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Leaders’ priorities misplaced when the ‘Continent is burning’

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Picture: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA-EFE – People fleeing from Sudan arrived at the Qastal Land Port crossing between Egypt and Sudan, in southern Egypt, this week. According to the UN, some 200,000 people have fled Sudan since last month after an armed conflict erupted between the Sudanese military and the RSF (Rapid Support Forces) militia. Africa will benefit little from peace in Europe if its own backyard is in flames, says the writer.

By Sizo Nkala

We get it. The logic is compelling, isn’t it? The Russia-Ukraine war has a negative economic impact on Africa and undermines the Continent’s economic growth prospects. The disruption of critical supply chains, and the destabilisation of global food, energy, fertiliser and other commodities markets has left Africa facing an uncertain economic future and plunged millions of Africans into extreme poverty while complicating the Continent’s recovery process from the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is the rationale behind the recently announced peace mission that will see a contingent of African heads of state from six countries – South Africa, Uganda, Egypt, Congo, Senegal and Zambia – meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a bid to push them to the negotiating table for a peaceful resolution of their conflict.

It is almost a foregone conclusion that the initiative is unlikely to produce tangible outcomes. It is not unfair to label it a vain and glorious ego trip that serves to expose African leaders’ misplaced priorities. Africa is a hotbed of violent and deadly conflicts. Northern Mozambique, the eastern region of the Congo, Somalia, Libya and the Sudanese capital of Khartoum are engulfed in wars that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, injured millions and displaced millions more.

The socio-economic impact of the wars on the affected countries and Africa, is incalculable. Yet, some of Africa’s most eminent heads of state have decided that flying thousands of kilometres to resolve a conflict in Eastern Europe is the best course of action. I shudder to think what the people there are thinking about our leaders trying to get to smoke a peace pipe.

It beggars belief that African leaders would choose to expend their scarce resources and energy to resolve a conflict in Eastern Europe while their backyard is burning. It is embarrassing and disappointing that the AU has demonstrated little urgency in trying to address the violent conflict that broke out in Sudan a few weeks ago.

The trip that the AU Commission chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, promised to make to Sudan, to try to bring the fighting to an end, is yet to take place. The AU’s calls for a ceasefire have fallen on deaf ears and innocent Sudanese people continue to bear the brunt of a senseless war. Neither has anything come out of the Field Mission to Sudan that the AU’s Peace and Security Council promised to send a few days after the outbreak of violence.

This is a confirmation of what anyone who has been paying attention knows: the PSC is a moribund institution existing in name only. No African leader has summoned the courage to visit Sudan to try to find a lasting solution to the conflict that threatens to destabilise a whole region.

Why hasn’t there been a peace mission to seek the audience of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the people leading the warring parties in Sudan? Instead, it has taken the US and Saudi Arabia to mediate the negotiations between the warring parties, with a view to peacefully resolving the conflict.

This renders the mantra of “African solutions to African problems” a hollow and empty slogan. It is dangerous for Africa to rely on foreign actors in resolving conflict on the Continent as they may not have its best interests at heart. Instead of grandstanding in faraway countries, African leaders have a moral obligation to act to avert the deaths of innocent Africans caught in the crossfire of conflicts that are not of their own making.

The Russia-Ukraine war has exposed Africa’s unsustainable and dangerous dependence on external supply chains for critical commodities. How is it that a Continent with a predominantly agricultural economy and vast tracts of arable land depends on other countries for grain and fertilisers? Are we not needlessly placing ourselves in a vulnerable position and jeopardising our strategic autonomy?

The most appropriate reaction to the Russia-Ukraine war would be to put in place mechanisms that will allow us to use our resources to cut our dependency on the commodities we import from the two countries. The creation of robust and resilient regional value chains will protect the Continent and its people from the devastating effects of global shocks like the Russia-Ukraine war.

The so-called peace mission should be shelved and attention trained on the conflicts at home. I do not know whether we are expected to applaud and burst with pride that Africa is taking its place and asserting its agency on the global stage in this unnecessary trip to Russia and Ukraine. Africa will benefit little from peace in Europe if its backyard is in flames.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies