Iris Salemi is a last year International Relations student at King’s. She lived in Morocco and South Africa, which allowed her to develop a passion for African culture and geopolitics, and later would like to work in the service of African development. She believes that the African continent, although being the driver of tomorrow’s challenges, should be more regarded and known, hence she will do everything to make African affairs accessible to everyone! In addition to Africa, she is interested in post-colonial political economy, Latin America and diplomacy in international institutions.
Supporting Ukraine entails donating arms to the invaded country, training Ukrainian armies, welcoming Ukrainians on European soil, as well as economic and humanitarian agreements between the international community and the country at war. But what if all this direct aid to Ukraine was just a short-term solution to put an end to the war?
A key piece has been overlooked in the complex jigsaw puzzle of this war: the active role of the African continent. African powers have always been seen as a passive presence, victims of colonial and neo-colonial forces, and as collateral damages in the age of climate change. In the context of the War in Ukraine, attention has been focused on the impact of the war on the continent. But what if we have been looking through the wrong prism all along? What if Africa is the missing piece to envision an end to the War in Ukraine?
Africa as “victim” of the war
Firstly, the war has put a veil of uncertainty on the financial world: the instability caused by the transformation of international relations acts as a barrier to investment. Thus, foreign investors in Africa, particularly in the fields of renewable energy and public infrastructure, have dramatically decreased, due to a feeling of significant risk in an unstable context. This removes any hope of African states developing and getting closer to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Secondly, the Russian invasion destabilised oil markets. The price of the barrel of oil exploded, rising above $100. Most African societies are highly dependent on fossil fuels, therefore, faced with rising oil prices for warming homes, feeding public transport and diesel cars, economies are slowing down and inequalities between and among states are widening.
Lastly, the War in Ukraine has contributed to the deepening of the food crisis that was already hitting the world following Covid-19. The embargo on Ukraine’s grain exports to the Black Sea has significantly reduced Africa’s food security, with Ukraine being one of the world’s largest grain exporters. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 60.9% of populations in Africa were in moderate or severe food insecurity in 2022. The establishment of the Black Sea Grain Deal had restored some stability to food markets in the face of inflation. However, Vladimir Putin’s announcement in July 2023 of the end of the Grain Deal once again plunged African states into food uncertainty. Behind this decision, Vladimir Putin justifies that the agreement strongly disadvantaged poor countries, and that the latter were not the priority of the international community. The United Nations counters the argument, but some African governments seem to have chosen their party.
Henceforth, the War in Ukraine has strongly impacted the African continent, drastically reducing foreign investment necessary for its development, increasing oil prices, and deepening food shortages, leaving millions of people food insecure.
Africa’s essential role in the war
But history has shown that every suffering society transforms its misfortune into a formidable force. Let us now see how the effects of the War in Ukraine on African countries have made them essential actors on the current geopolitical chessboard. Two elements make African powers, if not allies, voices that do not pronounce on the Russian invasion, therefore allowing Russia to move forward. The first is anti-imperialism; the second is the need to survive in the face of a lack of Western reaction and the only offer remaining turns out to be Russian.
The African continent influences the balance of power of the War in Ukraine in three different ways:
Firstly, in the face of anti-Western sentiment – more specifically anti-French – in the Sahel region, the support of Russian mercenaries to military putsches in the name of the fight against neo-colonialism has resulted in reciprocal support from Sahel countries to the Russian invasion. This support is concretely illustrated by the sending of troops by the Central African Republic, announced in March 2022. Faced with the shortage of soldiers that Russia suffers from and the many mutinies of Russian youth, this military support comes as a boon for Vladimir Putin. Congolese and Cameroonian soldiers also expressed their willingness to go and fight with the Russian forces, to promote “peace and order”.
Secondly, some African governments, despite their sustained non-aligned position in the War in Ukraine, show signs of support for Russia. This is the case of Cyril Ramaphosa’s South Africa. Accused by the US Ambassador to South Africa and US Intelligence of sending arms to Russia, the South African president refutes these allegations. Despite an investigation – whose transparency is questioned – conducted by the government itself proving that no arms deal had been reached between South Africa and Russia, several signs of proximity between the African BRICS and the Russian power question its policy of non-alignment: the ANC, the ruling party that was led by Nelson Mandela, shows historical sympathy to Moscow through its support for the end of Apartheid, and sustains modern ties through the BRICS bloc. In addition, more recently, South Africa participated in military exercises with China and Russia, laying a veil of ambiguity while the War in Ukraine continues. Finally, the South African power authorised the parking in a Cape Town naval base of the Russian ship Lady R, whose use had been punished by international sanctions. This unpronounced support from South Africa to Russia is undoubtedly a strategic asset that favours the Russian side in the War in Ukraine.
Thirdly, the impact of African powers on the War in Ukraine is reflected in voting behaviour at the UN General Assemblies. The 54 African states weigh 27.97% of total votes, which gives them – when united – a non-negligible power to influence. Russia has grasped this power. Following Wagner’s support to the various military putsches in the Sahel region, it was observed that this action was explicitly reflected in the voting behaviour of Mali and the Central African Republic. The latter either abstained or voted against the UN General Assembly resolution of 27th February 2022, condemning the Russian invasion and preventing the use of nuclear weapons. The events of July 2023 suggest that Russia is trying to increase the inclination of African governments to support – or at least not to obstruct – Russian interests. Indeed, following the announcement of the end of the Black Sea Grain Deal, Vladimir Putin promised six African states a free delivery of between 25,000 and 50,000 tons of cereals. These six countries include Mali and the Central African Republic, strengthening an already close relationship, as well as Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Somalia, and Eritrea. Faced with the collapse of the Black Sea Grain Deal, the international liberal institutions had not been able to guarantee food security to the affected populations. Thus, Russia’s offer is interpreted by these states as the only external actor concerned with African problems, strengthening Russia’s soft power on the continent. It is therefore easy to think that this major Russian decision will affect the votes of these six states at the next UN General Assembly on the renewal of the illegality of the War in Ukraine.
Conclusion: what can be done to alter the balance of power?
The exponential spread of anti-Westernism, coupled with the deepening of poverty, translates into the military and diplomatic support of many African powers for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These African states are essential players in understanding Russia’s endurance: therefore, ending the war necessarily requires the continent’s total neutrality.
What can be done for this purpose? European involvement in Africa is initially very limited by its lack of means, and above all is stained by the neo-colonial taboo. Henceforth, Europe’s activity should be left aside to avoid reinforcing the allegiance of African states to Russia’s anti-imperialist rhetoric.
What will have a direct impact in the fight against Russian influence in Africa is the development of the continent. African countries must be developed to ensure food security and their independence regarding Russia, to ensure that they are self-sufficient in the military field, reversing the relevance of Wagner’s presence, and to ensure that governance and political institutions are strong enough so that African elites do not benefit as much from Russian bribes. Increasing the development efforts of the United States or the United Nations is essential to remove key allies from Russia, isolate it and weaken it.
Africa’s development is a direct path to Ukraine’s freedom to self-determination.
Source of the picture: CNN