The Russian-Ukrainian war, which broke out in late February 2022, has compounded various negative repercussions for Africa, particularly at the economic level in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa have pointed to growing economic damage to African countries as a result of the war due to their heavy reliance on food supplies from both sides. The World Food Programme (WFP) has also shed light on a shortage of emergency supplies to feed the hungry in East Africa. Despite these threats, and the risks associated with this war, opportunities exist that African diplomacy could take advantage of at the moment to enhance Africa’s international standing.
African countries’ official stances on the Russian-Ukrainian war have been mixed since the moment it broke out, in accordance with the goals and self-interest of each individual state. This was evident in the African bloc’s voting behavior at the United Nations on the resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 2 March 2022 demanding Russia "immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders." Of the 54 African member states, 28 approved the resolution, a single country (Eritrea) voted against it, and 17 abstained. Eight others did not vote at all. In total, out of 193 member states, 141 voted in favor, five voted against, and 35 abstained.
In this context, it can be said that nearly half of the African countries in the UN have chosen neutrality in some way. The same was true for the vote on the resolution to oust Russia from the UN Human Rights Council on April 7. A majority of African countries preferred to remain neutral, while only 10 voted in favor and 9 against.
The decision by many African countries to stay neutral and avoid condemning Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine can be explained in light of a number of main reasons:
1. Increasing military dependence on Russia: This is a trend that emerged over the past decade, and has ranged from contracting with private security companies such as the Wagner Group (in the case of Mali, for example) and receiving arms imports. Russia is the largest supplier of weapons to the African continent, which accounted for approximately 49% of Moscow’s total military exports abroad in 2020. Algeria and Egypt ranked first and second on the continent in this regard, with 52% and 35.5% of all Russian arms exports to Africa worth $4.1 billion and $2.8 billion, respectively.
Russia does not focus on integrating human rights in its foreign interactions, which has also led many countries in Africa to build military alliances with it. For example, the United States refused to sell certain weapons to Nigeria because of massive human rights violations recorded in its war against Boko Haram. The country resorted to building military relations with other states, including Russia and Pakistan, to obtain weapons.
2. Russia’s importance for African food security: Many African countries rely on Russia for wheat and fertilizer, as it accounts for 16% of global wheat production and 13% of fertilizer production. This has led to a deepening of joint economic relations, as African countries’ wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine amounted to $5.1 billion between 2018 and 2020, according to estimates from the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). A quarter of African countries also rely on Russia and Ukraine for one-third of their wheat consumption. More than 44% of wheat consumed by the continent comes from the two countries.
Several African countries—perhaps most importantly Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, and Kenya—also rely on importing fertilizer from Russia. Russia is the largest exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, and the second-largest exporter of phosphorous and potassium fertilizers in the world. This has left African countries fearing the war’s repercussions on food security, especially in light of the UN’s warning that 18 million people face severe hunger in the Sahel region, as well as about 13 million in the Horn of Africa, due to ongoing drought.
3. Portrayal of the Ukrainian conflict as a proxy war: This is a prevailing perception among many African countries. They recall the atmosphere of the Cold War period, and its negative repercussions that brought many difficulties to African countries. In light of this, many have opted to remain neutral amid the crisis. China—a key ally of many African countries—is following the same approach, which has prompted some of its allies in Africa to do the same.
4. Declining confidence in traditional Western allies: There is a growing perception in many African countries that traditional Western allies are focused only on meeting the needs of their economies and people, and that their support or assistance depends on their self-interest or liberal agenda. For example, after the impact of Western sanctions on Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine emerged, in terms of the rising cost of basic goods, the US has turned to Venezuela, while the United Kingdom resorted to Saudi Arabia to increase oil production and reduce the burdens of citizens at home. This called to mind the weak support received by African countries since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
5. Growing doubts about NATO’s role in Africa: Some African countries are apprehensive about the role in Africa for NATO, which is considered the military arm of the US and Western Europe. These doubts were previously crystallized in 2012 due to NATO’s military intervention in Libya to overthrow the regime of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, and the subsequent destabilization of North Africa and the Sahel.
