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Between a rock and a hard place: African position on the Russia–Ukraine conflict

ORF | The Russian invasion of Ukraine comes at a time when African countries are still fighting to recover from the pandemic's effects. Despite the fact that the war broke out in a faraway place, it has various ramifications for the African continent. Given the importance of both Russia and Ukraine on the continent, this crisis will have immediate and long-term consequences for Africa's economy and politics.

African citizens, particularly engineering and medical students, have reportedly encountered prejudice and discrimination while attempting to exit the beleaguered country as a direct result of the war. At least a quarter (about 20%) of Ukraine's approximately 80,000 international students are from African countries, including large populations from Egypt, Nigeria, and Morocco. Several videos have appeared on social media showing African citizens being singled out and barred from boarding trains by security officers, with Ukrainian nationals being given priority.

Both Russia and Ukraine are key providers of food to African countries, including soya beans, wheat, barley, and sunflower oil.

Food imports and tourism have a large role in the war's economic impact on Africa. Both Russia and Ukraine are key providers of food to African countries, including soya beans, wheat, barley, and sunflower oil. Agricultural items worth US$ 6.9 billion were purchased by African countries from Russia and Ukraine in 2020, despite rising world costs. A lengthy war risks disrupting this supply, driving up commodity prices, and exacerbating food insecurity and poverty across the continent.

African countries are currently caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of politics and diplomacy. When the crisis erupted, African countries promptly and forcefully condemned Russia's breach of international law, expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian people and their desire for freedom. This was most evident in Kenya's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Martin Kimani's forthright condemnation of Russian aggression, which was swiftly followed by condemnation from the African Union (AU) and all three African Security Council members (Kenya, Gabon, and Ghana), all of whom voted in favor of the UNSC resolution.

In total, 28 African countries voted in favor of the resolution calling for the unconditional evacuation of Russian troops. Nigeria, Ghana, and Egypt were among the major economies represented. On the other hand, a group of 17 African countries, which included South Africa, Uganda, Mali, and Zimbabwe, refrained from voting. Eritrea was the continent's only country to vote against the resolution. The United Nations' vote on Russia's invasion of Ukraine did indeed split the continent in half, exposing significant schisms among countries that refuse to take sides between Russia and the West.

What factors influence African voting patterns?

This kind of polarization in voting patterns, as well as some African countries' reluctance to criticize Russian aggression directly, can be attributable to two primary elements. To begin with, African countries have been walking carefully and adopting neutral postures, as they do not want to be forced to choose sides or drawn into any type of proxy conflict. In order to diversify their external partners, they are attempting to balance and preserve their relationships with both the West and the East. This is in addition to the fact that the majority of African countries desire a rules-based international system and support multilateralism.

Second, over the last few years, Russia's courting of African leaders has quietly intensified. Russian intelligence and military assistance to African countries such as Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, Burkina Faso, and Mali has been consistent. Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, in particular, have been active in hostilities in the Central African Republic and Mali. Such unconditional military and material assistance are beneficial to African governments in their struggle against rebels and Jihadist insurgents. Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the President of the Central African Republic, has already stated his support for Russia's actions in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Due to Western sanctions, Africa faces both opportunities and challenges.

As the crisis continues, the US, NATO, and its western allies have resorted to economic warfare against Russia, imposing various restrictions and penalties. Russian banks have been barred from using the SWIFT payments system, which underlies global transactions; Russian assets have been frozen; travel prohibitions have been imposed; and Russian access to computer chips, computers, and other high-tech equipment has been restricted. The fall of the Russian currency, the rouble, has prompted President Vladimir Putin to compare the application of sanctions by the West to a "declaration of war."

Sanctions imposed by the West on Russia are certain to have a negative impact on the African economy and security, posing both difficulties and possibilities for African countries. The rise in global commodity prices, particularly for oil and wheat, will be one of the most noticeable effects of sanctions and associated supply chain disruptions. Russia and Ukraine export roughly 30% of the world's wheat, which is a staple grain for African consumers. The majority of this wheat is imported into Egypt before being distributed throughout the continent. Wheat and other commodities such as crude oil and fertilizers are carried to Africa from ports along the Black Sea, which serves as a significant trade corridor. This has raised legitimate concerns about a blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports, as well as an increase in food prices and inflation fears, notably in African nations such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Sudan, who rely on wheat imports from the Black Sea region.

Sanctions imposed by the West on Russia are certain to have a negative impact on the African economy and security, posing both difficulties and possibilities for African countries.

African countries, on the other hand, have some opportunities. Western sanctions aimed at denying Russia access to European oil and gas markets could be a bonanza for oil-producing African countries if they take advantage of the situation. Algeria, Angola, and Mozambique could emerge as alternative options for European countries trying to diversify their import basket and lessen their reliance on Russian goods. African countries would need to enhance their capacity to produce locally and handle the problem of a shortage of refineries in order to take advantage of this window of opportunity and meet global crude oil demand. On the other side, if Russia is able to export its oil to China, which has been reliant on African oil imports until now, it will have a detrimental impact on African suppliers.

The extent of Russia's influence in Africa

Since annexing Crimea in 2014 and ensuing isolation from the international community, Russia has actively sought out new diplomatic partners. Naturally, it has turned its attention to Africa, where traditional Western power is waning and new players such as China, India, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Japan, and Brazil are expanding their footprint. Putin made it plain at the inaugural Russia-Africa summit in 2019 that Africa was at the top of his priority list. Moscow's foreign policy circles were reportedly referring to 2022 as the "Year of Africa" two years later, as evidenced by the second Russia–Africa conference slated for October in St. Petersburg. Whether the conference will take place under the continuing Russia–Ukraine crisis remains to be seen, but Russia's goal to use its existing network and grow its influence on the continent is evident.

The removal of the United States from Somalia or France from Mali is likely to create a security vacuum, allowing Russia and its military to play a more significant role.

Russian thirst for greater influence in Africa has been growing, from establishing a naval station in the Red Sea port of Port Sudan to signing several military cooperation agreements with African countries such as Mali, CAR, and Burkina Faso. Bilateral trade between Russia and Africa has increased steadily since 2015, reaching a high of US$ 20 billion. This is in addition to the ambiguous security assistance that Russia offers to some African governments in the form of intelligence, training, and equipment. The Wagner Group's secretive character, with private military contractors reportedly participating in a number of African countries, makes forecasting the true nature of Russia's ambitions in Africa much more difficult.

There are several historical and current reasons why African countries have not united in their condemnation of the ongoing bloodshed. Russia, for its part, never took part in the 1884 Berlin Conference, which partitioned, shared, and colonized Africa among European powers. Russia has also not colonized or plundered Africa's resources. In the current situation, the United States' exit from Somalia and France's withdrawal from Mali are likely to create a security vacuum, allowing Russia and its forces to play a more significant role. While such assumptions are debatable, they do not justify Russia's unrelenting and unprovoked unilateral aggression, which now threatens to destabilize the global order.

To safeguard their national interests, African countries will need to make some difficult decisions and carefully maintain and manage their relationships with a broad collection of external partners while the situation in Ukraine continues.

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