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Report of Monday Morning Webinar on The Ukraine Crisis: Africa’s Response

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  • March 21, 2022
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Ms. Ruchita Beri, Senior Research Associate and Centre Coordinator, Africa, Latin America, Caribbean and United Nations (ALACUN) Centre, MP-IDSA, spoke on “The Ukraine Crisis: Africa’s Response” at the Monday Morning Webinar held on March 21, 2022. Col. Deepak Kumar, Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator, Europe and Eurasia Centre, MP-IDSA, chaired the webinar. Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA, Dr. Rajorshi Roy, Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia Centre, MP-IDSA, Dr. Swasti Rao, Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia Centre, MP-IDSA and Ms. Sindhu Dinesh, Research Analyst, ALACUN Centre, MP-IDSA participated as panellists in the discussion. The webinar was attended by scholars of the Institute and invited members.

    Executive Summary

    The webinar shed light on the multiple factors shaping the response of the African countries to the Russia-Ukraine Crisis and its implications for the African continent. Ms. Ruchita Beri underscored that Africa is not a monolith but rather a continent of 54 countries, therefore a divided response would be an obvious scenario. However, considering that African countries seek to portray a united stance on international issues, it was assessed that differing national interests as well as a lack of time for the continent to discuss the matter rigorously amongst each other could have been  contributing factors for the divided response.

    Delving into the underlying factors affecting the African narrative on the crisis, the voting pattern of the African nations at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was explained. The webinar focused on the predominant implications of the Russia-Ukraine crisis on Africa’s military security, energy security and food security crisis. It was observed that the Ukraine crisis posed challenges and opportunities for Africa. Other key issues that were addressed include the numerous African students stuck in Ukraine, issues of racial discrimination during the evacuation process, migration issues and Russia’s military presence in the African continent.

    Detailed Report

    The Chair, Col. Deepak Kumar, began the webinar by sharing introductory remarks on Russia’s ongoing special military operation against Ukraine and its aftershocks being felt across the world due to interdependent supply chains which reinforces embeddedness among nation-states. He stated that Ukraine and Russia play an important role in Africa and the Russia-Ukraine crisis has immediate as well as long-term implications on the economy and politics of the African continent. He raised concerns about the likely food shortages and humanitarian crisis in Africa as its agricultural imports from Ukraine and Russia are  impacted, about the political front due to a division among African countries as seen in their vote at the UNGA, strain on the African economies due to the current Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) sanctions on Russia, impact on security due its close military ties and agreements with Russia and finally, on energy which could be an opportunity if Africa focuses on diversifying its export choices away from China. The chair invited the Speaker to further elucidate on these issues.

    Ms. Ruchita Beri, at the outset, underscored that Africa is not a monolith, the continent constitutes 54 countries and thereby naturally the response would not be uniform. She enumerated the factors shaping Africa’s response to the crisis, the African continent’s connection with Russia and Ukraine, related issues and implications of the crisis for African countries. She explained that although Africa has been seeking an integrated response on global issues, the divided response reflects disunity. Ms. Beri assessed that the divided response was evident at various stages: the African Union (AU) statement, voting on the resolution at the UNSC and the vote at the emergency session of the UNGA. The first response from the continent came from the AU, wherein the President of Senegal, the current AU Chair called for respecting international law by all parties.

    Stating that the African countries in the UNSC “A3”, voted in favour of the US sponsored resolution against aggression by Russia, Ms. Beri reflected on the speech by the Kenyan UN Ambassador. The speech which focused on Kenya’s opposition to Russian action, against unilateral changing of colonial boundaries and highlighted that African countries have sought to integrate their colonial borders has been hailed as one of the best speeches in recent times. With regard to the voting pattern in the UNGA, she mentioned that 28 African countries voted for the resolution supporting Ukraine, while 17 abstained, one country, Eritrea, voted in support of Russia and the remaining eight African countries were absent from the session.

    Shedding light on the factors that shaped this divided African response, Ms. Beri stated that the countries which voted in support of Ukraine share close political and military ties with Western countries as some of them have their bases in Africa. On the other hand, the countries that abstained from the vote share historically close ties with the former Soviet Union. She mentioned another factor could be that Russia has over the last few years invested in improving ties with African countries, increased its military support and is the largest weapons exporter to the continent. Additionally, racial discrimination against African students in Ukraine by not permitting them to board trains or cross the border during the evacuation process led to an outcry against Ukraine.

