Ukraine foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba facing uphill battle in swaying Africa’s perception, narrative on the war

Ukraine foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba facing uphill battle in swaying Africa’s perception, narrative on the war
Ivorian Vice President Tiemoko Meyliet Koné (right) greets Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba Dmytro (left) at the presidential palace in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on 5 October, 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Legnan Koula)

Ducking the crossfire doesn’t mean staying neutral — Africa should take independent, principled positions that support the UN Charter. 

The protracted struggle between Russia and Ukraine (and its Western allies) to win African nations’ hearts and minds continued last week with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s continental tour.

He visited Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Kenya on a planned 10-day tour. But he cut it short to go home to deal with the massive missile strikes by Russia on Ukrainian cities on 10 and 11 October. Kuleba’s African trip followed earlier ones by his American and Russian counterparts, as well as France and Germany’s leaders, as Africa becomes a battleground for influence.

Kuleba was under no illusions about the difficulty of his mission. Senegalese officials had told him, “This isn’t our war, the West is fighting against Russia,” “Russia and Ukraine are one people,” and “Russia attacked you because you were going to become a Nato [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] member,’ he said.

“Russia’s narrative has been very present here,” he added. “Now it’s time for Ukrainian truths.” Over the next week, Kuleba attempted to counter Russia’s three ‘lies’ as he put it to African journalists in a 13 October online briefing. He noted that Russia had first attacked Ukraine in 2014 when Ukraine’s policy was neutrality, not Nato membership. And if the intention to join Nato was a provocation to war, why had Russia not attacked Finland? 

The second Russian ‘lie’ was that Russia and Ukraine were actually one country, and so Russian president Vladimir Putin could impose his will on Ukraine. “In fact, we are very different countries with our own languages, cultures and histories. Imagine your neighbour coming to you and saying your language, culture and history do not exist. Your statehood is a mistake.”

And the third was that “Russia wants peace but Ukraine refuses to negotiate.” On the contrary, Kuleba insisted that Russia had rejected Ukraine’s many proposals to resolve differences. He said all of Russia’s peace plans were smokescreens for ultimatums for surrender and the extinction of Ukraine. 

Kuleba also dismissed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s main message on his African tour in July that global shortages of grain and fertiliser — which hit Africa hard — were mainly the fault of Western sanctions against Russia. Kuleba blamed them on Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports and noted that Russia’s bombardment had raised grain prices further. He promised Kyiv would send “boats full of seeds for Africa.” 

This was the first visit by a Ukrainian foreign minister to Africa. Kuleba said some officials told him most Africans had never heard of his country before the war. He promised to step up relations and announced that Ukraine would open an embassy in Ghana — the country’s 11th in Africa. 

Kuleba promised digital and cybersecurity assistance, agro-technology, diplomatic training and educational bursaries to African countries. He confirmed that Ukraine was planning a “large-scale Ukraine-Africa conference” next year — presumably partly to counter the second Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg. 

Kuleba thanked his hosts in the four countries for the moral support they offered Ukraine so far in the war: Côte d’Ivoire for “standing with Ukraine” and Senegalese president Macky Sall for “strongly supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

In February, Ukraine was delighted when Kenya advised Putin at the United Nations (UN) Security Council to respect Russia’s border with Ukraine and abandon attempts to turn the clock back to Russia’s glorious imperialist past. Kenya generally aligns with the democratic West on such issues, so perhaps that wasn’t surprising. 

Kuleba seemed especially grateful to Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo for telling the UN General Assembly last month that “every bullet, every bomb, every shell that hits a target in Ukraine, hits our pockets and economies in Africa.” That epitomised the attitude that Ukraine hoped for from Africa. 

What Kyiv fears most from Africa is indifference, neutrality or ‘non-alignment’. So Kuleba told the African journalists on Thursday that countries like South Africa, which abstained from General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion, were “abstaining not against Ukraine but against war crimes.”

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Only 28 African states supported the first UN General Assembly resolution on 2 March this year, condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It was significant that three of Kuleba’s stops were among those 28 countries. The exception was Senegal, which had abstained. Kuleba probably included Dakar because Sall is the current African Union Chairperson and was involved in grain diplomacy to lift the Russian blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. 

But on Thursday, Kuleba professed to be very pleased with his African safari. All four countries visited voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution on 12 October that condemned Russia for its “illegal so-called referendums” in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia and its “attempted illegal annexation” of them. 

Kuleba would have been particularly pleased that Senegal shifted its vote from abstaining in March to supporting this one. Significantly, the Angolan government did the same, stepping out of line from the five other former liberation movements in southern Africa, which all abstained. In total, 30 African states backed the resolution — two more than supported the 2 March decision. 

How will that go down in Ukraine and the West? There have been some impulses in Western countries to use more than persuasion to get African countries ‘onside’. The US Congress is sitting on controversial legislation that would punish African governments and companies for doing business with dodgy listed Russian oligarchs on the continent. But ISS Today hears the bill will die in the Senate.

And in July, a leaked confidential report revealed European Union (EU) frustration with many African states’ neutrality, and questioned whether the EU should consider making its considerable foreign aid to the continent dependent on African support for ‘EU values’. 

Could African states pay a price for not backing Ukraine and the UN Charter? That’s not yet clear. Some European states fear that punishing African governments could backfire — driving them from neutrality into more active support for Russia. 

Ideally, African states should take a stand in support of the UN Charter, which forbids the use of force to change the borders of another country. Ducking the crossfire in this war doesn’t mean staying neutral. It means taking principled positions independently of the wider geopolitical implications. DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.


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