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Many African countries have been hesitant to take sides in Russia-Ukraine conflict


* In the West, the condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been swift and unequivocal. Many African states, on the other hand, have been reluctant to take sides in the conflict. NPR's Eyder Peralta explores why.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The day before Russia attacked Ukraine, one of Sudan's military rulers was in Russia, shaking hands with the foreign minister. General Mohamed "Hemedti" Dagalo dangled the prospect of a Russian naval base in the Red Sea, rekindling the geopolitical talk of the Cold War. Kholood Khair, a political analyst at Insight Strategy Partners, a Sudanese think tank, was worried about the fragile pro-democracy movement in Sudan.

KHOLOOD KHAIR: I think Russia's involvement in Sudan is bad because of what happens inside Sudan and what it means for people in Sudan, not what it means for the geopolitics.

PERALTA: Sudan has very close relations with Russia, where it gets weapons and mercenaries. And right now, the generals running Sudan are focused on a pro-democracy uprising threatening their rule.

KHAIR: Siding with Russia allows them to sort of upend some of the norms that they've felt they've normally had to adhere to.

PERALTA: But shortly after that visit to Russia, the generals created some distance from Russia. Khair thinks the generals were worried that Russia might run short of the money and firepower the Sudanese generals need to stay in power.

KHAIR: What does the regime get out of Russia if Russia is going to be cash-strapped, unable to do business and wheat supplies are going to dwindle because of the war? That then becomes the question.

PERALTA: Abdi Rashid, an analyst at the Kenyan-based Sahan think tank, says this type of calculus is playing out across the continent. He says this would seem like a perfect time for Russia to find allies in Africa. When the Cold War ended, liberalism was ascendant here. But now it's different.

ABDI RASHID: There is definitely a growing anti-democratic or, let's say, an illiberal kind of wind, which is blowing across Africa.

PERALTA: But Rashid says, at the moment, that old Cold War binary doesn't hold sway. African countries have plenty of other strongmen to deal with. Somalia could look to Turkey, Zimbabwe to China, Sudan to the Emirates.

RASHID: It will be difficult, I think, to wage the kind of geopolitical contest as we saw during the Cold War.

PERALTA: To be sure, the old ideological arguments, socialism versus capitalism, are cropping up once more. Chidochashe Nyere is a professor at the Institute of Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. But he says even that's complicated because Russia is not socialist. And he says Putin is an imperialist.

CHIDOCHASHE NYERE: There is no better imperialism. Imperialism is imperialism. It doesn't matter where it's coming from.

PERALTA: African countries aren't in favor of the invasion. Instead, they're weary of taking sides. In South Africa, first came condemnation against Russia, then reminders that the Soviet Union helped South Africans fight against white minority rule. Nere says, all he hopes is that African leaders remember that when East fought West during the Cold War, the global South got pulled into actual wars. He uses an African proverb.

NYERE: When there's a fight of elephants, it is normally the grass that suffers.

PERALTA: He hopes African leaders pause. He hopes their countries don't get trampled. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Cape Town, South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY FEHRENBACH'S "INDIGO ROAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.