What does Russia – Ukraine Proxy War mean for Africa? – By Ayya Chebbi


They say “When America sneezes, the world catches a cold” but really, isn’t that ” When the world sneezes, Africa catches a cold”! Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 has worldwide impact. Many of which would affect Africa , I think in three major ways so far: 

1. Stranded African Students.

Ukraine is a host to 8,000 Moroccans, 4,000 Nigerians and 3,500 Egyptians which are among the top 10 countries with foreign students in the country besides tens of thousands of other African nationalities. In fact, Africans make up more than 20% of Ukraine’s international students, studying medicine, engineering and military affairs.    

Immediately following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, my friends who are seeking help for them and their friends stranded in Ukraine, shared on social media their panic over the way out! flights grounded with no transportation from Kyiv and other cities with long dangerous routes to the borders of neighbouring countries.

Being “concerned” is not enough response from African governments, our young people need a safe route out to their home countries. It is the responsibility of African governments to bring African students from Ukraine safely.  

Immediate action is needed especially that reports show discrimination against African youth trying to cross the Polish borders which are following a “Ukrainian first” type policy. I think this is not new for Poland which did not open its borders for Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees among others and left them in limbo and even legalised pushbacks. African Union also made a statement urging “all countries to respect international law and show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity”.

2- Food In Security

There are multiple economic implications out of this proxy war as Africa imports worth of $4 billion of global grains and oilseed from Ukraine and Russia including wheat, maize, sunflower oil, barley, and soybeans.

The impact on commodity prices in many African countries ( especially Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, Algeria, Kenya and South Africa) including further increase on crude oil prices (perhaps the most dramatic since the Gulf War in 1991), inflation as well as food insecurity. 

My country, Tunisia, was already struggling to pay for grain shipments before the conflict broke out. Bread does keep hundreds of millions of people from hunger. In fact we experienced in Tunisia, the Bread Riots between December 1983 to January 1984, triggered by many reasons among which is the rise of the price of wheat. 

I just returned from Sharm el Sheikh last month and every taxi driver told me that the regions’ tourism is dependent on Russia, especially during Covid-19 pandemic recovery besides Egypt being the world’s top importer of wheat.
Grain and oilseed farmers could see the surge in prices as an opportunity for financial gains, but the rising commodity prices would also cripple the consumers who have already experienced food price rises over the past two years of the pandemic. The same way budgets of oil-producing countries like Nigeria and Angola might get a boost from the rising prices, but the cost of transport is likely to rise for people.

On the other hand, Russia and Ukraine’s agricultural imports from the continent are averaging $1.6 billion in the past three years. The dominant products are fruits, tobacco, coffee, and beverages in both countries.   In 2020, Russia accounted for 7% of South Africa’s citrus exports in value terms and 12% of South Africa’s apples and pears exports in the same year – the country’s second largest market.

Perhaps, there is potential for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) to boost food security sustainability, food production and infrastructure to facilitate distribution. Perhaps, there is potential for intra trade as Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa grow significant amounts of wheat and they are still net importers of the grain.

3- Escalating Conflicts in Africa  

Trade and aid form Africa-Russia economic ties but also military training and paramilitary security. Russia has increased its presence on the continent in recent years and is expected to host a Russia-Africa summit this November. Clearly we can expect the budgets of states around the world will be gearing towards more militarization and not the developmental goals!

Most statements of African governments like South Africa have called for “the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, for the dispute should be resolved peacefully”. Kenya as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, has condemned Russia saying “The territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine stands breached. The charter of the United Nations continues to wilt under the relentless assault of the powerful.” Gabon and Ghana also condemned Russia while the majority of African governments remained silent. 

In the next couple weeks, African governments might come under diplomatic pressure to take sides in the escalating dispute between Russia and Western powers. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes at a time when Mali has frosty relations with France concerning the presence of military advisors from the private Russian company Wagner. Mali and and Central African Republic, where Russian forces are helping the governments fight insurgencies, can get caught in this crisis. Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo are also among the countries strengthening ties with Russia. 

In 2018, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania all appealed to Moscow for help combating the so-called Daesh and al Qaeda. Moscow has also been selling nuclear technology to Zambia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Egypt and Nigeria are among those in the market for Russian-built nuclear power plants. 

Sudan, Chad, Guinea Conakry and Guinea Bissau have experienced coups in the past year. One thing they all have in common: most of the soldiers behind the coups had received military training sponsored by Russia.

In addition to that,  let’s not forget we have ongoing conflicts in the Sahel, Mozambique and Ethiopia.
I believe the most important course of action now, is that African countries claim unity in their position especially as the largest block in the United Nations.


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