Twenty million tons of grain are blocked from Russia’s war against Ukraine in the port of Odessa on the Black Sea. Meanwhile, thousands of miles south, African continentgrowing problem of hunger. Wheat from Russia and Ukraine covers more than 40 percent of Africa’s needs. In principle, there are enough fertile lands on the African continent to provide the population with food themselves. But for a variety of reasons – from poor infrastructure to low productivity, from drought to armed conflict – many countries depend on agricultural imports and food.
Those who believe that blockade of Black Sea ports fuels anger against the aggressor Russia, they are mistaken. As African Union (AU) Chairman Maki Sall’s visit to Moscow showed, African-Russian relations are still in order. Moreover, their characteristics such as “friendly” and “fraternal” sound. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sall called for the lifting of Western sanctions against Moscow. Restrictions on banking activities and the exclusion of Russia from the Swift payment system have made it almost impossible for African countries to purchase Russian wheat and fertilizers.
Europe and America see things differently. In their opinion, Russia is solely to blame for the impending famine in Africa – because of invasion of Ukraine destruction of production facilities and blockade of the Black Sea ports. Western countries did not impose sanctions on food exports from Russia.
Liability dispute and wheat is driving a wedge between Africa and its former Western partners. That the continent does not share the West’s position on the war in Ukraine became clear already during the voting at the UN General Assembly in March. Some recalled Nelson Mandela’s famous response in an interview given in America in 1990. When asked why he is meeting with Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi, he said: “Some political analysts make the mistake of thinking that their enemies must be our enemies.”
More than half of the African states at the UN condemned the Russian invasion. At the same time, 17 states abstained, eight were not present at the voting, and one country voted against the resolution. Surprisingly, Western-oriented states such as South Africa and Senegal have also chosen to remain “neutral.” But even the governments of countries like Kenya and Nigeria that voted in favor of the resolution subsequently shied away from direct criticism of Russia. If one follows discussions about the Russian-Ukrainian war at the local level, then there is serious doubt whether the vote of some African countries in the UN really reflects the opinion of their peoples.
There are 54 states in Africa. With the exception of two – Liberia and Egypt – they all consider themselves victims of the colonial past. Anger and deep distrust of the West are still manifest today. Former alliances from the Cold War and the struggle for independence are proving to be strong. In addition, there are significant economic interests. Compared to Europe, Russia still plays a small role in Africa. However, in some places Moscow exerts a significant influence on African political elites: by sending mercenaries in Mali supplying weapons to Angola or working out an energy deal with South Africa.
For the African Union, the interests of its members are more important than the sovereignty of Ukraine. As far-fetched as Russian arguments are, they resonate strongly in Africa. Maki Sall and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa cite Western sanctions along with the war as the cause of the supply crisis. Russia’s announcement that it is ready to export grain to Africa further reinforces this impression.
Time is running out. And earlier, famine reigned in many regions of Africa. The problem is not only the lack of wheat from Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, prices for a wide range of foodstuffs and fuel have risen sharply on the world market. In the future, even countries’ own crops could be threatened as fertilizer have become scarce and expensive for millions of small farmers. Russia is one of the world’s leading exporters of nitrogen, potash and phosphate fertilizers.
The head of the African Union, Sall, is courting not only Russia. He skillfully maneuvers between the warring blocs, looking for support from both sides. Europe and the US have already pledged emergency aid and massive investment programs to Africa’s agriculture. They are concerned not only with preventing a humanitarian catastrophe, but also with preventing Russia from gaining strength on the continent, and hence in international organizations. Putin has been seeking for years to create pro-Russian alliances in Africa to expand his influence, as he did in Soviet times. It looks like he’s succeeding.
Posted by Claudia Breul, FAZ columnist
Without the right to republish. © Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung GmbH, Frankfurt am Main.
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