Ukraine sows its offensive across Africa through grain diplomacy

By Eliud Kibii
Posted on Monday, 5 December 2022 15:50

The Lebanese-flagged bulk carrier Brave Commander grain ship carrying humanitarian food aid cargo of wheat for Ethiopia, departs from Yuzhne in Odessa region, Ukraine, on August 16, 2022. (Photo by Vladimir Shtanko / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP)

In a virtual media briefing with African journalists on 28 November, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country will send ships with wheat at zero cost to recipient African states to alleviate the acute food crisis. Is this an effort by Kyiv to encourage more support against Russia?

“In November, we launched the Grain From Ukraine humanitarian programme under which we will provide essential food products to those most vulnerable. Until spring 2023, we plan to supply at least five million people across the African continent as part of this humanitarian effort. This will be possible through the dispatch of 1 to 10 ships per month during 2023,” Kuleba said in the briefing.

Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Nigeria will be among the primary beneficiaries.

“All of these are not plans, but an established mechanism that has already started working. [The] first ships have already departed,” Kuleba said.

Kenya has already received donations of wheat:

  • On October 18, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Kenya Andriy Pravednyk received the Super Henry ship that brought 51,4000 tonnes of wheat from Ukraine.
  • On 22 November, during a courtesy call to Kenya’s Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Pravednyk announced another donation of 25,000 tonnes of wheat under the Grain From Ukraine programme.
  • On 26 November, Kenya received 53,300 tonnes of Ukrainian wheat.

Asked about the donation, the envoy said Ukraine is determined to lend a helping hand to those who need it most and prevent a global hunger wave.

A united position of African countries is required to preserve [the] ‘grain corridor’ and prevent [a] global food crisis,” he said.

However, there is no free lunch: the initiative is seen as Ukraine’s bid to enhance ties with African states and gain political support amidst Russia’s invasion.

Kuleba’s Africa trip

The announcement of the programme came after Kuleba’s Africa tour in October, his first on the continent.

Before cutting his 10-day trip to “coordinate a resolute response to Russian attacks”, the Ukrainian foreign minister had been to Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Ghana, and Kenya.

“When I toured African countries in October, food security was the top-priority topic. I assured my African counterparts and their countries: Ukraine remains committed to the Grain Initiative and spares no effort to expand food exports to African countries. We have kept our word,” the minister said.

In what appears to be a diplomatic offensive to counter Russia’s influence, Kuleba said Ukrainian-African relations are undergoing a renaissance.

“We come to Africa with an open heart, ready to work directly and without intermediaries. We don’t want to make friends against anyone. What we want is to build strong bilateral relations with each country based on mutual respect, mutual support, and mutual interests. I am confident that both we and you are interested in this,” he said.

Neutrality will only encourage Russia to continue its aggression and malign activities across the world, including in Africa

The top diplomat further observed that Ukraine has a lot to share with Africa, from agricultural products and technologies to digital transformation and education.

“We are happy to share our goods, our experience, our knowledge and count on African partners opening up new business opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors from Ukraine. I am confident the Ukrainian-African renaissance will continue and yield even more results for both Ukraine and African nations,” he said.

During his October visit, Kuleba had urged Africa not to stay neutral in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

“Neutrality will only encourage Russia to continue its aggression and malign activities across the world, including in Africa. Moscow must hear your message that this war is unacceptable and must stop,” Kuleba said.

When asked if the voting patterns at the UN General Assembly influenced the grain beneficiaries, Kuleba said it was not a consideration, citing Ethiopia, which has largely abstained.

His visit was seen as another attempt to counter Russia’s narrative on the continent. It followed that of Russia’s long-serving Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who visited Egypt, the Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia. 

To complete Kuleba’s tour, the Ukrainian ministry of foreign affairs is preparing a second trip that will cover Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya in the first quarter of 2023.

Past ties with Africa

Ukraine has been at a disadvantage in its relations with Africa as it only gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Ukraine’s presence in Africa is limited, having only 11 embassies across the continent: Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia. Russia, on the other hand, has at least 41 missions in Africa and is gaining more influence, especially in West Africa.

They were asking for our support, but we could see pictures of what they were doing to African students there

“We are currently focusing on sub-Saharan Africa, which no one in Ukraine has dealt with and in which Russia now has a strong position,” Ukraine’s Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa Maksym Subkh told ZN.UA in an interview.

Since 2016, Kyiv has made bold attempts to break into the continent. This was soon after the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia.

Myroslava Shcherbatiuk, then MFA Director-General for the Middle East and Africa — now ambassador to Jordan — cited Ukraine’s observer status to the African Union since June 2016 and to the Economic Community of West African States since 2017.

“This is yet another proof of the importance that Ukraine pays to the development of mutually beneficial cooperation with the continent,” Shcherbatiuk said in October 2019.

She added that despite the geographical distance, there were many dimensions to Ukraine-Africa cooperation, such as:

  • interaction in the international arena, especially within the UN framework,
  • trade and economic opportunities,
  • education and
  • people-to-people relations.

Ukraine also backed Kenya’s candidature for the UN Security Council’s non-permanent seat for 2021-22 representing Africa.

Disguised disappointment

Macharia Munene, of the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies, agrees that Ukraine is seeking support from African states as it was disappointed with the voting trends at the UNGA. Most countries either abstained from or opposed a resolution to condemn the Russian invasion.

“[…] this war has affected Ukraine greatly because it is being destroyed as a country and we sympathise with them. That does not mean we lose our heads in looking at the bigger context because really, [Ukraine is] a battle ground between Russia and the West,” says Munene, professor of International Relations at USIU, terming the war as an extension of the Cold War.

[Ukraine is] a battle ground between Russia and the West

In this context, Munene says through its recent overtures, Ukraine will be heard and better understood in Africa, but that will not necessarily mean African countries will condemn Russia.

Patrick Gathara, a political cartoonist and commentator on international affairs, says there has been outreach from both Russia and Ukraine. However, he thinks Ukrainians have a strong case in saying the invasion is illegal and should be condemned by everyone.

“They have also recognised, although belatedly – in a way – [that] at the time the invasion started, their behaviour against Africans was harming their own cause. They were asking for our support, but we could see pictures of what they were doing to African students there,” Gathara says.

He does not believe the overtures of offering grain will change many minds as “many people recognise it is up to Russia to open up the ports to allow the grain to go and that’s what our interest is in, not just charity, but to actually have the problem solved”.

He adds that the decisions at the UNGA will be dictated by the countries’ interests.

“They don’t want to piss off Russia too much and many will also be saying Ukraine is treated differently from Palestine, for example; so unless the West sorts out its hypocrisy issue, I think they will still hold out.”

[…] the West, by including itself in this, in essence taints the entire project’s prospects

Kizito Sabala, a diplomacy and IR expert, agrees. He notes that without a common voice at the AU level to guide its members, member states are left to make their own decisions based on national interests.

“These decisions will carefully consider the benefits of individual states relations with Ukraine, Russia, EU member[…] states and the US. They have been trying to balance this,” Sabala tells The Africa Report.

“In my view, the conflict in Ukraine will not in a major way affect African states’ relation with Russia, Ukraine, EU and US. The posture taken by most African states is that of ‘neutrality’ if I may call it that way,” he says.

African states view the Russia-Ukraine conflict as in fact between Russia and the West, which Gathara says was indeed the framing by the latter.

“People might conflate support for Ukraine for support for the West and that’s problematic because while one can stand with Ukraine’s struggle against a foreign invader, the West, by including itself in this in essence taints the entire project’s prospects.”

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