Africa: Beyond Bread: Ukraine-Africa Diplomacy

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, African countries have been lukewarm towards Kyiv’s cause. In March 2022, only 28 out of 54 states on the continent signed onto a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Putin’s incursion. Fast-forward to February 2023, 30 out of 54 assented to a near-identical measure. Resolutions on suspending Moscow from the UN Human Rights Council and calling for war reparations have garnered even less approval: ten and fifteen yeses, respectively. A large proportion of the UN’s Africa Group has chosen to abstain on Ukraine-related issues.

Why is Kyiv struggling on the continent? Lack of communication is a major factor. Long-lasting relations and diplomatic infrastructure needed to make Ukraine’s case are scant. The country maintains a mere 10 embassies in Africa – compared to Moscow’s 43. Since independence in 1991, Ukrainian statecraft has focused on a tug-of-war between European and Russian courtship. Issues in one’s backyard are important. Yet, “there is a global dimension to diplomacy that historically has been neglected due to different priority setting”, says Ueli Staeger, a research fellow at the University of Geneva, during an interview.

This situation does not bode well. According to George Erman, a BBC Ukraine journalist, Kyiv has four major diplomatic objectives: “to get support for territorial integrity; to get support for a special tribunal against Russia; to get support for reparations; and to get support for the Crimean Platform [a consultation forum aiming to secure Ukrainian sovereignty over that territory]”. Backing from non-Western countries is vital to realising and legitimising these goals.

The Zelenskyy administration is aware of this conundrum. In July 2022, Kyiv appointed a Special Representative for Africa and the Middle East, Maksym Subkh. In October, Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, visited Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Ghana: the first trip to Africa that any such officeholder had made. Another tour followed this May – to Morocco, Rwanda, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, including the African Union. A third – to Equatorial Guinea and Liberia – ensued in July. Kuleba has touted his country’s importance to global food security; avenues for future co-operation; and willingness to support greater African representation in international bodies. Ukraine has also promised to open 10 new embassies on the continent.

“Dmytro Kuleba understands that African countries want to get something useful for themselves” says Erman. “So, Ukraine needs to support African countries in international organisations and needs to provide some useful help in different sectors.”

Yet, despite promises, questions remain about Kyiv’s ability to project influence. The state of the grain trade is elucidating. Much has been made of Ukraine’s importance to food security. Prior to the invasion, the country was Africa’s second largest external supplier of maize and third largest external supplier of wheat. Since the outbreak of war, however, exports have mostly dried up. Wheat is a prime example. In 2021, Egypt was the largest global recipient of the Ukrainian product ($851 million in trade); Nigeria, the fourth ($490 million); and Ethiopia, the fifth ($440 million). Under the Black Sea Grain Initiative (a deal aimed at facilitating grain exports during Putin’s conflict), the bulk of Ukraine’s wheat has gone to Asia and Europe. Only Egypt makes the top five recipients. Moscow’s recent axing of the Initiative makes the future seem even less fruitful. Russian maritime meddling has severed a vital economic link that could foster warmer relations. Blockading ports will also harm a major humanitarian project of Kyiv, “Grain from Ukraine”, meant to alleviate Global South food insecurity.

Co-operation in international organisations leads to another dead-end. In a recent Africa Day speech, Kuleba called “for a more representative and democratic Security Council in which Africa, like all other world regions, will be represented”. Such an assertion creates a bind. Dipping into “multipolar world” discourse threatens to alienate Ukraine’s greatest allies – the United States and European Union. The country can’t both rely on Western power for defence and call for an end to a Western dominated international order. The Zelenskyy administration can draw attention to some common concerns over territorial integrity and foreign interventionism. It is difficult to share the Global South’s vision of American hegemony’s demise.

Severed trade and diplomatic difficulties are not, however, cause for all doom and gloom. Kyiv still has much to offer. Resilient high-skilled sectors are potentially invaluable. Co-operation in areas like information technology (IT) and electric grid management offer solutions for a continent looking to speed up development.

Ukraine retains a robust IT sector. Some 285 000 Ukrainians work in tech. Despite war, the value of the sector’s exports grew 5% to $7.34 billion in 2022. The public sector contributes to innovation. The government-run Diia app allows citizens to store ID documents; file taxes; and report Russian troop movements. Launched in 2019, the app is downloaded on 70% of Ukrainian smartphones. USAID, a major contributor to the programme’s development, plans on helping to roll-out “Diia-like systems” in the developing world. Zambia recently signed onto the scheme. The Zelenskyy administration would be wise to take an active role in this initiative. Platforms like Diia can support countries that struggle with adequate roll-out of public services. The software’s impersonal interface also helps tackle bureaucratic corruption: a major issue in Ukraine and some African nations.

“One of the areas where Ukraine [has] also made significant progress is in managing energy systems” says Dzvinka Kachur, an energy expert and the Honorary President of the Ukrainian Association of South Africa. The country’s grid has managed to rebound from a series of targeted bombardments that started in late-2022. “Currently the power is on all the time – apart from those areas that are under constant shelling”, Kachur states in an interview, “the capacity to restore the grid has been very impressive”. Much of the continent can empathise with Ukrainians’ plight. Nearly half of Africa’s population is without electricity. Comparably developed economies like Nigeria and South Africa struggle with grid management. Aid in infrastructural roll-out and maintenance is an avenue for Kyiv to contribute to development.

On the face of it, Ukraine’s prospects for diplomatic inroads in Africa look bleak. A highly valuable grain export industry has collapsed. Kyiv can draw attention to some shared diplomatic concerns, though “multipolar world” advocacy would not be strategic. Its enemy has a major diplomatic head start. Yet, despite war, the country has outsized capabilities in areas critical for African growth. Ukrainian expertise in IT, energy and other high-skilled sectors can help the continent harness the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. Moscow has been keen to play on Africa’s justified grievances. To win allies, the Zelenskyy administration should show that it has some solutions.

Matthew Strachan was a research intern at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg at the time of writing.


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