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Perspectives on the Ukraine war from Africa

Reactions so far

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February sent shockwaves around the world. African leaders’ reactions have been slow to emerge and moderate in most cases, with most calling for a return to diplomacy but refraining from championing Ukraine against Russia. As the global consequences of the war begin to unfold – including for African citizens living in Ukraine – most leaders will have little choice but to pick a side. 

The resolution that follows the 28 February emergency session of the UN General Assembly to discuss the invasion will be highly indicative of allegiances, with Russian and Western diplomats actively seeking support from their allies in Africa, Asia and Latin America ahead of this week’s vote.

The non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (Gabon, Ghana and Kenya), South Africa and the AU were among the first to react to the invasion. Both Ghana and South Africa explicitly called on Russia to withdraw its troops, although in the case of the latter, President Cyril Ramophosa was reportedly not satisfied with the firmness of the statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Kenya’s impassioned speech to the UN denounced Russia’s choice of ethnic self-determination over borders, linking it to Africa’s colonial history.  On 27 February, ECOWAS issued its own condemnation in a mild half-page statement. 

Most African countries have so far remained silent or insisted on their neutrality. These include West and Central African states with strong or growing economic and/or security ties to Russia, namely Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and CAR. A number of these and others – such as Algeria, Ethiopia and the DRC – have deep historical and ideological ties with Russia, which could explain their reluctance to take a firmer position.

Meanwhile, many African countries have expressed concern about the safety and security of diaspora populations in Ukraine. Reports of mistreatment and discrimination at the borders for fleeing members of the African diaspora have been widely circulated on the continent, leading to protests. These actions have the potential to alienate some countries, given the very different reception given to African and Ukrainian nationals by European countries. The AU issued a statement on 28 February warning that the “unacceptable differential treatment” of Africans would be “offensive and racist” and “violate international law”. South Africa and Ivory Coast have sent their ambassadors to Poland at the border with Ukraine to facilitate the safe passage of their nationals.

Geopolitical repercussions

  • The vote on 2 March on the resolution condemning the Russian invasion will force African leaders to take a firmer stance. The vote will be a marker of the strength of Russia’s growing influence in the region. An emergency meeting of the 193-member UN General Assembly has been called on 28 February, and Western powers are hoping to secure more than two-thirds of the votes to pass the resolution. Although it is not binding, a strong result demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine will demonstrate the country’s continued isolation. In the run-up to the vote, Russian and US diplomats have been actively trying to convince their allies. Africa, with its 54 seats in the assembly, is the target of the most concentrated campaign. Early signals show that many African states, even Moscow’s historical allies, are opposed to the war. Meanwhile, disinformation campaigns on social media have increased, especially in the Sahel region, where Russia is fighting for influence with France.
  • Heavyweights such as South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya have all deepened their economic ties with Russia in recent years, and face a difficult decision between protecting their interests, and demonstrating regional and international leadership. South Africa’s decision to condemn the invasion was made despite the fact that it sees its membership of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as crucial to countering Western hegemony. Its position will be a blow to Russia, which considers South Africa a key ally in the region. Nigeria and Kenya have followed suit –  a strong position that may influence some of their regional neighbours. Egypt has not yet condemned the invasion and has called for dialogue. Its vote at the UN will be closely scrutinised as it is increasingly dependent on Russian support in regional conflicts and has deep historical ties with the former Soviet Union.
  • Africa’s increased reliance on Russia and Russian mercenaries to tackle insecurity is exacerbating tensions in the Sahel, but also in Central and North Africa. The growing influence of Wagner –  a mercenary group closely linked to the Russian military apparatus – on the continent has created a security dependency, particularly in Mali, CAR and Libya. Wagner’s involvement in the invasion of Ukraine is likely to lead to further sanctions against the group, leaving countries with ties to the group with a stark choice: disengage at the expense of their security or face increased sanctions from key partners such as the EU or the US. In both cases, the stability of these states risks being weakened. A new generation of military regimes – Guinea, Burkina Faso and Sudan – have also recently strengthened their ties with Moscow and could find themselves even more isolated – if they decide to side with Russia.  Most of them are already suspended from regional organisations.

Spotlight on food security and energy supplies

Many African countries will feel the economic repercussions of the conflict, and in particular those tied to agricultural markets. After years of positive developments between 2000 and  2013, food insecurity has since experienced a sharp rise on the continent as a result of conflict, economic downturns, natural disasters, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it will be exacerbated further by this latest conflict in Europe. 

The war is pushing up the already soaring price of wheat, as well as of other grains and oilseeds and will strain global supply chains. Russia and Ukraine are both major players on the global agricultural market, accounting for some 10% and 4% of global wheat production, and 18% and 8% of global wheat exports respectively. Africa imports approximately two-thirds of its wheat, with 30% coming from Russia and Ukraine. North African countries will be hit hardest given their high domestic consumption and that they import vast amounts from both Russia and Ukraine. The rise in wheat prices will be felt across sub-Saharan Africa too and is already causing tensions in Cameroon and Gabon. Other countries set to be severely affected include Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya and South Africa. Maize and sunflower are among the other key agricultural outputs  affected by the war. 

The conflict is also causing severe disruption to oil and gas markets, hitting consumers hard but also presenting opportunities for African economies. While oil-dependent economies such as Nigeria and Angola will benefit in the short term from the surge in oil prices, there will also be long-term opportunities for a number of countries in the gas market. Russian gas has continued to flow to Europe since the onset of the invasion, but the shelving of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline by Germany is a sure sign that Europe will be looking at all available options to reduce its energy dependency on Russia in future. Though this development could catalyse the ongoing shift to renewable energy, European countries will also be assessing new potential natural gas developments and supply chains. 

Given its geographical proximity and abundant reserves of natural gas, Africa should stand to benefit from this readjustment in global energy supplies. Countries that provide the most significant opportunities include Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Nigeria, Tanzania and Mozambique.  

About the Authors

Alex Vergé is an associate consultant at Africa Practice. He can be contacted at [email protected] 

Antoine Drogoul is an associate consultant at Africa Practice, with a particular focus on Francophone Africa and commodity issues. He can be contacted at [email protected]


Image source: Mark Garten / UN Photo

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