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Africa’s peace mission to Ukraine and Russia: Towards a strategy of active non-alignment?

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Picture: Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA-EFE/Taken on November 23, 2022 – Firefighters work at the site of an apartment block destroyed by shelling in Vyshhorod, near Kyiv, Ukraine, amid Russia’s invasion.The recent peace mission to Ukraine and Russia, led by African Heads of State may herald the emergence of a shift in the Continent’s strategy as Africa takes a more proactive role, speaking on behalf of those not directly involved but still heavily impacted, the writer says.

By Philani Mthembu

The recent peace mission to Ukraine and Russia, led by African Heads of State may herald the emergence of a shift in the Continent’s strategy as Africa takes a more proactive role

African countries have been on the receiving end of a relentless diplomatic offensive seeking to sway their positions on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The recent peace mission to Ukraine and Russia, led by African Heads of State may herald the emergence of a shift in the Continent’s strategy as Africa takes a more proactive role, speaking on behalf of those not directly involved but still heavily impacted. The delegation comprised leaders and assigned representatives from seven countries – Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, Senegal, Uganda, Zambia, and South Africa.

Both those sceptical and those welcoming of the initiative have pondered whether this represents a new form of active non-alignment that presents the Continent as one seeking dialogue and a peaceful resolution to the conflict instead of being a hunting ground for UN General Assembly (UNGA) votes.

Among the key areas recently discussed were the ongoing consequences, especially for food security and energy security. According to the African Development Bank, the war is directly responsible for a shortage of about 30 million tonnes of grain on the Continent. The mission was however also about conveying a principled position to conflict resolution, one which seeks to de-escalate and create the conditions for dialogue rather than the current path of escalation from all sides involved directly and indirectly in the conflict.

While African countries currently lack a unified position, their voting record in the UNGA reflects a shared agreement on the effects of the conflict and a commitment towards dialogue. It was also significant that the current and former chairperson of the African Union (AU), represented by the heads of state of Senegal (Macky Sall) and the Comoros (Azali Assoumani), were present. Rather than exacerbating existing geopolitical tensions and further polarising the international landscape, Africa’s effort thus sought to partially convey a warning to the international community about the dangers and uncertainties of the current path of escalation.

These adverse consequences not only impact Ukrainians and Russians losing their lives on the battlefields, but also have repercussions that extend beyond the current theatre of conflict, affecting the world at large. In pursuit of peace, the African delegation also presented a ten-point plan drawing from existing proposals, thus seeking a balanced approach that would appeal to various stakeholders.

While critics argued that Africa has very little leverage to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table, one may argue that it is partly Africa’s ability to present itself as non-threatening to both countries and their interests that allowed the delegation to see both Zelenskyy and Putin in a short space of time, a first since the onset of the current conflict. Indeed, both Ukraine and Russia had an interest in seeing the African delegation for varying reasons.

Ukraine has a small diplomatic presence on the Continent and would have seen this as an ideal opportunity to strengthen its message to African leaders, while Russia has been actively seeking ways to enhance its relations in recent years, with a Russia-Africa Summit scheduled for July. It would have thus not served any of their interests to be dismissive of African peace efforts.

While critics argued that Africa has very little leverage to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table, one may argue that it is partly Africa’s ability to present itself as non-threatening to both countries and their interests that allowed the delegation to see both President Zelensky and President Putin in a short space of time

While some have argued that the peace mission and its ten point plan was mostly rejected due to Ukraine and Russia not agreeing to an immediate cease-fire, it would be mistaken to think that the first such mission could have achieved such a result during the first visit. Indeed, dialogue is a process rather than a once-off event. The same critics also argue that it was not the correct timing due to the recent launch of Ukraine’s touted counter-offensive. However, African participants of the peace mission have argued that it is precisely for these reasons that their efforts were important, and that the first visit served to lay the groundwork for additional dialogue, allowing them to now better understand the perspective of both sides.

While African leaders should continue to engage Russia and Ukraine, they may find merit in also broadening their scope by opening talks with European countries in the EU, China, the United States, and leaders in other regions of the global South to build a larger consensus for dialogue. As the largest voting bloc in the UNGA, this would be in Africa’s interests due to the reality that the conflict has become a larger one, involving not only Russia and Ukraine, but involving key members of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Africa’s peace effort should also convey the message to the international community that existing commitments towards development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should remain a priority instead of a shift towards using development budgets for military objectives. Should the African peace initiative continue on this path, it will go a long way towards consolidating an African strategy focused on active non-alignment while safeguarding the Continent’s strategic autonomy to not take sides, but to be seen as part of the solution. While it may not become the main negotiation platform, it could still contribute significantly to amplifying existing efforts and voices calling for dialogue, all the while ensuring that the development agenda remains a priority.

Dr Philani Mthembu is Executive Director at the Institute for Global Dialogue, an independent foreign policy think tank based in Tshwane (Pretoria), South Africa

This article was first published on ACCORD