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Russian freeze on grain deal is bad news for poor in Africa

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File picture: REUTERS/Andrei Kasprishin – Ears of wheat are seen in a field in Agrostroy farm, some 450 km (280 miles) south of Barnaul city in the Altai region in Russia.

By Dr Sizo Nkala

On Monday, Russia announced that it was pulling out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal it signed with Ukraine in July 2022 to allow for the shipment of grain from Ukraine through the Black Sea routes.

The deal was mediated by Turkey and the UN in a bid to ease global food shortages which were affecting mostly the developing countries in Africa and Asia.

Ukraine is a major producer of grain accounting for 10% of the world’s wheat supplies, 15% of corn supplies, and 13% of the barley market. It almost has a monopoly of the global supply of sunflower producing about 50% of the important crop.

However, Russia’s Black Sea blockade shutdown Ukraine’s grain exports throwing the global food markets into a tailspin.

Food inflation shot up almost immediately raising prices of basic food commodities beyond the reach of the majority of people in African countries thus condemning them to hunger and malnutrition.

As such, the intervention by Turkey and the UN was justified on humanitarian grounds and led to the resumption of exports. Since it was signed, the deal allowed for the shipment of almost 34 million metric tons of grain and other products from Ukrainian ports which greatly eased the world’s food supply.

Implementing the deal has not been a smooth sailing as Russia has threatened to pull out of the deal a couple of times in October and November 2022.

Russia renewed the deal on May 18 2023 for a 60-day period furnishing the international community with conditions for allowing the continuation of the deal.

Some of the conditions included the re-admission of Russia’s agricultural bank to the SWIFT financial messaging system, lifting the block on foreign assets and accounts belonging to Russia’s agro-businesses, and the restoration of agricultural technology supplies. In short, Russia was asking the West to reverse the sanctions it had imposed on it if the grain deal was to continue.

The West did not budge, and Russia pulled the plug on Monday announcing to the world that it was withdrawing from the deal. Just before the announcement of the decision to pull out, Russian President Vladmir Putin complained that the primary objective of the deal of sending grain to vulnerable countries had not been achieved and that Russia was facing resistance in exporting its own products. He was referring to western sanctions on Russia which have restricted the movement of Russian goods as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine.

The spokesperson of the Russian presidency, Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying that Russia will rejoin the pact once Russian grievances are addressed. Russia has been swiftly condemned by western countries of weaponising the global food shortages to achieve its war objectives. The disruption of food supplies could condemn hundreds of millions of people around the world, many of them in Africa, to severe food shortages.

Russia’s decision comes just a month after a contingent of African leaders from seven countries including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visited Ukraine and Russia to plead with the leaders of the two countries to find a peaceful resolution to the war.

The African leaders stressed that the war was hurting Africa and its people through the disruption of critical supply chains. When Russia announced that it was renewing the deal for a further 60 days in May, it promised to donate grain to needy African countries if the deal was not extended. Putin argued that the grain deal was prioritising European markets instead of African markets.

As such, if Russia stays true to its word, Africa may be cushioned from the devastating impact of supply chain disruption that would likely result from Russia’s decision to terminate the deal. Nonetheless, as much as this may give Africa a reprieve, depending on Russia’s goodwill is not sustainable. A permanent solution is the peaceful resolution of the war which would pave way for the restoration of normalcy. With the Russia-Africa Summit coming up in a few days, African leaders have an opportunity to press for negotiations to end the war. But this will not be easy.

There haven’t been many diplomatic breakthroughs in the Russia-Ukraine war and the only major one has just been annulled.

Russia’s actions only serve to confirm that we are nowhere near any resolution of the conflict.

The West is also to blame for adopting a hardline stance towards Russia.

It is not surprising that Russia would not want to let Ukraine export its grain which helps fund its war effort, yet Russia is not afforded the same opportunity.

The West’s desire to see Russia defeated by all means has blinded it to the impact of its actions on the global economy and the vulnerable populations around the world.

In the geopolitical tussle between the West and Russia, it is developing regions like Africa that suffer the most.

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