    Ms. Beri analysed another issue, that was the faulty portrayal of African migrants by European media. Elucidating on the African narrative towards the Ukraine crisis, she remarked on the double standards of the western countries evident in the speed of their response towards conflicts in Africa vis-à-vis conflict in their region. Ms. Beri assessed that the ‘A3’ countries in UNSC – Gabon, Ghana and Kenya voted based on their own national interest and did not coordinate with the AU.

    The speaker explained that the Ukraine crisis poses challenges and opportunities for the African countries. The opportunity was the likely increase in investment in natural gas and oil producing countries which could increase exports to the European markets. Ms. Beri stated that the challenges include rising prices of oil, increase in Africa’s population in urban areas whose needs are unmet by the existing agricultural produce, Africa’s dependence on import of food which is being affected and would lead to a food security crisis. On a concluding note, Ms. Beri reiterated that the position of the African countries on the Russia-Ukraine crisis was nuanced and complex. She analysed that the Ukrainian crisis could result in further marginalisation of Africa in the future.

    Complimenting the speaker on her presentation, the Chair shared a few key takeaways. Col. Kumar remarked on the lack of unity in voting considering Africa is not a monolith but rather different countries with their own interests and challenges, the clear divide between African countries supporting the West and Russia, division in the western response towards African citizens vis-à-vis European citizens, opportunities for the oil producing African countries and the serious challenge of food security. He enquired about the future of Russia’s military agreements with the African countries and about military imports from Russia, and if the void in market would be filled by western countries.

    Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.) complimented the speaker for an enlightening presentation on the impact of the crisis on Africa and shared his thoughts on the repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis on the international order, commercial systems and energy supply chains. He reflected that across the world there was a divided reaction to the Ukrainian crisis and substantiated it with the remarks shared by the German Chief of Naval Staff and French Admiral during their visit to MP-IDSA. Regarding fragmentation and integration of colonial boundaries, he stated that countries in Asia too were facing reverberations of the colonial borders. Mentioning the treatment towards African students, Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bakshi suggested that perhaps they could have also been allowed to enter from the Russian side and opined that Ukraine deliberately blocked the possibility in order to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

    During the Panel discussion, Dr. Rajorshi Roy observed that the geopolitical environment for Russia is currently far more hostile than it has been since 1991. He shared that considering Africa is a priority for Russia and the country is becoming an international pariah, Russia would seek support from countries with which it shares its equities including African countries. Dr. Swasti Rao shared her observations and raised queries on the reasons for not exploring the possibility of the sea-route for evacuation of Indians; and on Russia’s increased arms supply to Africa as well as its increased presence on the Southern flank of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in order to balance US dominance in the region. Ms. Sindhu Dinesh requested the speaker to share her thoughts on the role of South Africa as a mediator since President Cyril Ramaphosa had stated South Africa had been approached to mediate on the issue and US had expressed support for the same.

    Ms. Beri responded to the comments and queries. With regard to Russia’s military presence and agreements with African countries she stated that Russia has a presence in Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic and has emerged as an important security partner for Africa. However, there are concerns as to whether Russia would continue the same level of military presence or arms exports in the coming days. She also explained that Europe is involved in funding AU’s military operations and due to the relative lack of interest by major powers, perhaps conflicts in Africa would fester for a longer time. Ms. Beri emphasised that colonial borders have been dealt with differently in Africa from the South Asian context. She observed that since the priority for India was quick evacuation of its citizens, a sea-route was not explored due to feasibility issues of time and arrangement of a humanitarian corridor at the coast. Ms. Beri remarked that owing to South Africa’s previous experience as a successful mediator within the continent and its close ties with Russia and Ukraine, the country may be able to influence the leadership on both sides. However, the successfulness cannot be ascertained.

    The Q/A session drew inputs on the reasons underlying Eritrea’s vote in support of Russia and on the options for Africa to deal with its impending food crisis especially since Russia would utilise its food supply for its own consumption during wartime. The speaker shared that Africa would seek UN Aid and made a mention of India-Africa agricultural trade, wherein African countries through export of pulses to India have helped the country enhance its food security. Ms. Beri assessed that Africa could focus on diversifying its sources of agricultural imports in the future. The Chair concluded the session by drawing attention towards three domains in Africa majorly affected by the Ukrainian crisis – security, energy opportunity and challenge and the food security crisis.

    The report was prepared by Ms. Sindhu Dinesh, Research Analyst, ALACUN Centre.