The fallout from the war on Ukraine will be felt by all Africans, whether abroad or at home. How will it impact African trade?
BY PAULA SLIER IN MOSCOW
THE FIRST TIME I WENT TO UKRAINE was in 1992. The country had just declared independence from the Soviet Union and flying there from South Africa, I could not help but make comparisons. Whereas Africa was alive with greenery and warmth, the dullness of Europe’s second-largest country after Russia, was suffocating.
The strongest memory I have was the lack of color. It was summertime and people were dressed in lackluster greys and browns. The once-elegant, wide avenues of the capital city, Kyiv, belied a former glory.
Fast track 22 years and the country was unrecognizable. Kyiv had transformed into a modern, vibrant city living up to its reputation as the hidden jewel of Europe.
Cobblestone streets and ancient churches charmed the Old City while elsewhere tourists flocked to museums and state-of-the-art theaters.
But those tourists soon disappeared as simmering political tensions erupted into violent anti-government protests that toppled the president in February 2014.
War correspondents like myself poured into the country as pro-Russia separatist fighters began seizing territory in eastern Ukraine. Over the next eight years, more than 14,000 people lost their lives.
Fast track to February 24 2022. As Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation”, his army crossed over into Ukraine from multiple directions. Gruesome photographs were soon splattered across the world’s newspapers and social media: a pregnant woman, badly injured and her face a ghostly white, being carried
on a stretcher outside of a maternity hospital; hundreds of people hunkering in a basement beneath a theater as it was heavily bombed; the harrowing dead bodies of a mother and her two teenage children strewn across a street…
Inside this purgatory, nearly 20,000 African students found themselves trapped. Hailing mostly from Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt, most had come to study medicine, engineering and business. Ukrainian universities are often seen as a gateway to the European job market, offering affordable course prices, straightforward visa terms and the possibility of permanent residency. Some students had read the writing on the wall and left before the conflict erupted, but most had remained. African governments are still scrambling to get them out.
Ghana was the first to organize flights home to those who made it across the border. While thousands managed to flee within the first few days, hundreds are still trapped and remain uncertain about the fate of their lives – and education.
Still, not one student – and I reached out to over two dozen – wanted to be interviewed for this article. While many blame Russia for the bloodshed, they are afraid to speak out, literally fearing for their lives. At the same time, they criticize European border guards for treating them badly because of the color of their skin and recount stories of being pushed, beaten and dragged off public transit. But they don’t want to draw too much attention to their plight for fear of jeopardizing their chances of returning to Ukraine as many are funded by European bursaries.
Their home countries have also chosen to remain mum. Nearly half of the countries that abstained from condemning Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly are in Africa and many are reluctant to join sanctions against Russia. They see the war as a proxy battle between Moscow and the West. What’s more, many African states consider Russia a good friend and ally, largely because of deliberate efforts by Moscow in recent years to be more influential on the African continent.
Regardless, the fallout from this war will be felt by all Africans, whether abroad or at home. Tough economic sanctions imposed on Russia including the removal of key Russian banks from the SWIFT financial system, measures against Russia’s central bank and the barring of business transactions in dollars, will directly impact African trade.
The International Monetary Fund chief, Kristalina Georgieva, predicted the war could wipe out some of the progress made on the continent.
“Africa is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the war in Ukraine through four main channels: higher food and fuel prices, lower revenues from tourism, and potentially more difficulties in accessing international capital markets,” she said after meeting with African finance ministers, African central bank governors, and representatives from the UN Economic Commission for Africa in March.
Russia and Ukraine are major producers of wheat, sunflower, corn, aluminium and nickel. In 2020, African countries imported agricultural products worth $4 billion from Russia and $2.9 billion from Ukraine. The two countries provide Eastern Africa with 90% of its imported wheat and the Maghreb with just over 50%.
But now Ukraine’s ports are closed and its transport infrastructure is disrupted. Russia recently banned grain shipments abroad and analysts predict it will no longer want to keep exporting as much food as it did before when its own hungry population is facing sanctions.
A recent World Food Programme report estimates that 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 16 million tonnes of maize are currently frozen in both countries. Global prices in these commodities have already reached unprecedented levels and African countries might soon find themselves short of supplies. In the immediate crisis zone are Egypt,
Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Egypt imports nearly 85% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine and is Russia’s top African trade partner. Moscow has invested around
$190 million in developing special economic zones in Egypt’s Port Said.
In Tunisia, which is already struggling economically, the agriculture ministry said it was looking elsewhere for wheat supplies.
One of the bigger questions coming out of the war is whether countries will boost production of wheat to compensate for shortages from Russia and Ukraine.
Cairo recently issued a new global tender for wheat and said its reserves would only last nine months. It has banned exports of home- grown grain.
There’s growing concern that countries will now hoard food. Washington has sounded the alarm over Beijing hoarding supplies in order to have greater political leverage over food import-dependent countries in Africa.
It’s triggered heightened food insecurity particularly in Ethiopia and Somalia, the latter of which is experiencing its worst drought in decades. In the sub-Saharan region, coffee, tea and citrus fruits exports to Russia may also be significantly reduced.
Still, there are some African countries who stand to possibly gain from the crisis, like Algeria, which is Europe’s third largest gas supplier.
Oil prices have surged past $100 a barrel, the highest level since 2014. A Russian oil embargo also benefits the economies of Nigeria and Angola.
Ethiopia with its large wheat fields could have stood to profit from supply shortages but its own production has been disrupted by civil war.
Fast track to the future.
Russia’s isolation from the rest of the world is likely to push it closer to African countries.
At the time of writing, no-one knows when this war will end.
Projections suggest a few more weeks. Across Ukraine, entire neighborhoods have been destroyed.
Black smoke continues to rise over demolished buildings. Queues of cars trundle uneven roads, their desperate passengers looking with anguish and fear towards a future that reminds them of a not-too- distant grim past. Ukraine, it seems, has come full circle.