Ukraine and Africa – brothers in freedom
It is clear why Africa’s autocrats favour the Russian position: they don’t want to be held accountable and they believe in the rule of the jungle, not the rule of law. Ukraine’s resistance is as much a challenge to their view of the world as it is an example to Africa’s democrats.
The brutal reality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine hit me hard when I recently visited the country with Zitto Kabwe at the invitation of The Brenthurst Foundation.
I had read about the war and seen the shocking pictures of civilian buildings shot to pieces by artillery as countless lives were lost in this unnecessary conflict.
But walking the streets of Ukrainian cities and seeing the devastation at first hand brought this assault on humanity, decency and progress home. Nothing prepares you for the absolute destruction a missile can cause to a residential block or a school. Civilians who do not have the means to escape into temporary exile must simply wait in the hope that they are not the next to be blown to pieces.
We visited Hostomel, Irpin, Kyiv, Lviv and Borodyanka — a town smashed by the invaders.
I was particularly moved when a priest inside a church in Bucha showed us photographs of the victims of the murderous spree undertaken by Russian soldiers against civilians in what has become the war’s most shameful chapter so far. This humble man, whose church has been emptied by machine guns and missiles, described to us the massacre by the Russian military which culminated in the graves in the church’s backyard. Such images will live with me forever.
What was remarkable, however, was how a people subject to such a vicious assault are standing up and fighting back. Dotted around were the rusting hulks of destroyed tanks, now standing as monuments to the Ukrainian fighting spirit.
The spirit of freedom is not easily crushed. Ukraine’s young men are literally sacrificing their lives in defence of their country and what it stands for.
Ukraine’s transition from a Soviet satellite state to a leading European democracy was an inspiration to me and countless other Africans who live under regimes that proudly associate themselves with autocracy, militarism and aggression. Their transition to fighters for freedom is equally inspirational.
What was particularly moving was how that spirit of determined independence and the will to defend democracy and sovereignty have survived the all-out Russian assault.
Uganda is among those African countries where to challenge the rule of the incumbent is to risk detention and death. In the January 2021 election, hundreds were abducted, detained and murdered by the security forces. The switching off of the internet the day before the election, said Amnesty International, was “clearly intended to silence the few accredited election observers, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and bloggers who are monitoring the elections”.
I was arrested and detained several times in the run-up to the poll, and placed under house arrest as the results were released. We continue to suffer at the hands of the security agencies, in which President Yoweri Museveni’s son and heir-elect General Muhoozi Kainerugaba openly tweets his support and admiration for the Russian position.
It is clear why Africa’s autocrats favour the Russian position: they don’t want to be held accountable and they believe in the rule of the jungle, not the rule of law. Ukraine’s resistance is as much a challenge to their view of the world as it is an example to Africa’s democrats. We take heart from their resolve and ask donors to adopt the same principles behind their support of Kyiv (and isolation of Russian President Vladimir Putin) in their dealings with Africa’s democrats in their struggle against authoritarianism.
We call on donors to avoid replicating in Africa the type of supposedly ‘strategic’ but amoral reasoning that got Europe ensnared with Putin’s Russia.
We know that the path to democracy is never going to be easy. Just as Ukraine’s brand of nationalism and the strength of its endeavour threatens the Russian view of the world, our vision of democracy, human rights and equal opportunity challenges the oligarchs of Uganda.
Like the Ukrainians, we will not be easily crushed.
I was moved to do what I do best – express myself in music. While in Ukraine I recorded music with some incredible local artists. Sofia Grabovestska has a voice like an angel and with the local band, String Mockingbird, we recorded a new song, Brothers in Freedom, with the help of Greg Mills, who wrote the lyrics, and the South African musicians Murray Anderson and Robin Auld.
Singing the verses – “We can’t live in ignorance/They can’t live in gunfire” – with Sofia in Lviv in the studio reminds of the importance of looking outside our own circumstances in identifying the ties that bind us together as people. It was a moment where people separated by continents, by conflicting histories, by different cultures, came together to put humanity first.
Nobody said fighting for freedom would be easy and the Ukrainians know this better than anyone. If they can hold their ground and even beat back a much-vaunted invader like Russia, there is hope for all who want to transform their countries from backward autocracies to modern, functional democracies which build a better life for all citizens.
Ukraine’s struggle is Africa’s struggle.
This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick