Ukraine crisis signals the rise of African realpolitik - Hindustan Times
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Ukraine crisis signals the rise of African realpolitik

ByHindustan Times
Mar 01, 2023 11:58 AM IST

The article has been authored by Samir Bhattacharya, senior research associate with the Vivekananda International Foundation and doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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. 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.

The post-pandemic food demand, extreme weather, supply chain bottlenecks, and export restrictions all harmed the African food market. PREMIUM
The post-pandemic food demand, extreme weather, supply chain bottlenecks, and export restrictions all harmed the African food market.

Despite disparities and some systemic issues, such as poverty, malnutrition, and inequality, Africa's economic development was the second-fastest in the world until the fourth quarter of 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic, on the other hand, slowed development in Sub-Saharan Africa to the point of undoing years of social and economic progress.

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 would exacerbate 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 will rise. Price increases, particularly in food, will devastate the continent's poor.

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.

During President Putin's visit to Egypt in 2017, an agreement was reached for Rosatom to build the El Dabaa nuclear power plant in Egypt. Russia offered Egypt a $25 billion loan to cover 85% of the project's cost. Rwanda also signed an agreement with Rosatom in 2019 to build a nuclear research centre and reactor in Kigali. Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Zambia have all signed similar treaties with Russia. Because of the current situation, these projects may be postponed or cancelled entirely, raising serious concerns about the continent's energy security.

Africa commemorated the OAU's 50th anniversary in 2013. AU also celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. However, the Covid-19-induced rise in food prices, drought in some African countries, and unrest in Ukraine hampered this year's festivities. Another major source of concern is the continent's ongoing political turmoil. Despite implementing a multifaceted strategy to end ethnic conflicts, civil war persists in many African countries. The Russia-Ukraine war has highlighted the continent's reliance on grain and fertiliser imported from Russia and Ukraine. While European sanctions against Russia impact their energy sources, the recovering African economies suffer the most, as they are less capable of adapting to these changing realities. Undoubtedly, the rising cost of hydrocarbons and food prices are having the most significant impact on Africa's fragile states, potentially delaying the implementation of the much-needed Agenda 2063.

Except for the pandemic's effects, the continent's Gross Domestic Product 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.

While the world tries to avoid a new world war from emanating in Ukraine, Africa remains divided. African countries must tread carefully vis-a-vis the Ukraine crisis, and must prioritise their national interests. Clearly, the post-Ukraine crisis world is going to be turbulent for Africa. The pandemic's negative effects were already affecting Africa's public health and economy. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine would pose new challenges to the continent's growth and development, stifling its slow progress toward Agenda 2063. The Ukraine crisis will have a significant impact particularly on Africa's food and energy security.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York voted on a resolution demanding that Russia's military leave Ukraine on March 2. 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 UNGA. 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, quite rightfully. Going forward, African leaders must think strategically, removing emotions and personal gain from policy decisions.

The article has been authored by Samir Bhattacharya, senior research associate with the Vivekananda International Foundation and doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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