Diverse Challenges: Can Ukraine Expand its Influence in Africa?

On 11 October, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba asked African nations to support Ukraine and take a stance against Russian military operations. Kuleba said that he was very grateful for the hospitality and warm welcome he had received in Africa, shortly after returning from a tour that began on 4 October. Kuleba visited Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Kenya, and had originally planned a longer ten-day trip, but returned home early due to Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian cities on 10 and 11 October. During his trip to Senegal, Kuleba promised that Ukraine would do everything in its power to continue exporting grain to Africa. Ukraine’s increased engagement with Africa raises various questions about Kiev’s capacity to gain the upper hand vis-a-vis Russia on the African continent.

Demonstrated Interest

There are various indications that Ukraine is interested in strengthening relations with African countries. These points include the following:

1. The Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs’ recent trip to Africa: The Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs’ recent trip to Africa was the first of its kind. Kuleba began his African tour on 4 October by visiting Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana. This historic trip followed on the heels of a tour by Kuleba’s Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, who had visited various African countries last July to drum up support for Russia and cast blame on Ukraine for food supply shortages. It appears that the Ukrainian foreign minister’s trip was a response to Lavrov’s tour and aimed to balance out Russian influence in Africa. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicated in a statement that Kuleba had held talks during his trip that primarily focused on bolstering political support for Ukraine.

2. Kiev moves towards a stronger diplomatic presence in Africa: Ukraine has recently made efforts to expand its diplomatic presence in Africa. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its minister had stated during talks with Ghanaian Minister of Foreign Affairs Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey in Accra that Ukraine aimed to launch a new partnership with Ghana.

Kuleba added that Ukraine hoped to expand its presence in Africa and that it had reached an agreement with Ghana and was planning to open a Ukrainian embassy there in the near future. Kuleba indicated that the new Ukrainian diplomatic presence in Accra would help forge political ties and develop trade, investment, and cultural exchange, and strengthen cooperation in the field of education. The two ministers also discussed possible avenues to bolster cooperation between Ukraine and Ghana with regard to security, cybersecurity, the digital transformation, and agriculture. The two countries also were preparing to form a joint committee for economic and trade cooperation, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

3. Kiev escalates rhetoric against Russia at the African Union: Ukraine pushed to escalate its rhetoric against Russia at the African Union. This began starting last June when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke before the African Union where Ukraine has observer status. Zelenskyy called on African countries to stop supporting Russia, which he described as a neocolonial power. Zelenskyy accused Russia of holding Africa “hostage” through its naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.

Foreign minister Kuleba stated to the press during his trip to Senegal that the “Russian narrative has been very present here” and that the time had come for “Ukrainian truths.” Kuleba indicated during a press conference held on 13 October that Russia had attacked Ukraine for the first time in 2014 when Ukraine was pursuing a policy of neutrality and not yet trying to become a member of NATO. Kuleba asked: if a desire to join NATO constitutes a provocation to war, then why didn’t Russia attack Finland?

4. Making promises to Africa about food security: After a meeting with Senegalese President Macky Sall and Minister of Foreign Affairs Aïssata Tall Sall on 4 October, the Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs stated that Ukraine would send “boats full of seeds for Africa.” He added that Ukraine would do its best “until the last breath to continue exporting Ukrainian grain to Africa and the world for food security.” Many African countries depend heavily on imported grain from Ukraine and Russia.

Main Objectives

Ukraine aims to bolster its presence in Africa in order to achieve several other goals, including:

1. Gaining African votes in the UN: On 11 October, the Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs called upon African countries to vote with Ukraine in the UN. He said that Moscow needed hear that the war was unacceptable and needed to end, adding that during the next week the UN General Assembly would vote on a resolution condemning Russian aggression and illegal Russian attempts to annex Ukrainian territory. Kuleba stated that the support of African nations in this important resolution would be invaluable and that peace in Ukraine and in the world could only be achieved together. He added that that Africa’s support was needed now more than ever. However, many African countries remain neutral on the war. A total of 25 African countries voted to abstain or did not vote at all on a UN resolution condemning the war in Ukraine earlier this year.

