Tue, 29 Nov 2022 Article

Ukraine crisis provides Africa another opportunity to reclaim its place

By Samir Bhattacharya
Ukraine crisis provides Africa another opportunity to reclaim its place

The pandemic has taught African countries to take care of themselves and their neighbours, while being more assertive. Indeed, significant improvements to infrastructure and investment are needed. However, Africa managed to survive the pandemic, mostly on its own. While the pandemic is still not over, and the chance of a similar health or other emergency can’t be overlooked, it is the way the African leaders handled the crisis, that raises hope. Another crucial factor that helped to bring out the African agency is the Ukraine crisis. Till the Ukraine crisis, there was a general consensus regarding the need to assist Africa to overcome the pandemic. However, as the war in Eastern Europe continued to linger, the developed world turned its attention towards stopping the war and helping Ukraine to fight back. And that brought out the realisation among African collective consciousness, “We are on our own.”

It is more than nine months now that the metastasising war is going on. On February 21, 2022, President Vladimir Putin declared Ukraine's two breakaway regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, independent. This was followed by the launch of military action in support of these separatists, supported by Moscow. Three days later, Russia launched air and missile attacks on Ukraine's Donbas region, escalating into a full-fledged war. And as of now, we cannot see any sign of an early end to the unfolding tragedy that started on 24th February 2022.

Most Western nations strongly condemned the attack, which was met with economic sanctions. However, the economic sanctions the United States and the European Union imposed failed to prevent Russia from withdrawing its troops. Now, to counter Russian aggression, the United States and many European countries have imposed severe sanctions on Russia. Despite its geographical distance from Eastern Europe, the consequences of the war and the ensuing economic sanctions will be disastrous for Africa. Although the impact will vary by country, the two major areas where the continent will have the most significant impact are food and energy security.

As the world's breadbasket, Russia and Ukraine are both significant suppliers of wheat and fertiliser to Africa. Food price increases, particularly for wheat, would likely have the war's most significant and immediate impact on the average African. African countries imported $4 billion in agricultural products from Russia in 2020 and $2.9 billion from Ukraine. Corn accounted for 31% of this imported product list, while wheat accounted for 48%.

The post-pandemic food demand, extreme weather, supply chain bottlenecks, and export restrictions all harmed the African food market. The conflict exacerbated most of Africa's economy, which was already suffering from climate change and the Covid-19 outbreak. As the current crisis raises the cost of importing oil and natural gas for oil-importing African countries, the prices of almost all commodities have gone up. Price increases, particularly in food, has appeared as a curse to the poor of the continent.

However, not all is lost cause for Africa. The availability of gas and oil is critical for maintaining growth and mitigating the effects of the pandemic. Europe's need for alternative gas sources in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis presents an opportunity for some resource-rich African nations. Many African countries, including Algeria and Libya, may benefit from the rise in oil prices and use the opportunity to renegotiate their strategic alliance with Europe and pursue political goals.

With its geopolitical location and extensive hydrocarbon reserves, Algeria is one of the African countries best positioned to benefit from the situation. Many oil-producing countries, including Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, and Libya are expected to benefit from the soaring oil prices. Similarly, gas-producing countries such as Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Angola may also benefit if they increase output.

Just before the war, Nigeria, Niger, and Algeria discussed constructing a single Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline route. This crisis is expected to hasten the dialogue and implementation. In fact, all three countries recently ratified the "Declaration of Niamey" in order to increase their natural gas exports to European markets. The majority of African countries, however, do not produce gas or oil. For these countries, rising oil prices will result in higher prices for fuel and related goods, as well as significant increases in transportation costs. African Union must play a decisive role here for the continental benefit and ensure no one is left out.

Except for the pandemic's effects, the continent's GDP has tripled over the past two decades, making it the second fastest expanding region behind Asia. Africa has become the new global centre of growth, despite its reputation as a continent beset by poverty, civil unrest, famine, and corruption. This is primarily because of its capacity for consumption, which is supported by the expansion of the middle class and capital inflow. With a median age of 19, it is a young continent. How the region's leaders manage its policies will largely determine whether or not the coming decade will be Africa's decade.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York voted on a resolution demanding that Russia's military leave Ukraine on March 2nd. During the summit, 141 of the 193 participating countries supported a resolution condemning Russia. Only 27 African countries voted on the resolution at the UN General Assembly, highlighting the continent's growing dissatisfaction with the West. Sudan, Mali, and the Central African Republic have long been Russia's African allies. South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, Algeria, Madagascar, Namibia, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Zimbabwe all abstained.

South Africa chose to remain silent against Russia despite its opposition to NATO's intervention in Libya and Israel's occupation of Palestine. Cameroon and Ethiopia were both absent from the polls. The only African country to vote against the resolution was Eritrea. Eritrea thus joined Russia and three other staunch Russian supporters: Syria, Belarus, and North Korea.

The West was alarmed when Africa refused to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine at the UN General Assembly. However, despite the worsening humanitarian crisis in Africa, the West's lukewarm response to the continent's suffering is baffling. Instead of assisting Africa in overcoming the disastrous consequences of food scarcity and price increases, their focus appears to be on countering Russian influence in Africa. And therefore African reaction to the West's call to condemn Russia demonstrates the emergence of African realpolitik. African leaders must think strategically, removing emotions and personal gain from policy decisions.

Currently, Africa is attracting much interest worldwide, mainly due to its resource richness. While it might have some negative connotations, this newly-grown interest in Africa has raised its profile. Africa is much more assertive in different global platforms and practising its agency to the fullest. Today, Africa is engaging not only its traditional partners like US, France or UK, but it is also engaging with new and emerging economies such as India, China, Turkey, Russia, Brazil, UAE, Indonesia etc. Africa commemorated the OAU's 50th anniversary in 2013. AU also celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. The time is right for Africa to move beyond the way it is seen as a supplicant actor by the West and exert its assertive agency.

[1] The author is Research Associate with the Vivekananda International Foundation. The views expressed are personal.