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Picture: Yevgeny Biyatov/Host photo agency RIA Novosti via REUTERS/Taken June 17, 2023 – Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa after a meeting with delegation of African leaders to discuss their proposal for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. However, the urgency to confront the humanitarian crisis unfolding in our own backyard demands immediate attention and is more important than trying to broker peace in Europe, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian author of the literary classic War and Peace, wrote “They talked about peace, but did not believe in its possibility”.

Africa’s seven-nation diplomatic peace mission was a grand affair, with its high-level delegation of leaders, pretty, well publicised prose on peace, and the instant galleries of selfies with Presidents Putin and Zelenskyy. But the proposals tabled in Kyiv and Moscow never had any real possibility of helping to herald in an end to the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

Sun Tzu wrote “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare”.

“We are open to a constructive dialogue with all those who want to implement peace based on the principles of justice and respect,” Putin said.

The ten-point proposal by the African delegation included a call for the scaling down of conflict and combat, the appreciation of nation’s sovereignty as set out in the United Nations Charter, and the unhindered export of grain via the Black Sea. It was not seen as feasible by either president. In retrospect, the peace seeking mission by African leaders was somewhat naïve given that interventions by both China and Indonesia have failed to shift the intransigence of both Russia and Ukraine.

“The war cannot go on forever,” South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa told Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “All wars have to be settled and come to an end at some stage,” he said. “And we are here to communicate a very clear message that we would like this war to be ended.” While the mission by African leaders can be seen as a noble one, it was driven as much, if not more so, by self-interest rather than benevolence for either the Ukraine or Russia.

It would not be misguided to suggest that the mission was about African leaders begging for economic mercy. Such is the begging bowel of nations who have not fostered economic self-sustainability. With the Continent desperately dependent on foreign markets for basic provisions including food, the Ukraine-Russia conflict has taken a toll on the Continent. The threat of Russia pulling out of the Black Sea grain deal creates a flood of deep-end food insecurity for Africa. The African Development Bank has reported that the war has led to shortages of approximately 30 million tonnes of grain on the Continent. Both Russia and Ukraine are key sources of grains and fertilisers for African markets, and shortages and price hikes threatened food production.

Some have referred to the African mission as a historically significant milestone for it is the first time that leaders from the Continent have participated in a peace mission outside of Africa. Political scientist and international relations expert, Dr David Matsanga, describes the mission as ill-timed and misguided and “nothing short of an overstretched, misplaced diplomatic lurch that ought not to have happened”.

He writes that African leaders should have focussed on local crises and saved themselves from acting as “self-appointed Decemvirs of a conflict they hold a teensy-weensy sway about”. Dr Matsanga argues, “Rather than allocate resources to mediate conflict thousands of miles away, they should have prioritised initiatives that could enhance food security, job creation, and economic stability within our own nations.”

Dr Matsanga makes a point which is at once practical and patriotic – “You cannot go sweeping your neighbour’s doorstep, when your own is dirty … charity begins at home in Sudan”. Matsanga writes that the “futility and the eventual walk of shame of African leaders’ mediation efforts in the Russia-Ukraine conflict has not only exposed a disheartening lack of strategic vision and misplaced priorities but also how lowly we are looked down upon by the West”. He argues that African leaders are neither respected nor trusted by both sides.

Just weeks after the African peace mission, Russia has faced internal disruption. This weekend the world was shook by images of what looked, at first glance, like a coup in progress in Russia. But in the end, it was more mutiny than coup, and more feud than mutiny. The Wagner Group’s attack, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, on Russia on Friday June 23 and Saturday June 24, 2023, came to a swift end within 24 hours, with little engagement or resistance from Russian military forces.

It was Napolean Bonaparte who said, “The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies.” This sentiment is echoed by Sun Tzu, who wrote, “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”. Interestingly, it was on June 24, way back in 1813, that French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Russia from what is now modern-day Poland. It was a bad day for the French as the Russian army did not even engage with Napoleon’s large and heavily armed legion. History does tend to repeat itself, if left unattended.

The prospects for peace in the Ukraine-Russian conflict remain uncertain. Commentators are divided about whether Prigozhin’s armed rebellion has strengthened or weakened the hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a CNN interview, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “It’s too soon to tell exactly where this is going to go. And I suspect that this is a moving picture, and we haven’t seen the last act yet.”

The story of war and peace in Russia is history in the making. It is a story in which Africa and African leaders will barely feature. Back in Africa, the sorry saga of war continues. Of all the conflicts in the world, the lion’s share is in Africa. Dr Matsanga is correct; the urgency to confront the humanitarian crisis unfolding in our own backyard demands immediate attention.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.