What the Ukraine war means for Africa
Up until the fourth quarter of 2020, Africa’s economic growth — despite imbalances and many systemic challenges, including poverty and youth unemployment — was the second-fastest growing in the world, after Asia. But the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed growth in sub-Saharan Africa and could reverse years of economic and social progress. Making matters worse, just as the pandemic began to wane, enabling the continent to focus on recovering from its first recession in 25 years, the war in Ukraine started.
The conflict triggered by Russia’s invasion has complicated the challenges and sources of stress already facing Africa. Some are economic, including debt problems for lower-income countries and excessive dependence on raw material exports. Political instability and terrorism remain a threat in several parts of the continent, notably the Sahel, the Lake Chad region, East Africa and, more recently, the West African coastal region. Africa is also struggling to manage the adverse effects of climate change and food insecurity.
Against this background, the Ukraine war has intensified socioeconomic pressures in Africa. Because many African countries depend heavily on food imports, the new spikes in global prices of agricultural commodities and oil caused by the conflict have left the poor increasingly vulnerable, with the sharp decline in Ukrainian grain exports aggravating food insecurity in many regions. This threatens to exacerbate latent conflicts in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel and may further jeopardize Africa’s prospects of achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Another consequence of the war in Ukraine is a paradigm shift in how Africans view the rest of the world. The African public is becoming increasingly aware of the difference between the resources that traditional international cooperation partners are allocating to fight hunger, security threats and COVID-19 in Africa, and what they are mobilizing to support Ukraine. Today more than ever, therefore, African governments are demonstrating a willingness to work with new partners such as China and are doing so with an even greater concern for their national interests and a desire for more balanced international cooperation.
As a result, a common view in African media and social networks is that “this is not our war” — a perception reflected in many African governments’ international stances. When the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on March 2 to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, African countries accounted for almost half of the 35 abstentions.
The current geopolitical crisis is an opportunity for Africa to reduce its dependence on food imports from outside the continent. Policymakers are implementing and strengthening regional responses under the aegis of initiatives and organizations such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, the Economic Community of West African States and the African Development Bank. In addition, several national and regional programs aim to reduce the impact of rising food price inflation and to support local production.
Political courage, backed by most of the population, will accelerate the region’s recovery from the effects of the war.
African countries are increasingly implementing national development plans and policies through partnerships with the African Development Bank and the UN, among others. Many countries, for example, are focusing on local oil and gas production, renewable energy, local manufacturing capacity and youth employment.
While formidable challenges remain, Africa’s people have adopted effective responses to health threats such as COVID-19, Ebola and cholera, as well as to humanitarian crises stemming from natural disasters, violent conflict and famine. Now, it is up to African leaders to improve governance and make bold policy decisions focused on promoting local production and consumption and on strengthening mutually beneficial regional cooperation. Political courage, backed by most of the population, will accelerate the region’s recovery from the effects of the war.
More broadly, Africa should seek to manage the impact of climate change by focusing on food security, improved nutrition, social protection, environmental sustainability and resilience to shocks. To that end, the region has made access to sustainable energy for all and the restoration of 1 billion hectares of degraded land by 2030 a top priority.
Many Africans are convinced that the war in Ukraine is not their problem to solve. But failure to restore peace and end the disruption to food and energy supplies will likely result in mounting political instability and social tension in the region. That will in turn hurt Africa’s chances of charting its own path to a more prosperous and sustainable future.
• Aichatou Mindaoudou is a former foreign minister of Niger.