Decoding Volodymyr Zelensky’s African Union Address

For several weeks, the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, had been seeking the opportunity to speak to heads of states of the African continent, on the African Union platform. Finally, on June 20, 2022, President Zelensky was granted his wish to address the African Union virtually. However, only four out of 54 African leaders showed up: Macky Sall, President of Senegal and current African Union Chairperson, Alassane Ouattara, President of Côte d’Ivoire, Mohammed al-Menfi, President of the Libyan Council and Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Republic of Congo. Although the full recording of the meeting was not made public, a few excerpts are accessible. In his speech, Zelensky said Ukraine considers the African continent to be an important partner and believes that mutual relations should be further enhanced. He also reminded the Ukrainian participation in several peacekeeping missions in Africa (in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, South Sudan and Abyei) and announced the intention to appoint a special Ukrainian envoy for Africa and proposed the organization of a Ukraine-Africa political and economic conference. He also appealed to the African heads of state, at least to those, who attended, not to let themselves become victims of Russian blackmailing and maintain mutual cooperation between Ukraine and Africa. He made clear that he understands “how distant the war might seem to African countries,” but he highlighted the “unfair and catastrophically rising food prices,” which are the direct and global impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Zelensky also mentioned that the prices of food will continue to rise as long as Russia continues its “colonial war against Ukraine” and the blocking of Ukrainian ports.

Africa-Ukraine trade relations

Organizing this virtual event could have been indeed an attempt by the AU to engage the Ukrainian side as a counterbalance to previous communications with Russian President, Vladimir Putin. In fact, President Macky Sall, current AU Chair, held talks with Putin on June 3, 2022, discussing mainly the food security crisis on the African continent. According to Sall, President Putin was ready to “facilitate the export of Ukrainian grain,” which first and foremost points out the ongoing (and multiple times denied) Russian sea blockade of Ukrainian ports, and secondly raises the question of how exactly Russia would facilitate the export of other country’s grain supplies. Such statements explain Zelensky’s determined effort to also address leaders and decision-makers on the African continent.

One of the reasons for the continuous rise of food prices in Africa is indeed the war in Ukraine since Ukraine and Russia are the leading exporters of wheat (9 and 18 per cent share of global trade respectively) and crucial exporters of sunflower oil and seeds (36 and 17 per cent share of global trade respectively). African countries are then highly dependent on both exporters, though the specific proportions differ. According to the UNCTAD report, Benin imports 100 per cent of its wheat from Russia, while Sudan imports from Russia approximately 70 per cent of wheat. It is quite understandable that these countries would not want to endanger their supplies of wheat by openly supporting Ukraine. However, there are also countries with major wheat imports from Ukraine, like Somalia (70 per cent of total wheat import), Tunisia (importing 50 per cent from Ukraine and less than 10 per cent from Russia), Libya (importing 40 per cent from Ukraine and 15 per cent from Russia) or Mauritania (importing 30 per cent from Ukraine and 15 per cent from Russia). For these countries, the prolonged war in Ukraine and the Russian sea blockade of Ukrainian ports might be devastating. That makes the absence of the leaders of these countries even more surprising.

At this stage, even switching Ukraine for Russia as the main supplier would not solve the situation due to Russian reduced export, and the incapacity to produce a sufficient amount of wheat and sunflower seeds and lastly, due to economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the West in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine that are in violation of international law.  The situation calls for rational and informed decisions by sovereign states. This virtual meeting could have served as a constructive platform to discuss this pressing topic of mutual trade relations.

Neutral or Impartial?

While the general explanation of such attendance operates with the term “neutrality on the war in Ukraine”, it is striking that not even the biggest importers of Ukrainian products (Somalia, Tunisia, and Mauritania) attended this virtual meeting, except for Mohammed el-Menfi, President of the Libyan Council. Moreover, there is a significant distinction between “neutrality and “impartiality” and should the African continent want to be neutral, it would mean not to engage with any of the conflict sides. In fact, it is in the interest of African countries to be impartial and keep the communication channels open with both sides.

The African countries’ neutrality comes into question. Borrowing the terms from peacekeeping theory, neutrality is understood as a passive state or limited actions and the absence of decisive views of a third party. Reflecting the above-mentioned facts, African countries are surely undecided, nonetheless, they were keeping communication channels with Russia open, while a meeting with President Zelensky was repeatedly postponed. The difficult situation of the continent is more than understandable. However, the African countries are sovereign states with their own domestic and foreign policies. Their leaders should reflect the country’s specific import mix and act accordingly in the diplomatic area. Africa can benefit more from a principle of impartiality, meaning it should continue to carry out actions independent of the parties to a conflict, continue with fair treatment, communication, and bilateral trade with both sides (if previously present), or, if needed, to seek a third-party importer and diversify.

Building bilateral relations

Given the number of individual states on the African continent and their diverse import mix, any further negotiations and talks with Russia and Ukraine will be probably held at the bilateral level. Moreover, African countries are divided on their stance toward the war in Ukraine. During the vote at the United Nations General Assembly on March 2, 2022, 28 countries voted in favour of a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 17 abstained, seven were not present or have their vote right suspended, and Eritrea voted against it. Each country on the African continent is sovereign and should act as such. Under the current circumstances, this means securing food supplies and acting proactively, which applies to both, those dependent on Russian as well as Ukrainian supplies.

Čáslavová is a Visiting Resident Fellow at the HORN Institute

Photo: Ukrainian President Volodymyr at a past virtual address (Photo Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

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