I recently returned from a trip to Africa and was struck once again by the dissonance of the reporting of the war in Ukraine and its parochial framing. We saw much of that in the early days of the war, the inadvertently revealed racism of the reporters, aghast that this could be happening in a first-world country; the refugees, the terror.

This, they said, was more properly the preserve of the third world, alluding to the trope of the Dark Continent of Africa with its famine, pestilence and war.

Sadly, Africa has indeed had to bear more than its fair share of discord and strife, but Ukraine too might inadvertently hold the answer to the final hammering free of Africa’s shackles.

One of the greatest problems that African leaders have faced in recent weeks has been the issue of loyalty. Those close to the Russians have been expected to come out in favor of them, while Europe and the U.S. expect the same of countries that they believe owe them loyalty. It’s not enough to remain neutral, because in this febrile atmosphere, not overtly supporting one side, is immediately taken as tacit support for the other.

Throughout all this, the Chinese remain invisible, yet China is one of the biggest single influences on the continent. Here, too, there is pressure. The dialogue behind the scenes is to establish whether a country’s pro-West or pro-Russian stance in the Ukraine war is a precursor to an anti-Chinese stance.

The implicit threat throughout is “are you our friend or are you not?” when what should be happening is the president of the African state taking a decision that is in the best interest of his or her people.

In fact, the people are not going to worry about who their president voted for -- they will be increasingly voting on the basis of what that administration has done for them, as discovered in the most recent edition of the African Youth survey. That same survey also warned, unequivocally, that the youth — Africa’s next generation of leaders — want less and less to do with foreign countries that interfere with theirs without helping them achieve their country’s national agenda.

It raises a fascinating side-debate about the concept of "friendship" -- is the "friend" the partner who invests the most? The partner who interferes the most? Is the friend the partner who was the former colonial power? Or does it just come down to how strong the actual African leader is in the first place? Nelson Mandela famously remonstrated with those who would have him denounce Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, when he told the world: “The enemies of countries in the West are not ours.”

It was a truly iconoclastic statement befitting someone of Madiba’s stature, but it was one that sat ill with those who would now cozy up to him. 30 years later, nothing has changed and Africa is still at the mercy of those it is perceived to owe loyalty to; whether because of trading ties, military support, donor aid or colonial history.

Africa cannot move forward as long as this situation exists, because it will forever be in a subservient position.

Why should Africa still even be in this position? The first sub-Saharan African country to rid itself of the shackles of colonialism and racial subservience was Ghana in 1957. The last one was my own country, South Africa, in 1994. The continent has been free, ostensibly, for almost 30 years and yet a European crisis threatens to tear it under once again.

Perhaps this should instead be the moment where we commit as Africans to living our full potential as citizens of this continent.

Not for nothing, the 21st century has been dubbed the African Century, as the population will reach 1.5-billion by 2035. The continent will have the largest working-age population on the globe by 2035 and 43% will be middle class or above. Africa currently has six of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and is inordinately blessed with a treasure house of commodities as the world's largest exporter.

Further, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement signed in January has created the biggest trading bloc in the world. If it is properly implemented, the World Bank believes the trade agreement could add $450 billion to the continent’s combined GDP and lift 100 million people out of poverty.

Africa should no longer be the playground of the colonists old or new. There should be no new scramble for Africa by all and sundry because Africa is actually a superpower in its own right by most metrics. But to achieve this, Africa has to do more than believe it -- it must adapt to the principles that underpinned the formation of first the Organization of African Unity and then the African Union that it gave birth to. The world has changed and Africa must change with it.

The choice is stark: a rules-based global order as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations or mutually hostile blocs of countries in perpetual competition with one another, which invariably spills over into conflict as is precisely the case in Ukraine. In this case, it will be military and economic power that determine the outcome, not principle. If we don’t assert our place in the world order, demanding that sovereign independence be respected, democracies protected and human rights upheld, then we will forever be pushed as individual countries into these warring blocs.

The U.N. itself is hamstrung, as we have seen, with the current composition of its Security Council and the veto power entrenched in the permanent five members. The security council was wholly ineffective when the world needed it most several weeks ago. And then the subsequent vote in the general assembly showed what a myth African unity actually is.

Africa is still paying a very heavy price for its past, carrying a disproportionate burden of climate change and being forced to give up its own carbon treasure trove by an industrialized north that used its raw material to industrialize and then create the problem the entire world sits with today. Africa had to fight that same discrimination against the vaccine apartheid that was imposed during the COVID 19 pandemic. It's a heavy burden for a continent that has faced poverty and inequality.

The time has come for Africa to put Africa first.

As the continent that is literally the cradle of humankind, Africa needs to rediscover its identity and develop a shared determination to protect its resources for the benefit of its people, not faceless shareholders in companies based anywhere but Africa. The continent does not need to reinvent the wheel but rather to re-energize the offices, secretariat and instruments that make up the African Union, from the AFCFTA to the AU Standby Force that have either never reached their true potential or that still remain dormant.

The lessons of Ukraine are all too clear. If things do not change, Africa will remain in a perpetually weakened state, despite all its resources. Africa will be forever vulnerable to the ravening appetites of other "big powers," the battleground for their proxy wars again and still subject to the same divide and rule policies that the mandarins and oligarchs imposed all those centuries ago.

This time Africans will have no one to blame but ourselves, because we can change this narrative if we really want to.

Ivor Ichikowitz is an industrialist and philanthropist. He was born and raised in Africa.