Is Ukraine Africa’s new scapegoat?

What you need to know:

  • On the day, Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia stormed out of the UN Security Council meeting after European Council president Charles Michel blamed Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine for causing a global food crisis.

You just knew that it wouldn’t be long before some devil’s advocate asked the question. In a closed platform discussion on Tuesday, a stubborn African economist asked: “How many African countries really depend on wheat for their wananchi’s (ordinary folks) food sustenance? How many import their oil from Russia...what’s the volume? Where’s the data?”

His questions came in the wake of Senegalese President Macky Sall and African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss the flow of wheat to Africa.

On the day, Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia stormed out of the UN Security Council meeting after European Council president Charles Michel blamed Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine for causing a global food crisis.

Mr Michel said millions of tonnes of grain are stuck in the Ukrainian port of Odesa because of a naval blockade enforced by Russia. He also accused Russia of stealing grain and selling it, and preventing crop planting and harvesting in Ukraine owing to its military activities there.

Russia and Ukraine account for almost 30 per cent of total global exports of wheat, nearly 20 per cent of global exports of corn (maize) and close to 80 per cent of sunflower seed products, including oils.

Unctad data shows nearly half of African countries are extremely dependent on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, ranging from 100 per cent for Somalia and Benin, 85 per cent for Egypt, 70 per cent for Tanzania, 60 per cent for Uganda and 45 per cent for Kenya. Doubtless for countries like Egypt and Ethiopia, whose staples are wheat-based, wheat shortage poses serious food security and political risks.

The economist is right though that the figures for Tanzania, or even Kenya, can be misleading. And also that the data is patchy. There are broad numbers about the amount of wheat and cost of the wheat most African countries import, but mostly nothing on who consumes it.

A news report quoting Paoma Fernandes, CEO of the Cereal Miller Association of Kenya, said the country imported about 2.4 million tonnes of wheat last year to supplement domestic production. It fell to a 2018 story that revealed 60 per cent of households in Kenya consume wheat or wheat-derived products (chapati, cake, mandazi and so forth) daily. Better than one finds on most of the rest of wheat-consuming Africa, but still telling us very little. A street in upmarket Muthaiga, with 20 households consuming wheat and its products, may not have 50 inhabitants.

Just a story

Those 20 households would be eclipsed several times over by the homestead of a serious African polygamist, like Asentus Akuku “Danger” (1918-2020), Kenya’s most famous. Akuku reportedly had 130 wives and over 200 children. Definitely he was not feeding them chapati and doughnuts daily. To the majority of Africans then, wheat is just a story or a class issue. The masses don’t consume it and can’t afford it where it is available in abundance.

Used with the photo of President Sall and Mr Faki in Russia, the economist’s point was that Russian and Ukrainian wheat has become yet another convenient excuse for incompetent governments. It’s debatable, but there’s still an uncomfortable pattern.

Barely a year ago, there was a stampede as African leaders—and journalists and commentators—warned that the continent faced peril from Brexit. The AU jumped into the action and sounded very loud alarms. If it wasn’t for Covid-19, Africa would have survived Britain’s exit from the European Union with barely a bruise. America’s peculiar former President Donald Trump also had Africa on the edge of its seat with his America First policies. There was a lot of stuff printed about how his isolationism would be costly for Africa—and the rest of the world.

It does not have to be something with potentially dire economic consequences. It can be that which threatens to upset the world order—like the International Criminal Court (ICC) case against Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto for alleged crimes against humanity during the 2008 post-election violence.

It’s easy to forget that, from late 2013 to 2015, it was one of the biggest stories. The AU was up in arms, threatening to turn its back on the rest of the world over the case. There were emotional scenes and lots of finger-wagging at the UN in New York. Angry columns filled newspapers. Yet it’s 2022 and we are still here.

There have been, and are, serious global events—energy crises, terrorism, Covid-19 pandemic and climate change—imperilling Africa’s security and future. A contrarian thinks for outside countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, Tunisia and a handful of others, the new threat does not come in the form of grain or flour. Hopefully, he’s wrong.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3