Africa’s Peace Delegation: A New Chapter for Africa and the Ukraine War

A delegation of African leaders and officials from six countries arrived in Kyiv today to air raids in the city to begin separate peace talks on the war in Ukraine with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian president Vladimir Putin. The leaders from the Comoros, Egypt, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia will travel from Kyiv to St. Petersburg this weekend. While details of the peace plan have not been made publicly available, widening access to Russian and Ukrainian grains and fertilizers to ease food insecurity in Africa is expected to be at the top of the delegation’s agenda. In the long term, the strategic nonalignment of many African countries makes them well positioned to be neutral peace brokers to the war in Ukraine, but they are constrained by their limited leverage.

Africa’s Peace Delegation

Four heads of state are traveling to Kyiv and St. Petersburg: President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, President Macky Sall of Senegal, President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia, and President Azali Assoumani of the Comoros (current chairman of the African Union). Egypt and Uganda have sent high-level officials to represent them. The face of this delegation has been President Ramaphosa, and the propelling force behind this peace initiative is Jean-Yves Ollivier, a French businessman and longtime peace negotiator who played an important role in resolving the South African Border War.

South Africa, as the leader of the delegation, continues to walk a delicate tightrope in maintaining close ties with both the United States and Russia. South Africa is at once widely perceived as Russia’s closest ally in Africa and one of the most important allies of the United States on the continent. During the apartheid era, the Soviet Union supported the liberation movement led by the African National Congress (ANC) by providing military training to its members. Almost 30 years after the end of apartheid, the ANC continues to dominate South African politics, and some ANC leaders carry a fondness for Russia’s past support for the anti-apartheid movement. Also in the present, the two countries are members of BRICS alliance (which consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), a powerful collective of major economies with significant global influence.

In February of this year, South Africa held naval drills with Russia and China off the coast of Durban, drawing significant criticism from countries aligned with Ukraine. In May, South Africa was involved in a diplomatic spat with the United States, with the latter accusing the former of shipping arms to Russia. All in all, South Africa’s delicate diplomatic dance to appease both the United States and Russia has become near impossible since the start of the war in Ukraine. Despite South Africa’s professed neutral stance toward the war in Ukraine, historical ties and recent events have thrown its neutrality into doubt. By leading this peace delegation, South Africa hopes to dampen accusations of favoritism toward Russia.

Africa’s Two Policy Approaches to the War in Ukraine

Over a year into the devastating Russian war in Ukraine, African policy toward the conflict can roughly be split into two approaches: countries positioned against Russia’s war in Ukraine, and countries maintaining a policy of strategic nonalignment. The few countries explicitly in favor of Russia’s war, namely Mali and Eritrea, have been outliers.

Three key votes at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) demonstrate the two approaches by African countries. Two consecutive resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine passed the UNGA with roughly 50 percent of African countries voting in favor and the remaining half either choosing to abstain or absent from the vote. In 2023, only Eritrea and Mali voted against the resolution. In 2022, it was only the former that voted against the resolution.

A resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council that passed the UNGA was more divisive within the African bloc. Out of 54 African countries, 24 chose to abstain, 12 were absent, 10 countries voted in favor, and 9 voted against.

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Overall, the high number of abstentions and absences from the African bloc during UNGA votes has raised concerns within Western foreign policy spheres that nonalignment reflects Russia’s growing reach on the continent. This, in turn, has jumpstarted a Western rebalancing toward Africa with high-level visits and initiatives by the United States and Western Europe to court the favor of African countries.

While there is certainly some truth to Russia’s growing reach on the continent (particularly with the growing presence of the Wagner Group in West and Central Africa), strategic nonalignment is a long-standing foreign policy approach that dates back to the Cold War, when the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) emerged. As alliances formed between the United States and the Soviet Union, pressure quickly ramped up for states to pick sides. The principles of nonalignment were formally articulated in 1955 during the pivotal Bandung Conference, the first major Asian-African conference in history. In 1961, the NAM was officially formed. Countries that were unwilling to become openly involved in great power conflict, particularly countries in the Global South that had recently gained their independence, adopted the nonalignment approach.

Nonalignment is a tried and tested diplomatic approach, which, when successfully deployed, spares practicing states from the fallout of openly picking sides during great power competition.

Interestingly, the nonaligned stance of many African countries circumstantially makes this delegation suited for the task of neutral peace talks. However, it is unlikely that the delegation will make inroads to a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Russia and Ukraine, with vastly different objectives, do not seem ready to reach any peace negotiations, and the African delegation does not hold much leverage over them to move peace negotiations forward. The main focus of the delegation is expected to be improving access to Russian and Ukrainian grains and fertilizers.

