims.
One important missing link in this chain of solidarity is the late George Ayittey, professor, author, founder of the Free Africa Foundation, and founding member of HRF’s international council. As a public intellectual, champion of democracy and free markets and fierce critic of dictatorships, Ayittey previously warned against “Russian machinations” in Africa but also emphasized the power of international solidarity against authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin.
In 2022, while there were several shows of support for Russia, a few brave African individuals showed that the struggle for freedom is united across regions. We must build on this lesson in 2023: champion solidarity as the greatest antidote to authoritarianism. Only in solidarity will the struggle for democracy and freedom thrive.
Democracy is undoubtedly under serious threat. Yet, in 2022, we have seen a movement of change spreading and maturing like never before. From Iran to Afghanistan, Cambodia to Laos, and Nicaragua to Cuba, activists are developing networks, devising new strategies, and harnessing the power of technology to turn the tide on authoritarianism. As 2023 brings new challenges, we invite our community to champion change — on an individual level or as part of a larger movement.