Russia-Ukraine: A balancing act for Macky Sall, the voice of Senegal and the AU

By Mawunyo Hermann Boko
Posted on Wednesday, 16 March 2022 17:39, updated on Thursday, 17 March 2022 08:12

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Senegal's President Macky Sall, European Council President Charles Michel and France's President Emmanuel Macron pose after a news conference on the second day of the European Union (EU) African Union (AU) summit at The European Council Building in Brussels, Belgium February 18, 2022. John Thys/Pool via REUTERS

What role should Africa play in resolving the Ukrainian conflict? Current African Union (AU) chairperson Macky Sall is determined to be the voice of the continent in terms of this war. On 9 March, the Senegalese head of state spoke “at his own initiative” with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin “to call for a lasting ceasefire in Ukraine”. The telephone call came as the conflict stretched into its twentieth day.

“By calling Putin, Macky Sall wants to position himself as a credible referee between Russia and Ukraine,” said a diplomatic source. For the ceremonial head of the AU, there is of course a symbolic and diplomatic stake in his desire to weigh in on a conflict that, despite being played out thousands of kilometres from Dakar and Addis Ababa, remains the focus of global attention and is polarising the international community. There is also an economic and social need. Africa knows that it will not escape the economic consequences of this war.

Since the first hours of the conflict, the price of a barrel of oil has risen sharply, reaching a peak of $129 on 8 March. Although it is now hovering around $100, the price is still at a level not seen since September 2014.

Counting the costs

These fluctuations will have an impact on the energy bills of non-producing countries and will lead to an increase in transport costs and therefore consumer goods. Rising prices for wheat, of which Russia and Ukraine are the world’s main producers, are also a major concern. In North Africa, but also in several sub-Saharan countries, prices for basic foodstuffs have already soared.

“In this context, it is absolutely necessary to make Africa’s voice heard,” says a Beninese diplomat, for whom “any calming role the AU can play in this conflict will not be useless.” Especially since no one knows how long the war will last.

New rounds of ceasefire negotiations began on 14 March by video conference as the conflict spread westwards. The day before, a military base near the Polish border used by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops until February was targeted by Russian strikes.

A vote to abstain, along with Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso

Sall is walking a diplomatic tightrope. Senegal’s President has to take into account the continent’s divisions, illustrated by the United Nations (UN) vote on 2 March. On that day, the UN’s non-binding resolution demanded “the immediate and unconditional withdrawal” of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory. The text was overwhelmingly approved by 141 countries. Five states – including Eritrea – voted against, and 33 abstained.

Among the abstainers were 17 African states, including Senegal, anxious to spare their Russian ally without alienating Europe and the United States. Dakar’s position may seem surprising given its privileged relations with Washington and Paris. It also goes against the communiqué signed by Sall on behalf of the AU, which calls on “the Russian Federation and any other regional or international actor to imperatively respect international law, territorial integrity and the national sovereignty of Ukraine”.

A former diplomat from Senegal says: “We did not understand this vote [to abstain] by Senegal. In the Economic Community of West Africa States region, it has put itself on the same level as Mali, Guinea or Burkina Faso, which are led by military juntas and which also abstained.”

‘Prudence and wisdom’

In a council of ministers meeting held just after the vote, Sall invoked “the principle of non-alignment and peaceful settlement of disputes” to justify his country’s vote at the UN. A week later, foreign affairs minister Aïssata Tall Sall explained to Radio France Internationale that Sall’s mandate as the head of the AU “does not allow him to take too strong a position”. She added: “This Senegalese position is well thought out. It is not carte blanche for anyone.”

During the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Dakar did not condemn Moscow. “The natural role of our country in the world is to work for peace and the rapprochement of societies. That is why we abstain,” added the diplomatic source quoted above. “It is a prudent posture but also a wise one. If you want to play the mediator between two conflicting parties, you can’t condemn one over the other. In order to be credible, you have to be neutral.”

However, this neutrality disappeared when it came to condemning Russia at the UN Human Rights Council on 4 March. Has the country yielded to pressure from its Western partners? No, says foreign affairs minister Tall: “Senegal did that with total liberty, in complete independence, because it then considered that this massive exodus of Ukrainians and other nationals living in Ukraine had become something intolerable. This is what we call our sovereign diplomacy, without exclusion but [also] without exclusivity.”

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