The Russian-Ukrainian war is accompanied by many risks and negative impacts on African countries—in terms of energy, food supplies, or other factors—which have left the prevailing trend in African diplomacy more inclined to opt for neutrality to reduce the scale of these negative repercussions. But despite that, this diplomacy can take advantage of this war and turn its repercussions into promising opportunities to boost Africa’s standing in the cotemporary international system, as follows:
1. Fill the shortage in the global supply of energy sources: Africa countries can fill the growing gap in this vital sector due to Western sanctions imposed on Russia. This is especially true in light of the decision by the European Union—which receives 45% of gas imported from Russia—to gradually reduce reliance on Russian gas and oil since May. This means Africa has a real opportunity to meet EU countries’ needs for energy, especially since it possesses 8% of the world’s natural gas reserves. In 2021, the total natural gas reserves in Africa were more than 620 trillion cubic feet. Nigeria has the largest reserves on the continent, with about 3% of the world’s natural gas. Nigeria could move to fill the potential void in global gas production by continuing the construction of a 614-kilometer trans-Saharan pipeline to transport gas to Algeria and then to Europe.
In terms of oil, Africa can also help meet Europe’s needs for it. Africa has 12% of the world’s oil reserves. In 2021, the continent’s crude oil reserves were estimated at 125.3 billion barrels. Libya ranked first in this regard, with 48.4 billion barrels, followed by Nigeria with around 36.9 billion barrels. Algeria ranked third, with 12.2 billion barrels.
2. Benefit from Western efforts to strengthen relations with Africa: This opportunity coalesced in several instances in the period after the Russian-Ukrainian war. Perhaps among them are Germany’s efforts to strengthen its relationship with Africa, as stated in German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to three African countries (Senegal, Niger, and South Africa) in May 2022. The visits aimed to discuss ways to strengthen infrastructure for the extraction and export of oil and gas to Europe, and also affirmed maintaining German forces in the Sahel region to help counter terrorist threats.
3. Work to develop national manufacturing strategies: This would make it possible to reduce reliance on foreign imports. These strategies are based on transforming raw materials into final products that are offered to consumers in the African market at low prices. This opportunity is reinforced by Africa having a large natural resource base. The continent has around 30% of the world’s mineral reserves, 40% of the world’s gold, and up to 90% of its chromium and platinum. It also holds the largest reserves of cobalt, diamonds, platinum, and uranium in the world, as well as around 65% of arable land and 10% of renewable fresh water resources.
The future of Africa’s role in the international system against the backdrop of the Russian-Ukrainian war appears to be governed by two main trajectories:
1. Successfully turning risks into opportunities: This path turns towards transforming the threats accompanying the Russian-Ukrainian war into real opportunities to strengthen Africa’s position in the international community. The prospects for this trajectory’s success depend on the availability of real, unifying political will to maximize the benefit from African resources. This is especially true in light of the Continental Free Trade Area coming into force through the coordination of inter-African efforts under the umbrella of the African Union on one hand, and benefiting from Western support in this regard amid its growing motivation to strengthen pressure on Russia on the other hand.
2. Failing to make use of the war’s consequences: This is the most likely trajectory. It supposes that Africa is not able to take advantage of the opportunities created by the consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The likelihood of this happening is reinforced by several considerations, perhaps most prominently weak infrastructure and worsening security threats in many African countries. Angola, which has 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, has not been able to attract the investments necessary to build gas infrastructure projects. Nor has Mozambique, which has around 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or around 1% of the world’s total reserves. Continued insecurity in the country’s gas-rich north led to the suspension of exploration activities for a planned project worth about $50 billion.
In conclusion, it can be said that African diplomacy has promising opportunities to strengthen the continent’s relative weight as an influential regional bloc in the international community in the post-Russian-Ukrainian war period. But that depends on how much shared political will is available to activate different cooperative frameworks to confront various political, economic, or security challenges. And it depends on doing so in accordance with the principle of "African solutions to African problems."