ISS: African peace mission: one step forward, one step back?

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Africa’s Ukraine-Russia peace mission represents a significant milestone for the continent. It is the first time African states have taken the lead to seek a peaceful resolution for a conflict outside Africa.

The delegation comprised leaders and representatives from seven countries – Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, Senegal, Uganda, Zambia, and led by South Africa. It arrived in Ukraine on 16 June and headed to Russia a day later to discuss a pathway to a peaceful resolution of the ongoing war.

While its success is not immediately apparent, the mission highlighted these African states’ collective commitment to finding a diplomatic solution. This underscores the seriousness with which these governments view the conflict – not as a distant war but a crisis that directly affects Africa.

Beyond the detrimental impact on Africa’s food security, the mission reinforced the centrality of the United Nations (UN) Charter, and how the conflict challenges the very foundations of the international system.

This is important as many African countries, particularly South Africa, have found it increasingly difficult to substantiate their non-alignment on the war. This is primarily based on their divided voting record in the UN General Assembly, which has seen Africa consistently cast the highest number of abstentions on votes to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The peace mission helps reset the impression that African states are disinterested or irresponsible stakeholders in the upkeep of the global rules-based order.

The initiative also succeeded in tabling a proposal to Kyiv and Moscow, a dual engagement that few international actors have been able to do. Although details of the mission weren’t shared publicly before the trip, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa outlined a 10-step peace plan. The proposal stressed the importance of territorial sovereignty, de-escalation and security guarantees for all parties.

Despite these achievements, the mission faced several considerable challenges largely owing to a lack of transparency, poor communication and questions about how it was conceived and planned.

The central, behind-the-scenes role of the London-based Brazzaville Foundation, headed by French businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier, is particularly odd given the many diplomatic avenues open to African leaders. Reports linking a South African businessman in the global arms and defence industry, Ivor Ichikowitz, to the mission create further suspicions around its independence and credibility. Besides his arms trade interests, Ichikowitz financially supports South Africa’s ruling African National Congress.

The presence of the outgoing and current African Union chairs, Macky Sall (Senegal) and Azali Assoumani (Comoros), added political weight and legitimacy. And while the regional spread of the African states involved is commendable, why was a broader constellation of African interests not pursued?

Moreover, the apparent logistical bungling surrounding Ramaphosa’s considerable security detail cannot be ignored. This sideshow has undeniably dented South Africa’s international profile as a capable and respected global actor.

The buck is still being passed between the Office of the Presidency and the police’s Presidential Protection Services, which chartered the plane that was grounded in Poland, leaving Ramaphosa to tour Kyiv and St Petersburg without his full security detail. Contradictory messaging between Ramaphosa and his spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, on the threat posed by Russian missiles fired on Kyiv during the trip also exposed poor communication, weakening South Africa’s position as mission leader.

The first round of talks has concluded with mixed results. Both parties rejected the African plan as unworkable. However, this isn’t the first unsuccessful international attempt to find a peaceful solution to the war. China and Indonesia’s proposals this year also had modest success. In all these efforts, neither Russia nor Ukraine have wanted to adjust their positions.

Ukraine maintains that no peace process is possible as long as Russian forces continue to occupy its sovereign territories. During the joint press briefing, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rejected calls for immediate negotiations, saying ‘to allow any negotiations with Russia now while the occupier is on our land is to freeze the war, to freeze everything: pain and suffering.’

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin reiterated to the delegation that ‘new territorial realities’ must be considered for negotiations to proceed. In September 2022, Moscow amended its constitution to reflect its occupation of four Ukrainian provinces as new federal subjects of the Russian Federation, making any voluntary territorial ‘concessions’ to Ukraine unlikely.

With no clear end in sight for de-escalation, the conflict will continue to materially impact Africa, particularly its food security. The recent destruction of the Nova Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine’s agricultural heartland will likely constrain food production for years, exacerbating shortages. And Russia continues to threaten withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal, which is currently ensuring unimpeded agricultural export from Ukrainian ports.

It is clearly in Africa’s interest to engage Russia and Ukraine, not only for the sake of peace but to minimise the war’s damage on the continent. Proactively communicating this position to both parties and opening doors for future engagements, will ensure Africa’s position is heard.

Africa will also be affected by increasingly volatile geopolitical undercurrents due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Relations with major international powers must be carefully managed, and African countries should be explicit in their actions to safeguard the international rules-based order.

In that regard, the mission achieved some positive results, including initiating the Ukraine-Africa summit as a platform for closer cooperation. But African participation in this initiative must be formalised to represent broader collective interests.

The African peace mission is an important first step for the continent and an added dimension in global efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the ongoing crisis. It opens the door for more bilateral engagements between Africa, Russia and Ukraine and helps reset the optics around Africa as a direct stakeholder in the outcome of the war.

However, to achieve consistency and forward momentum towards peace, African states need a common strategic approach to leverage their collective influence on the world stage.

Written by Priyal Singh, Senior Researcher, Africa in the World and Denys Reva, Researcher, Maritime, ISS Pretoria.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.