Columnists

Speak out on disruptive Ukraine war

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Activists calling themselves 'Njaa Revolution' (Hunger Revolution) under the Social Justice Centres Working Group demonstrate along a street over the high rise of prices of food commodities and urgent government redress in Nairobi on May 17, 2022. PHOTO | AFP

The Africa climate summit that opens in Nairobi on Monday is happening at a time when the continent’s leaders appear increasingly united on the need to tackle the issue of global warming.

I think it is also an opportunity to rally African leaders on yet another big and more consequential battle — the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how it is constraining our ability to turn to the world market to make up shortfalls in the domestic food supply.

Virtually no African country, including Nigeria and South Africa, has spoken strongly against either the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 or taken serious steps to support sanctions.

There was a time when unconfirmed reports were suggesting that South Africa may have joined Iran in sending arms to Moscow.

Governments have been slow at sanctioning trade with Russia and its main ally — Belarus. At the recent BRICS alliance — where Russia is a key player and that held a meeting for talks in South Africa recently — the decision was made to expand the grouping to include two new African members — Egypt and Ethiopia.

For Moscow, the summit in South Africa provided a good opportunity to show the World that Russia is far from the pariah portrayed in the Western media.

Is it not the time for us in the continent to start hearing stronger voices about the food security challenges, which the Russian invasion of Ukraine has visited on Africa and the real and palpable impact on the lives of many ordinary citizens of the continent?

According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), the continent spends over $75 billion on imports of more than 100 million metric tonnes annually.

In 2020, 15 African countries imported over 50 percent of their wheat products from Russia or Ukraine. Six of these countries, Eritrea, Egypt, Benin, Sudan, Djibouti, and Tanzania, imported more than 70 per cent of their wheat from the region.

The AfDB notes that the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered a shortage of about 30 million tonnes of grains on the continent, along with a sharp increase in cost.

But where the Russian aggression has hurt the food security situation in the continent most was July 17, 2023, Moscow’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) and Global Security, which was brokered by the United Nations and Türkiye and signed in July 2022.

Under this initiative, nearly 33 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs were exported from Ukraine from August 2022 to July 2023, stabilising global food prices.

In the period the initiative was in place, global grain prices fell by 14 percent. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development data, 20 percent of BSGI exports went directly to low-income countries, including Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia and Bangladesh.

The Russians bungled it up in July 2023. United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres was like a voice crying in the wilderness, left whining and expressing deep regret about how Russia had torpedoed a good deal.

Indeed, Russia chose to withdraw from BSGI even though the UN had agreed to bend backwards to accommodate and accede to Russia’s request that the European Union and the UN recommend the Russian Agricultural Bank be allowed back into the Swift payments system.

By removing millions of tonnes of Ukrainian corn, wheat and barley from world markets, prices of these commodities are bound to skyrocket.

Moscow has also recently been targeting Ukrainian infrastructure and grain storage facilities at its ports, weakening Kyiev’s ability to export food.

In one such recent attack at Chomomorsk port, the Russians reportedly destroyed 60,000 tonnes of grain — more food than Moscow has promised to deliver to Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Eritrea and the Central African Republic.

Africa must speak out loudly against the Russian invasion of Ukraine because the war is pushing the world’s poor to the brink.

Supply chain disruptions of primary farm inputs, including fertiliser imports from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, threaten to cripple food production in the continent.

According to the World Food Programme, global fertiliser prices rose by 199 percent from May 2022 more than doubling in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in 2022.

On the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is hardly the time for African leaders to practice equidistance diplomacy.

As Mr Guterres warned in May last year while speaking at the Global Food Security Call to Action: “If we do not feed people, we feed conflict.”

The writer is a former managing director of The East African.