A team of seven African presidents led an initiative in mid-June 2023 to attempt to make peace in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. For most observers, this intervention raised interesting questions: How can states from a continent ravaged by wars and conflicts have the courage, credibility, and conviction to intervene in a European conflict? Moreover, how can countries without power and leverage intervene in a conflict in which other more powerful actors have failed? What did they expect to achieve from this intervention? This article suggests that the African team sought to invoke the dire economic consequences occasioned by the Russia-Ukraine conflict on Africa to exert moral leverage on the disputing parties to end the war. Combined with the desperate economic situation, the African leaders found strength in their neutrality to make a case for a peaceful approach to a conflict that has had global ramifications. The initiative did not seek to mediate the conflict; rather, it was a modest diplomatic plea for peace in the face of a deteriorating situation.
The Decision to Intervene
Africa has been disproportionately affected by the Russia-Ukraine war in large part because of the dependence on food, fuel, and fertilizers from the two countries. Overall, there are estimates that in 2020, 15 major African countries imported over 50 per cent of wheat from Ukraine and Russia. The onset of the war in February 2022 also occurred against the backdrop of Africa’s recovery efforts from the economic ravages of the COVID-19 crisis. In June 2022, the African Union (AU), the primary continental peace and security organization, sent a delegation led by President Macky Sall of Senegal and the Chairperson of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat to Russia to underscore African concerns. The decision to launch an African initiative emerged soon after the June visit when the London-based Brazzaville Foundation, led by its founder, Jean-Yves Ollivier, encouraged a group of African leaders to plan a peace mission to the region Ollivier has a long and controversial history of involvement in Africa and has strong links to Dennis Sassou Nguesso, the President of Congo-Brazzaville. The Brazzaville Foundation describes itself as a “civil society organizations promoting and supporting African initiatives to give them a concrete and sustainable impact”.
Following a preliminary diplomatic foray in Russia and Ukraine at the end of 2022, the planners selected seven countries: Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia. As the leading economy in Africa, South Africa under President Cyril Ramaphosa obtained the mandate to lead the initiative. As the 2023 Chair of the AU, Comoros was an important member to lend the team a measure of continental legitimacy and imprimatur. In addition to a balanced regional representation, the team was evenly divided on how each of the countries voted on the March 2022 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution on condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Comoros, Congo Brazzaville, Egypt, and Zambia voted to condemn Russia while Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda abstained from the resolution. As Ramaphosa noted, despite the differences in the voting patterns at the UN on the war, the “non-aligned stance” of the team “lent credibility to the mission and engendered trust from both sides”. On the eve of the mission, the presidents of Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, and Uganda dropped out, sending representatives instead.
On the Ground
President Ramaphosa’s formal announcement of the initiative in early May was received with widespread scepticism and derision, with most critics viewing it as South Africa’s effort to distract from the mounting economic problems at home and Western criticisms of its growing military ties with Russia. Nonetheless, the African delegation traveled together from Southern Poland on June 16, on its first leg to Ukraine. Prior to the talks in Kyiv, the African leaders visited the city of Bucha, where the Russian army carried out widespread attacks on civilians in the early phase of the war. The African delegation also attended a briefing with Ukrainian military authorities where they witnessed the destruction of weapons by Russian forces.
The highlight of the mission in Kyiv was the unveiling of the 10-point peace plan to end the war. In preparing for the peace mission, the leaders considered several plans before settling on the 10 points that included: de-escalation of the conflict; sovereignty and respect of the United Nations Charter; security guarantees; opening of supply chains of food, fertilizer, and fuel through the Black Sea; humanitarian assistance to victims of the war; release of prisoners and children abducted during the war; and post-war reconstruction. Ukraine’s response to the African plan was lukewarm, with President Zelensky insisting that that he could not negotiate before Russian troops had withdrawn from Ukrainian soil. To negotiate in the face of Russian invasion he stated, “would freeze the war, to freeze everything: pain and suffering,”
On the second day in Russia, the African delegation received a much warmer reception from Vladimir Putin, but he challenged the basic assumption of the peace plan: acceptance of internationally recognised borders. President Putin used the occasion to reiterate Russia’s position that the West goaded Ukraine into starting the conflict and that any peace must allow for „new realities“, particularly Russia’s declared annexation of Ukrainian territory. Furthermore, Putin claimed that the 2022 agreement on grain exports through the Black Sea had not reached African markets because Western countries had been the main beneficiaries. After the meeting, Russian officials stated that President Putin had shown interest and Putin would continue a dialogue with its African partners.
The Morning After the Initiative
The African leaders hailed the two-day mission as a demonstration of collective African engagement on a global issue, but they were equally realistic about their achievements. They highlighted the fact that Russian and Ukrainian leaders gave them an audience and listened to their plan. Describing the mission as “impactful”, President Ramaphosa noted that the willingness of both parties to engage with African leaders was a “a huge achievement because now Africa is…is participating positively” to end the conflict. More critical, he emphasized that 10-point peace plan was fundamentally a set of confidence-building measures that may potentially feed into the proliferating peace plans proposed by actors such as China, Brazil, and Turkey.
In the aftermath of the peace mission, South Africa kept up the momentum, participating in an informal meeting on June 24 in Denmark, where high-level officials from Ukraine, the G7 countries, Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey sought to coordinate various peace plans on the war. Furthermore, on July 13 President Ramaphosa spoke on the phone with President Zelensky, underscoring the significance of a negotiated peace settlement. In the lead-up to Africa-Russia summit in St. Petersburg at the end of July, South African officials have emphasized the importance of building solidarity around the protection of civilians, one of the key points of the plan. At the summit, African leaders expect to lean on Russia to make some unilateral concessions on humanitarian issues, the reunification of children, and the renewal of the Black Sea Grain Initiative that expired in early July. Such a gesture from President Putin would appease African states, further legitimate the peace initiative, and potentially jumpstart a peace process with Ukraine. Apart from the Russia-Africa Summit, South Africa will be hosting the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) meeting in August 2023, at which there may be additional efforts to coalesce around a common peace plan proposed by the BRICS countries. All these plans ultimately hinge on whether the attempted insurrection by the Wagner group against the Russian government at the end of June has weakened or strengthened President Putin’s political position in Russia. In this respect, the combination of a politically weakened Putin and some decisive military gains by the Ukrainian forcing during current counter-offensive could conceivably be more amenable to a negotiated settlement.
The June peace initiative helped set the ground for an African common position on the conflict which had previously eluded the continent. But the most profound questions for African actors revolve around whether the initiative signals the beginning of more African engagements in conflict resolution beyond the continent or whether it is a unique and ephemeral event that may not be repeated. African countries have made perennial demands for more inclusion in international institutions, particularly membership on the UN Security Council, but there is broad appreciation of their limits in peace making at the global level. This should, therefore, be read accurately as that rare opportunity for Africa to shine on the global stage. Besides, the Russia-Ukraine initiative is bound to put significant pressure on Africa countries to devote more energy to resolving ongoing conflicts, notably in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Sahel, and Sudan. During the peace initiative, some African critics invoked this position to challenge the decision to launch the mission. As one South African analyst observed: „Any effort to intervene or play a mediation role in the Russia-Ukraine war is fundamentally undermined by our inability to respond to our own conflicts in the continent. . . Inevitably, the question will arise: why do you think you can resolve complex international conflicts when you cannot even resolve your own”.