Besides not having a comparable presence such as key European countries and the US since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia continues to be valued as a partner in many African countries. These countries are often not in a position to choose their external partners and welcome international partnerships that have the potential to enhance their development agenda, writes Philani Mthembu, Executive Director at the Institute for Global Dialogue, South Africa, for the 19th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is continuing to impact countries both near and far from the theatre of conflict. To varying degrees, countries in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have been sending an increasing amount of weapons into the conflict in their efforts to back Ukraine and weaken Russia’s military capabilities in the medium to long term. They have also added key economic sectors to an ever-growing list of sanctions aimed at individuals in positions of authority, affecting ordinary people’s mobility and ability to compete in certain sporting competitions and showcase their cultural talents. Beyond Europe and NATO, however, the countries of the global South, including many in in Africa, have sought to maintain a non-aligned position that does not back one side over the other. Instead they have sought to promote diplomatic efforts towards the peaceful resolution of the conflict. Many countries also view recent developments as a conflict over Europe’s security architecture and largely between Russia and the United States, as increasingly sophisticated weaponry makes its way towards Ukraine. The non-aligned positions taken by many African countries have, however, not shielded them from the far-reaching effects of the conflict, especially at a time when many had hoped to channel their efforts towards their own economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
African countries and those in the global South have also come under greater diplomatic pressure from their European and US counterparts, something that became a subject of discussion during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to South Africa, where Minister of International Relations Dr. Naledi Pandor expressed South Africa’s reservations regarding a US law that seeks to punish countries seen as having close relations with Russia. In a changing geopolitical environment, African countries and those of the global South seeking to maintain cooperation with Russia will thus need to factor in these dynamics, which have been introduced to undermine relations in a similar manner that China’s engagement with Africa and the global South has been viewed with scepticism by counterparts in the West.
In order to maintain and enhance relations with these countries, Russia will thus have to devise joint mechanisms that enhance the ability of their partners to act with autonomy in decision making while building up their ability to be resilient amid a changing geopolitical landscape. This will have to include efforts to tackle the negative impact of sanctions on the distribution of products from Russia while also coordinating within the United Nations to ensure that sanctions do not harm the human security needs of African countries and those of the global South.
Together Russia and Ukraine account for 20% of global maize exports and 30% of global wheat exports. The hampered trade flows directly affect major importing countries in the Middle East and Africa, and indirectly impact poor people in many other countries too. This will unfortunately increase hunger, not because of a lack of supply but because an inability to distribute those supplies. The rise in the food import bill and pandemic-related interventions have affected markets and value chains in food systems. Rising input prices (fertilizer and energy) and higher transport costs have made agricultural production significantly more expensive. Products such as sunflower oil and fertiliser will thus continue to threaten food security. Russia has blamed Western sanctions, arguing that they were hitting the region’s own grain and fertilizer exports due to the impact on shipping, banking, and insurance.
Despite not having a comparable presence as key European countries and the US since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia continues to be valued as a partner in many African countries. These countries are often not in a position to choose their external partners and welcome international partnerships that have the potential to enhance their development agenda. Russia plays an important role as a supplier of weapons, as a buyer and licensed prospector of valuable raw materials, and as an exporter of agricultural equipment, but also with the provision of private security through the likes of the Wagner Group. Some stakeholders in Europe and the United States have found themselves asking whether these connections are now paying off for Russia in Africa and the global South despite efforts to isolate Russia.
On March 2, 2022, when the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning Russia and calling on the country to withdraw immediately from Ukraine, 25 of the 54 African UN member states did not support the resolution, and Eritrea even voted against it. Western observers have thus been keen to understand why this pattern has emerged. In efforts to understand the reaction of African countries and some of their counterparts in the global South it is important in appreciating how the conflict is viewed outside of Europe and the United States. The on-going conflict is not seen as one purely between Russia and Ukraine, but as the escalation of longstanding tensions, that were not resolved diplomatically through channels such as the Minsk agreement. African stakeholders thus point to the pre-existing tensions that grew from the continued expansion of NATO eastwards following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the failure of the affected parties to resolve these through diplomatic means. African stakeholders also point to the inconsistency of the West in terms of addressing the urgent humanitarian needs in conflicts such as Libya, Western Sahara, Yemen, Palestine, and Syria while calling out Western hypocrisy, as they have waged unilateral wars in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. These examples, coupled with double standards in the treatment of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian migrants, have made the African countries sceptical abpout throwing their weight behind one power over the other.
Current UN estimates suggest that approximately 44% of all wheat consumed in countries on the African continent comes from Russia and Ukraine. Wheat prices have soared [ ] by around 45% as a result of the supply disruption, according to the African Development Bank. The UN has additionally warned that 18 million people are facing severe hunger in the Sahel, as farmers are facing their worst agricultural production in more than a decade. Another 13 million people are facing severe hunger in the Horn of Africa region as a result of a persistent drought. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has thus exacerbated an already-challenging environment.
Unless a concerted and consistent effort is made to build greater resilience through the establishment of regional value chains, Africa will remain on the periphery of global politics and the global economy. It is thus imperative to build the infrastructure, both soft and hard, for regional cooperation and greater intra-regional trade. These regional value chains must ensure that the continent is able to be more resilient in future crises and is able to reinsert itself into the global economy with a better set of conditions. African countries must also use this on-going conflict, coupled with the experience gained through the pandemic, to evaluate their position in a changing global geopolitical landscape and seek to build a greater degree of strategic autonomy through regional integration, redesigning external partnerships in ways aligned to the continent’s existing development frameworks, which are articulated through the AU’s Agenda 2063 and the regional indicative strategic frameworks adopted by Africa’s regional economic communities. This would eventually have the effect of strengthening Africa’s agency in global politics and building systems that allow the continent to navigate a changing global landscape, seeing the rise of geopolitical conflicts that gravitate against Africa’s development agenda.
In order to achieve their development goals, African countries will largely seek to not get drawn into taking positions that may backfire against their strategic interests. They will thus seek to work with all external actors wanting to forge ties with the continent, and Russia and its African partners will need to build on their comparative advantages. As an agricultural power, Russia could identify opportunities to boost Africa’s own production and enhance its food security. This would position Russia as a strategic partner in the pursuit of Africa’s green revolution and efforts to build a greater degree of resilience on the continent. Given its footprint in the mining sector, Russia could also work with African counterparts in the mining of potash in order to reduce input costs of African farmers due to rising fertiliser prices. Given the security and energy situation on the continent, the demand for Russian arms will likely remain constant while opportunities will remain in the energy sector. However, Russia will also need to identify opportunities to set up joint ventures in agriculture, mining, energy, and even in weapons manufacturing in order to go beyond trade and thus set up manufacturing activities closer to their markets on the continent. This can also be adapted to other regions of the global South and build on recent BRICS resolutions to enhance efforts to transact in local currencies where this is deemed feasible.