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African diplomacy failures in the spotlight

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Picture: AFP – The grain deal collapsed after Russia complained that parts of the agreement have not been met.

By David Monyae

The African Peace mission comprising several African states, among them South Africa, the Comoros, Egypt, Zambia, Congo and Uganda, visited Ukraine and Russia in June to try to initiate a peace process between the two warring neighbours and, ultimately, bring the war to an end.

Led by the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the mission presented a 10-point plan to the leaders of Russia and Ukraine to serve as a roadmap to the resolution of the conflict. One of the points in the proposal stated that “the movement of grains across the Black Sea must be opened up to remove blockages so that commodities can reach markets”.

This was perhaps the point most relevant to Africa which has been severely affected by the grain shortages caused by the blockage of the Black Sea following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022.

Ukraine is a major supplier of grain (corn and wheat) to several African countries, namely Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana, among others. The countries faced a devastating food security crisis due to climate change, rising prices, drought and underperforming economies which has left millions of people hungry. This was made worse by Ukraine’s inability to send its grain stock (reported to be about 20 million tonnes) to the global markets.

As such, it was of important for the peace mission to emphasise the need to keep Ukraine’s export channels open. However, only a month after the mission presented its plan, Russia quit the Black Sea Grain Deal which had been signed in July 2022 by Russia and Ukraine, and brokered by Turkey and the UN. The deal allowed for the resumption of the safe shipping of exports of grain, fertiliser and other food products from the ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi.

Supervised by Turkey and the UN, the initiative was aimed at easing the global food crisis by getting more grain to the market. In that regard, it was fairly successful. After a year since it launched, Ukraine reportedly managed to export 33 million tonnes of grain which was distributed across the world. Consequently, the increased supply of grain reduced the price from more than $1,300 (R24,600) to about $800, thus relieving many poor countries of fiscal pressure and making food affordable.

The World Food Programme claimed to have managed to deliver grain to countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan that were facing a severe food crisis. However, the WFP secured only 750,000 tonnes of grain which was not enough to mitigate the crisis in poor countries.

Nonetheless, Russia announced that it was withdrawing from the deal in July, a year on from the signing. Russia argued that the West refused to honour the second part of the deal which included a clear removal of sanctions on Russian exports and the Russian agricultural bank. Moscow also argued that supplies of agricultural machinery and parts to Russia were yet to resume as agreed under the deal.

Further, the fact that Ukraine’s grain exports were contributing to the country’s war effort did not sit well with Russia. Moreover, the Russian authorities also lamented that the grain was not reaching countries most in need of food but was being shipped to a few well-to-do countries. About 70% of the grain shipped through the Black Sea under the deal went to six countries – China, Spain, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands and Egypt.

Whatever the case, Russia’s withdrawal from the deal brought uncertainty to the global food markets again which would have a debilitating impact on African countries and the broader developing world.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the West, the West faulted Putin for “weaponising food at the expense of people around the world”, as alleged by the US government. Poor countries in Africa and other developing regions will once again be caught up in the geopolitical tussle between Russia and the West.

The collapse of the deal, despite the explicit plea of the African peace mission, begs the question about the effectiveness of Africa’s diplomacy with the global powers. It also seems African leaders did not make significant headway in convincing Russia to return to the deal during the Russia-Africa Summit in July. Instead, they had to settle for Putin’s pledge of free grain to cushion the worst affected countries.

While the pledge may have been coming from a good place, grain donations are not a sustainable solution for the food crisis caused by the disruption of supply chains. The only way normalcy can be returned is through the end of the end of the war itself. Africa has a direct interest in ending the war because of its impact on the food security on the continent.

Therefore, there is need to redouble the efforts of the African peace mission or rethink its approach to make it more effective in restoring peace between Russia and Ukraine. It is disappointing that almost four months after the mission visited the warring countries, nothing seems to have changed.

*Monyae is associate professor of international relations and political science and director of the Africa-China Studies Centre at the University of Johannesburg.