A Global Food Crisis and a Historic Drought in the Horn

African countries have not been left unscathed by the war. Africa relies heavily on grain and fertilizer exports from Ukraine and Russia. Prior to the war, Ukraine and Russia were two of the world’s largest grain exporters and together supplied roughly a quarter of the world’s wheat in 2019. Russia is also the top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers and a leading exporter of potassium and phosphorus fertilizers.

For six months following the start of the war, between February and August 2022, Ukrainian wheat was stuck in ports in the Black Sea, blocked by Russia’s navy. While Russian wheat was not sanctioned, Russia’s partial ban from the SWIFT payment system made it significantly harder to purchase it. Global wheat markets were sent into turmoil. This coincided with an acute food crisis in the Horn of Africa, which has been facing one of its worst droughts in 40 years. As the region enters its sixth consecutive failed rainy season, drought, conflict, and climate have put more than 46 million people at risk of acute food insecurity in the Horn.

The increase in global wheat prices and decrease in supply were particularly devastating for Egypt, the world’s top importer of wheat. (Egypt’s wheat imports were valued at $4.5 billion in 2021.) Egypt’s beleaguered economy took another hit in the past year as the cost of essentials such as rice and bread have doubled, and the price of chicken and other meats almost doubled as well.

The outbreak of the war in Ukraine found President Macky Sall in the position of chairman of the African Union, a powerful role that rotates annually between heads of state. The pressing need for Ukraine’s grains prompted President Sall to travel to Sochi in June 2022 to negotiate the release of grain supplies. Sall was not immediately successful in securing grain exports, but a month later, a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations to create a safe corridor to Ukraine’s port in the Black Sea came into effect. The agreement, called the Black Sea Grain Initiative, allows for the export of commercial food and fertilizers from Ukraine, which eased some of these shortages. A separate, three-year agreement was reached for Russian food and fertilizer to reach global markets.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative remains incredibly fragile. The agreement has to be renewed every 120 days, which Russia has used as leverage to gain more concessions from other international actors. Just this week, ahead of the delegation’s visit, President Putin threatened to withdraw from the initiative, citing difficulties in getting Russian agricultural goods to global markets. The African peace delegation is expected to push for a more stable grain deal. This could include lengthening the renewal timeframe from 120 days to six months or more, which will provide more certainty to global markets and for Ukrainian farmers, who remain uncertain that their crops can be exported under the current fragile agreement. Furthermore, opening more ports under the grain deal will allow more agricultural products to flow from Ukraine. Ultimately, having Russia agree to extend the renewal time frame for the deal and opening more ports will be a herculean task that will require significant concessions made to Russia. These concessions were laid out in a letter to UN officials from Russia’s UN representative Vasily Nebenzya. It includes demands for the Russian Agricultural Bank to return to SWIFT and to lift restrictions on access to ports for Russian ships and cargo.

Where Is the African Delegation to Sudan?

The delegation’s trip comes two months into a bitter conflict in Sudan. Fighting between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has killed thousands, displaced roughly two million people, and left some without access to food, electricity, or medicine. Successive internationally brokered ceasefires have collapsed, and delivering humanitarian aid to civilians remains an immense challenge. The crisis in Sudan has left people wondering: Why is a powerful delegation of African leaders jetting off to solve a war in Europe while Sudan is being torn apart?

There is a logistical answer, which is simply that the delegation had planned this visit before the outbreak of conflict in Sudan in early May. But the question points to a larger frustration with the slow-moving diplomatic response by African states to push for ceasefires, establish humanitarian corridors, and provide assistance to refugees from Sudan. The criticisms are valid and perhaps warranted. But there remains immense value in this delegation’s trip in addressing food security issues and pushing for greater access to agricultural products from Ukraine and Russia.

The war in Ukraine has had a devastating impact on Africa’s food security. The delegation’s visit is a chance for Africa to play a constructive role in addressing grain and fertilizer shortages affecting the continent and countries around the world. However, the delegation’s success will depend on the willingness of Russia and Ukraine to compromise.

Catherine Nzuki is an associate fellow with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

Catherine would like to thank Emma Dodd, program coordinator with the CSIS Global Food Security Project, for her contribution to this piece. Catherine would also like to thank Katherine Stark and Rayna Salam for their assistance throughout the editing and publication process.