2. Improving Ukraine’s image in Africa: Since the beginning of the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, Russia has pushed its narrative to create hostile attitudes towards Ukraine in Africa. Moscow exploited the grain crisis after closing Ukraine’s seaports by blaming Ukraine for the failure to provide the grain supply upon which many African countries depend to feed their populations. Moscow has portrayed Kiev as part of Western colonialism, which it said was intentionally starving the African continent by withholding grain supplies.

Last February, Zelenskyy spoke with the media in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya and also had several rare phone conversations with African leaders. Ukraine is trying to use all the tools of information warfare to counter Russian propaganda in Africa. Prior to his Africa tour, the Ukrainian foreign minister said that he would try to “better explain Ukraine” to his African counterparts and to clarify why Ukraine needed Africa’s help with the Russian onslaught.

3. Shifting neutral countries towards supporting Kiev: Kiev is trying to change the stances of neutral countries in Africa to side with Kiev in the war. This was why Kuleba visited Senegal first, which had voted to abstain from the resolution against Russia. Senegalese President Macky Sall informed the UN General Assembly last month that Africa did not want to become “the breeding ground of a new Cold War.”

On 11 October, Dmytro Kuleba called upon Africa to abandon their neutral positions, because neutrality would only encourage Russia to continue its aggression around the world, including in Africa. Kuleba emphasized that peace could only be achieved in Ukraine and the world through working together and that Africa’s support was needed now more than ever. Ukraine expressed its appreciation for Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo’s support for Ukraine at the UN General Assembly the previous month, where the latter had said: “Every bullet, every bomb, every shell that hits a target in Ukraine, hits our pockets and our economies in Africa.”

4. Strengthening Ukraine’s economic presence in Africa: Kiev is working to bolster its economic presence in African markets, particularly since Moscow has tried to expand its economic clout in recent months at Ukraine’s expense. This has included blocking Ukraine from reaching African markets. When the war began, Russia closed Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea and blocked agricultural products from reaching Africa. Moscow then began to quietly export its own goods to former Ukrainian trade partners and blamed Kiev for the food crisis. Before the war began, trade had increased between Ukraine and its five major trade partners in Africa: Africa had received 6.7 million metric tons of grain from Ukraine, comprising 13 percent of total Ukrainian grain exports last year.

Contested Presence

Ukraine faces numerous challenges in the battle against Russia for influence in Africa, including the following:

1. Minimal Ukrainian media presence: Some experts have noted that Ukraine has a limited media presence in Africa compared to Russia, which has various media channels including Russia Today and Sputnik News, among others, and cooperates with local NGOs to organize pro-Russian media coverage in major African cities. Moscow also has an ongoing presence in the information sphere and in African social and political life generally.

2. Limited Ukrainian diplomatic presence: Russia has almost 40 embassies throughout the African continent, while Ukraine has only three in sub-Saharan Africa (in Senegal, Nigeria, and Ethiopia). It relies on a single embassy to cover several African countries. Furthermore, Ukrainian embassies often do not have an ambassador present but rather are run by more junior staff.

3. Infrequent high-level diplomatic visits: No Ukrainian president has visited a sub-Saharan African country since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991. Meanwhile, the only African president who has visited Kiev is South African president Jacob Zuma, who visited in 2000.

4. Growing Russian influence in Africa: Russia’s expanding influence in Africa poses a challenge to Kiev’s efforts to strengthen its presence on the continent. Russia has developed many military alliances with African countries. Kenya, which is one of Ukraine’s top ten trading partners in Africa, denounced the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, but has not responded to any other Ukrainian demands against Russia.

A Troubling Neutrality

In conclusion, Ukraine continues to encounter various challenges to its efforts to bolster its presence in Africa, especially the expansion of Russian influence. Although Ukraine’s media and political campaign has been successful in many Western countries, it is still struggling to gain political backing and popular support in Africa. This is due to its limited media, political, and diplomatic presence on the continent. The neutrality of almost 25 African states towards the Ukrainian crisis attests to Russia’s supremacy in the political sphere and information war in many African countries.

Menan Khater

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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