How the Russia-Ukraine conflict impacts security in Horn of Africa

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What you need to know:

  • In recent decades, the Horn, as elsewhere in Africa, has become increasingly dependent on grain cereals from Russia and Ukraine, which collectively supply roughly 30 per cent of the world’s wheat

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 highlighted the growing unilateralism of powerful nations, now undermining global multilateralism and pushing our multipolar world deeper into the abyss of a New Cold War. The Ukrainian crisis is rippling through the Horn of Africa, spawning new security dynamics in a region on the tornado-path of the geopolitical rivalries of major powers.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis impacts security in the Horn of Africa at five levels. First, the war is fueling a profound food security crisis and exacerbating extant political instability. In recent decades, the Horn, as elsewhere in Africa, has become increasingly dependent on grain cereals from Russia and Ukraine, which collectively supply roughly 30 per cent of the world’s wheat.

In 2020, African countries imported agricultural products worth $4 billion from Russia and $2.9 billion from Ukraine. In the 2020-2021 agricultural season, Africa consumed 36 per cent of Ukraine’s total wheat exports, by far the largest regional destination. The Horn leads the pack in consuming grains from Ukraine and Russia. Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan import most of their wheat from the two warring nations.

Kenya imported wheat, maize and fertilisers worth Ksh40.6 billion ($406 million) from Russia in 2020 and wheat and maize, vegetables, sunflower seed and cotton seed oil valued at Sh8 billion from Ukraine. It in turn, exported cut flowers, tea and fruits (avocados, pineapples, figs and dates) worth Ksh5.2 billion to the two countries.

Expectedly, Eastern Africa’s largest economy is bracing for a higher cost of living, with the prices of oil, bread and wheat flour poised to increase. Russia is likely to blockade Ukraine’s sea routes, preventing it from exporting the remainder of last season’s wheat. Ukraine’s most fertile agriculture land are in the east of the country, the region most devastated by war.

Russia might impose export tariffs on wheat to improve its food security, potentially increasing the prices of wheat by over 25 per cent over the next three months. Hindering access to wheat, corn and oil imports is increasing food prices and precipitating food insecurity.

Compounding the Horn’s food security crisis, the war has heightened Africa’s vulnerability to rising costs of fuel and fertilisers, potentially spiking the cost of consumer goods and transport, undermining reforms, igniting tensions with labour unions and food riots.

Kenya, also having a crucial general election in August, has seen rising food prices in recent weeks, stoking public anger expressed through social media. In Sudan, where Russia has replaced Australia as the main source of wheat imports, the retail price of wheat and wheat flour had already increased due to a blockade by protesters of imports from Port Sudan in October 2021. As a result, the price of wheat increased by 100 to 200 per cent. In a country where politics is interwoven with the price of bread, higher wheat prices are likely to intensify civilian anger and demonstrations in Khartoum about the military coup in October 2021.

Ethiopia, with its large wheat fields, could have gained from supply shortages as a result of the Ukraine crisis. But Africa’s second most populous country relies on imports from Ukraine (its second source after the US) to satisfy 25 per cent of local wheat demand. Its own production has been disrupted by civil war in the Tigray region.

Moreover, the Russia-Ukraine war is complicating an already complex humanitarian crisis in hunger spots in the Horn of Africa. The UN has identified Ethiopia and South Sudan as among hunger-spots on the brink of famine and in dire need of food aid. Because of the war, governments and aid agencies will have limited access to wheat and cereal grains for famine relief in the Horn region, where countries are on the verge of famine.

The crisis in Eastern Europe is turning a sharp spotlight on Africa’s resources, potentially pushing the ‘new scramble for Africa’ to a whole new level. With new sanctions against Russia, Europe’s attention is turning to Africa’s natural gas to reduce dependence on Russian energy.

Tanzania hopes to attract $30 billion in foreign investment to revive construction of offshore liquified natural gas projects in 2023. But the spotlight on Africa is stoking fears that the continent’s energy resources will become a curse fuelling conflict across the region.

The war is testing pan-African solidarity and the ability of regional institutions such as African Union to protect Africa’s interests. The crisis has affected African students who comprise around 20 per cent of Ukraine’s foreign students, including 8,000 Moroccans, 4,000 Nigerians, 3,500 Egyptians, over 1,000 Ghanaians and hundreds from Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia. African students, part of 850,144 people who have fled the war in Ukraine, have experienced racism and discrimination in Ukraine and its neighbours. In February, the African Union condemned ‘racism’ in the wake of Ukraine war, criticising Ukrainian authorities for discriminating against Africans and preventing them from leaving.

In the wake of the war, Africa is divided on how to handle the conflict. On February 24, the AU condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling for an immediate ceasefire. Kenya’s ambassador at the UN Security Council, Martin Kimani, condemned Russia for breaching Ukraine’s “territorial integrity and sovereignty”. Even South Africa, which is a member of the BRICS ( Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping of middle-income countries called on Russia to withdraw its forces. However, the African group of UN was almost evenly split, with 28 members backing the resolution and 25 either abstaining or not voting at all.

The Russia-Ukraine war casts a long shadow over new geopolitics in the Horn of Africa. Countries in the region have forged relations with all the major powers – Russia, China, America and Europe – in order to access markets, investment, and financial assistance. A resurgent Russia has reasserted itself in the Horn, as elsewhere in Africa, through security and economic engagements.

The Russia-Africa Economic Forum in Sochi in 2019, the first of its kind, was attended by 47 African heads of state. But owing to the war, the second Russia-Africa summit, which was scheduled for October to November this year in Addis Ababa, is unlikely to take place. The war is likely to derail Russia’s military cooperation agreements with African countries to counter extremist fighters. It is also undermining post-pandemic recovery plans in the Horn.