Beyond Europe: the impact of the war in Ukraine on Africa


Picture of Paul Walton
Paul Walton

Executive Director of the Africa-Europe Foundation

Picture of Faten Aggad
Faten Aggad

Senior Advisor Geopolitics at the African Climate Foundation

Conflict in eastern Europe is having ramifications all over the world – is the Africa-Europe partnership ready for this test?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to dominate headlines, but in today’s globalised world, questions around the material impact for countries across the world are still largely shelved for the time being. For Africa in particular, focus has been on the way countries on the continent voted at the United Nations, both in terms of condemnation of the invasion and whether to impose sanctions on Russia. Yet, very little effort is made to understand why African states are voting in the way they have.

There remains a misconception in some circles that ‘a partnership of shared values’ must translate into the 55 African Union and 27 European Union member states embracing a common position on every issue. Such a misconception ignores both the historical contexts and current interests of each AU member state, as well as the realities in Europe too. Votes and abstentions are undertaken for a myriad of reasons, including internal manoeuvring, regional geopolitics, old and current international relations, as well as the issue at hand. In this case, the recent coups in Mali, the prolonged conflict in Ethiopia and Sudan’s reliance on Russian wheat provided reasons for countries to abstain or be absent from the vote to condemn Russia at the UN. Several African diplomats also made reference to the numerous Africans fleeing the conflict being subjected to mistreatment at the hands of Ukrainian and Polish border guards.

However, when trying to understand the wider global impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is perhaps more instructive to look at which countries voted for sanctions on Russia, and here a clearer pattern emerges. Virtually the entire Global South, across Central and South America, Africa and Asia, did not vote in favour of sanctions. While there are obvious parallels to the Non-Aligned Movement of the Cold War, 30 years of globalisation have also increased interdependence in a way that has escaped the gaze of much of the Global North. As with the vote on the resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion, there are a multitude of reasons countries are against sanctions altogether. Amongst others, these include not wanting to be drawn into conflict or proxy wars, and lingering ties with Russia following Soviet support of liberation movements. After all, the Cold War ran very hot in much of Asia and Africa.

‘We are not going to take any sort of economic reprisal because we want to have good relations with all the governments in the world.’

There is also antipathy towards sanctions following previous experiences of the devastation they can wreak on the most vulnerable populations, for example the Argentinian position, and the strong sense that the same standards are not applied to countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States and the EU following military aggressions. Perhaps most crucial of all, though, is the view articulated by Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador: “We are not going to take any sort of economic reprisal because we want to have good relations with all the governments in the world.” For many countries in the Global South, this desire is, in reality, an absolute necessity.

Russia’s importance in supply of global commodities is widely known, but perhaps most crucial to Africa are Russian and Ukrainian agricultural exports. Between the two countries, they supply almost one-third of total imported wheat on the African continent, and Russia alone supplies over half of the wheat imported by Tanzania, Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Sudan and Benin, the latter of which relies entirely on Russia for their grain. Ukrainian wheat is of similar importance in North Africa, where it accounts for nearly 20% of total wheat imports, and 95% of sunflower oil imported by Algeria, Sudan and Tunisia comes from Ukraine.

Perhaps even more worryingly, the World Food Programme relies on Ukraine for around half of the wheat it distributes in crises. Both Ukraine and especially Russia are also major exporters of fertiliser to Africa and Latin America, as well as the US.

For both continents then, the war in Ukraine can be added alongside climate change and the pandemic as the global crises that will test the Africa-Europe partnership

The picture for energy is similarly stark, although the distribution is slightly different. Whilst Russian fuel is of importance to the continent, particularly in West African countries such as Senegal and Burkina Faso, the issue of Russian fuel imports is of more immediate significance to Africa’s neighbour to the north. Russia is the biggest single source of the EU’s imports of oil (27%), gas (41%) and solid fuel (47%), at a cost of around $600mn per day. Despite the EU27 voting to sanction Russia and the EU launching its own sanction package, these energy imports have continued, totalling over €17bn since the start of the invasion.

The rapid rise in the cost of living, caused by the increase in energy prices and food prices – a staggering 3.9% according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Food Price Index, can have a knock-on effect beyond the strain they put on Europe’s stagnating wages and Africa’s high youth unemployment rate. From the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, rapid rises in the cost of living are associated with periods of political upheaval. In addition to the direct harm caused by war to innocents, the indirect effects can cause harm to millions more worldwide. For both continents then, the war in Ukraine can be added alongside climate change and the pandemic as the global crises that will test the Africa-Europe partnership. For Europe, this is an especially crucial test, as trust in the EU as a partner for Africa has eroded over the past years, particularly through European countries’ mishandling of vaccine distribution.

Of great strategic importance to responding to all three crises is the need for shorter, more localised supply chains in key sectors, such as food systems, energy production and healthcare. The 2021 Africa-Europe Foundation (AEF) High-Level Group report outlined how the partnership should work to create interdependent sovereignty between the two continents in the healthcare sector. This may now be of even greater priority at the latest juncture in vaccine diplomacy, with Lithuania’s controversial decision to cancel its shipment of 444,600 doses to Bangladesh, following the country’s abstention at the UN on the condemnation of Russia.

The current crisis has highlighted the challenge that both Europe and Africa face in managing their susceptibility to fossil fuel shocks, but it could become an opportunity to build out a more diverse and agile energy mix

Greater sovereignty over energy and food systems in both Africa and Europe is similarly critical. Work on this has already begun as the African Development Bank (AfDB) announced a $1bn plan to boost wheat production on the African continent using climate resilient technologies and heat-resilient wheat. This follows the model of Ethiopia, which is on track to become self-sufficient in wheat production in the next three years. The AfDB plans to reach 40mn farmers across the continent, and this number could be even greater with a little more multilateral support from the European Investment Bank and other partners.

On the energy side, pressure to divest from Russian gas imports may result in the EU reconsidering its stance on financing gas production in Africa. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, already announced a visit to Algeria to discuss reviving the project of the Trans-Saharan gas pipeline that would travel from Nigeria, through Niger and Algeria, and into Europe. The role of gas is an issue which the AEF Women Leaders Network has designated as a high priority for immediately rolling out clean cooking solutions. African countries that export energy could exploit the current crisis to secure much-needed financing for a green energy transition and achieve greater strategic autonomy, while recognising that the current demand for gas may plummet in the longer term and leave them with stranded assets. However, it is also important to note that most African countries are importers of energy and they are also at the receiving end of the current shock in prices. The current crisis has highlighted the challenge that both Europe and Africa face in managing their susceptibility to fossil fuel shocks, but it could become an opportunity to build out a more diverse and agile energy mix.

Today’s world rams home the fact that conflict is very rarely isolated, and no matter the foreign policy strategies, the ripple effects of war are felt acutely across the globe. Whilst immediate focus is of course on the victims of conflict, greater attention must be paid to these effects on the developing world, especially Africa. Many of these negative consequences are already easily identifiable, including rising food and energy insecurity across the African and European continents, bringing a big hike in the cost of living and pressure on public finances. When the dust settles from the conflict, the Africa-Europe partnership needs to make sure it can be a strong voice at the forefront of reorganising global diplomacy – but to do this, both continents must make sure the partnership delivers tangible results in times of crisis.

An abridged version of this article in French was published in Jeune Afrique on 16 April 2022.

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