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Why African states are reluctant to pick sides on Ukraine

This week, European leaders urged African and Middle Eastern countries not to buy into Kremlin propaganda blaming the West for worsening a global food crisis — one which the African Union has warned risks “a catastrophic scenario,” on a continent where an estimated 282 million people already aren’t getting enough to eat.  

Both the Kremlin’s blockade of Ukrainian ports and Western sanctions on Russia are contributing to a looming disaster in Africa, which is heavily dependent on Ukrainian and Russian grain. African leaders are desperate for the blame game to be set aside and for practical solutions to be raised. 

Currently, nearly 50 countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for at least 30 percent of their wheat import and, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 36 of them source over 50 percent of their wheat from the two countries. 

And Russia’s war on Ukraine has added to the severe pre-war strains on global food supplies: Droughts in France, the United States, India and the Horn of Africa are reducing harvest yields; persisting effects of pandemic-related labor and travel restrictions are still contributing to the crisis; and spiking energy and fertilizer costs are all compounding a grim picture that’s seeing food prices soar and shortages increase.   

Predictably, Moscow has blamed the global food crisis on Western sanctions.   

Last week, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin told French leader Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz of his “readiness” to help ease the crisis but is only prepared to release food stocks in return for sanctions relief. The Kremlin complains sanctions have resulted in Western ports closing to Russian vessels, and importers are finding it difficult to purchase grain from Russia due to the obstacles in insuring ships and making payments to Russian companies.  

Along the same lines, on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that if Ukraine swept clear the mines around the coastal waters of Odesa, Russia would grant  “free export of Ukraine grain by ships that are now locked in Ukrainian ports.”   

“You could not find a better example of blackmail,” was the riposte of Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, who sees Russia’s grain war as designed to test Western resolve and strain cohesion, much like the energy confrontations are, as with the risk of famine comes the likelihood of another migration crisis.  

Others also accuse the Kremlin of shedding crocodile tears as it engages in a narrative contest with the West over who’s to blame.  

But there’s now mounting frustration among African and Middle Eastern governments at being caught in the crosshairs and pressured to pick sides. As the International Crisis Group has highlighted, at such a time of great flux, they have their own immediate and dangerous economic, political and humanitarian crises to handle.  

“Throughout the region and within countries mired in civil war, political actors are mostly shying away from overt alignment with either the Russian or the Ukrainian/Western side, preferring for now to hedge their bets,” the report noted.   

Back in March, 17 African countries joined 18 other nations to abstain on a U.N. General Assembly vote deploring Russia’s “aggression against Ukraine.” The number of African abstentions might have been higher, had it not been for behind-the-scenes Western diplomatic pressure and the leveraging of close ties, which assured that most African countries — 28 out of 54 — backed the resolution, according to some observers.  

Of those who did approve the resolution, some have been public and vocal in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but most have remained quiet and quietly seething. 

Among the abstainers was Senegal, a West-friendly African nation, whose President Macky Sall warned European leaders this week that the food crisis is alarming and that Russia’s narrative regarding who’s to blame risks gaining traction in Africa. Just a few days before, as a visit by Scholz was underway, Sall had already cautioned that Africans “do not want to be aligned on this conflict, very clearly, we want peace. Even though we condemn the invasion, we’re working for a de-escalation, we’re working for a ceasefire, for dialogue … that is the African position.”  

Reviving its ties with African nations over the past few years, the Kremlin has been strengthening economic and military cooperation — especially with nations that once enjoyed close relations with the Soviet Union, which had backed socialist movements and national liberation struggles across Africa.  

In 2019, Putin hosted the first Russia-Africa summit of political and business leaders, an event Kremlin officials strove to promote as underlining the reversal of Russia’s retreat from the continent. Security expertise on offer has so far included Russian military contractors and disinformation specialists helping prop up failing, corrupt or authoritarian governments. And having sought to cast doubts on the West’s tactics and goals for the continent is now helping Russia’s narrative about the war in Ukraine gain some traction.  

For many African leaders, the food crisis is emblematic of how Western powers treat the continent — paying attention to it when they want or need something, neglecting it when they don’t, and expecting it to see the world through Europe’s eyes.   

While the breach of global norms by Russia has indeed shocked many in Africa, they’re worried about their own immediate needs and interests — from famine to wars and strife. Diplomats from Africa and the Middle East complain their European counterparts at the U.N. and elsewhere keep turning discussions back to Ukraine, preoccupied as they are with events unfolding in Europe.   

“What they don’t seem to appreciate is that to our ears they seem to be saying European lives are more important than African lives,” an African envoy in Brussels told me. He added: “Both Scholz and [Italy’s Mario] Draghi are coming to us to seek ways to diversify where they get their energy from — well, we need help with food.”  

And as Western powers pledge money to support Ukraine, foreign aid has become harder to secure for Africa, where a full-blown food crisis could leave a higher death toll than Ukraine in its wake.   

At a news conference Monday in Mogadishu, Abdurahman Abdishakur Warsameh, Somalia’s special envoy for humanitarian issues, warned that more than 6 million Somalis in 72 of the country’s 84 districts were already being affected by a record drought. And drought is quickly turning into famine, which will soon turn into deaths. He noted that the U.N. and other aid agencies had requested $1.4 billion for drought relief but had so far received only $58 million. He blamed, in part, the war in Ukraine for donor fatigue. 

Neighboring countries, including Ethiopia and Kenya, are also vulnerable. So too is Nigeria, where even the prices of basic foods are moving beyond the reach of average households. There are shortages of basic feed ingredients for livestock, such as maize, because of low yields. And the high cost of minerals and vitamins used in poultry production is forcing up the price of eggs and chicken.  

And it isn’t just in Africa that there are alarming signs of food insecurity — in Sri Lanka, rising inflation has led to an economic emergency and extreme shortages of food and fuel as well.   

Western leaders are now starting to try and highlight the similarities between Ukraine’s struggle to be the master of its own destiny, free from interference by an imperial power, with the struggles of African and Asian nations to escape colonialism. They have also emphasized that food, fertilizer and seeds are exempt from the sanctions imposed on Russia.   

.But unless the West comes up with quick practical schemes to help mitigate famine and hunger, which is being worsened by the war in Ukraine, some leaders now acknowledge this narrative greatly risks failing.

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