Biden’s appeal to Africa on Ukraine falls flat at the UN

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Monday, 26 September 2022 13:28

World leaders address the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York City
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York City, U.S., September 21, 2022. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The US and its allies used the first UN General Assembly since the invasion of Ukraine to try unite Africa and the rest of the world against Russia. But they largely failed to convince a continent that has been bearing the brunt of a war with no end in sight.

Addressing the world body on 21 September, US President Joe Biden sought to place the blame squarely on Moscow for the food shortages and rising prices that have exacerbated a drought-induced hunger crisis on the continent.

“Let me be perfectly clear about something: Our sanctions explicitly allow Russia the ability to export food and fertiliser. No limitation,” Biden told the UN. “It’s Russia’s war that is worsening food insecurity, and only Russia can end it.”

The previous evening, French President Emmanuel Macron had gathered several heads of state – including Presidents Macky Sall of Senegal and Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire –  at the French Consulate on 5th Avenue for a working dinner dedicated to improving North-South relations. In his own UN address earlier in the day, Macron acknowledged that many member states shared a “feeling of injustice” toward the war’s consequences on energy, food and national economies, but slammed countries that fail to denounce Russia.

“I know that certain countries represented here have remained in a state of neutrality toward this war, but let me say in the clearest terms today: Those [who] would seek to replicate the [historical] struggle of the non-aligned movement by refusing to clearly express themselves are making a mistake,” Macron said.

Sall was one of several African leaders who was not having it.

[Africa has] suffered enough of the burden of history [and] does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War [between Russia and the West].

Speaking at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) the same day as Macron, the chair of the African Union bluntly asserted that Africa had “suffered enough of the burden of history” and “does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War” between Russia and the West. He called for a negotiated settlement between the two countries to end the war, as opposed to open-ended US military support to Ukraine.

“We call for a de-escalation and a cessation of hostilities in Ukraine as well as for a negotiated solution to avoid the catastrophic risk of a potentially global conflict,” Sall said. “Negotiations and discussions are the best tools we have to promote peace.”

Dwindling support

In its quest to paint Russia as deeply isolated on the world stage, the US has made much about the tiny number of autocratic countries that joined Moscow in voting to block Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from addressing the General Assembly via videoconference. Eritrea was the only African country to join Russia along with fellow international outcasts Belarus, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria.

A careful look at the voting record however reveals widespread weariness with the conflict.

Back in early March, 141 nations – including 28 in Africa – voted to condemn Russia’s invasion, but on 16 September only 101 supported Zelenskyy’s right to address the UN, including just seven African nations.

In  contrast, 46 African countries either abstained or did not vote for the latest resolution, up from 25 in March. The vote was another implicit rebuke of Zelenskyy’s outreach efforts, after his 20 June videoconference to the African Union was watched by just four heads of state (Sall, Ouattara, Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso and Libyan Council President Mohammed el-Menfi).

[…] many African leaders who spoke made reference to the terrible conflict on the African continent

In addition to wanting to avoid a protracted war in Europe, many African nations are also sceptical of Western paeans to national sovereignty following the US invasion of Iraq and the NATO-led intervention in Libya and their conflicts in the Sahel, Mozambique as well as Eastern Congo.

“These are all matters that concern us,” International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor told South Africa’s Times Lives news outlet after her address at the UN assembly. “It was primarily, I think, leaders of the West who referred to Ukraine and Russia, while the many African leaders who spoke made reference to the terrible conflict on the African continent.”

Costly divisions

The divide over Russia has real repercussions.

Determined to help stave off a looming famine that has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, the US announced another $150m in additional humanitarian assistance for Somalia during the UNGA – bringing the total US contribution in response to the drought across the Horn of Africa to more than $2bn.

With the war in Europe impacting food and energy prices while many economies are still reeling from the Covid-19 epidemic, the US has been left largely alone to foot the bill.

While US contributions made up 34% of the response to the 2016-2017 drought, so far, this year, America is footing a whopping 77% of the total, says Sarah Charles, the head of the humanitarian bureau at the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

“This time around, we just haven’t seen that kind of global response to what is in many ways a more severe crisis,” Charles told The Africa Report in an interview on the margins of the General Assembly. “One of my priorities here at UNGA has been to mobilise other donors to respond at scale to the most acute needs.”

While $2bn is a “huge number,” she said “it’s still not enough”.

“[…] I’ve been doing a lot of bilats, with my European Union colleagues, my German colleagues, my fellow large donors to try and mobilise support, as well as a fair amount of outreach to the [Persian] Gulf, given there is some relationship between very high energy prices right now and the high price of food and other inputs on the continent that are driving some of the food security crisis there.”

One of the reasons the United States has been able to quickly surge money toward avoiding the famine, Charles said, is by tying it to the war in Ukraine.

“In the United States, the Ukraine conflict has had a tail that helped raise awareness and concern about the global impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” she said. “And we had very generous supplemental resources from our Congress that recognise not just the humanitarian consequences of Putin’s war on Ukraine, not just the consequences on Ukraine’s neighbours, but the consequences for the globe, and in particular, for Africa, for the Middle East, and elsewhere.”

Other parts of the world, she said, have not made that connection – making it harder to justify additional spending on top of the response to the war, but she said there’d been a shift during the General Assembly.

“UNGA has been in part about that recognition of the global consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” Charles said. “And the need for a global response to those consequences.”

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