Since the war in Ukraine broke out in Europe, its consequences and side effects have been reverberating across African countries. Rising food and energy prices, supply disruptions, and inflationary pressures have created additional challenges on the road for a post-pandemic economic recovery the continent painstakingly embarked upon, in what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called a 'perfect storm'.
At the beginning of the year, the World Bank had cautiously pointed at a gradual recovery for Sub-Saharan Africa after heavy setbacks triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the main risk factors including limited vaccination coverage, low debt sustainability, and the impact of pre-existing issues such as rising food prices, high vulnerability to climate change, and growing insecurity.
By April 2022, the Bank drew attention to the Ukrainian crisis as a serious aggravating factor for the sub-Saharan region due to the concatenation of direct and indirect effects within a context of high volatility. Similarly, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sees the continent as particularly vulnerable to the impact of the war owing to three main dynamics: rising food prices, higher fuel prices, and less financial room for manoeuvre. Growth for 2022 is projected at 3.8% for sub-Saharan Africa, still below pre-pandemic levels and insufficient to compensate for increased poverty, estimated at some 30 million new poor across the sub-Saharan region alone.
The war in Ukraine is therefore embedded in an already delicate situation, amplifying pre-existing vulnerabilities that risk shaking the foundations of the fragile post-pandemic recovery and creating emergency situations for countries that are most exposed.
With few exceptions, Russia and Ukraine do not represent a primary trade partner for the region, accounting for no more than 1.3% of sub-Saharan imports. However, the prominent role of these two countries in global food and energy markets means the crisis has a broader impact through price volatility and widespread political instability. The effect of rising commodity prices will vary, affecting more directly countries that are net food importers and with few other natural resources to make up for the blow.
Food crisis: bracing for impact
A net importer of cereal products, the region receives as much as 15.3% from Russia and Ukraine. Some countries are particularly exposed: 25 African nations import over a third of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, while an additional 15 import more than half.
The instability of food supplies is further complicated by the difficulties of transporting existing stocks due to military operations and limited access to the Black Sea. As such, Africa has poor capacity to replace Russian and Ukrainian imports with intra-continental production.
The situation is compounded by the increase in fertilisers prices, of which Russia is a prominent exporter).
The increase in the price of wheat – over 50% over the past two months – builds on pre-existing inflationary dynamics that saw food prices rise by 23.1% in 2021, the fastest pace in over a decade, and results in growing food insecurity: according to the IMF, the number of malnourished people in the region went up by 20%, affecting 264 million Africans. On average, food accounts for about 40% of households’ expenditure across the continent. The African Development Bank’s President, Akinwumi Adesina warned that "Africa must prepare for the inevitability of a global food crisis."
Against this backdrop, rising food prices raise fears of a knock-on effect of rising inequality, growing social tensions, and potential political destabilisation, following dynamics that were repeatedly observed in recent years: from the 2008 hunger riots in West Africa, to the frequently cited example of the 2011 Arab Spring, to the overthrow of the Omar al-Bashir regime in Sudan in 2019 following months of popular protests triggered by bread and fuel shortages.
The ambivalent quest for energy diversification
Crude oil and gas prices, in turn, have risen by over 30% since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. Energy is set to play an ambivalent role on African economies.
For importing countries, price increases will create additional pressures. However, the same price spikes benefit oil- and gas- producing economies, offsetting rising food prices. This is particularly relevant for established energy exporters such as Algeria, Nigeria and Angola, or countries that are opening up to this market such as Mozambique and Tanzania, for which the European strategy of reducing dependence on Russian gas by diversifying imports could be good news.
Europe’s new REPowerEU plan, on top of accelerating the development of renewable energies and sustainable energy efficiency gas, proposes to increase the flow of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and pipeline supplies: with African gas reserves estimated at around 17 trillion cubic metres, there is renewed attention towards old (and new) partners south of the Mediterranean. One case in point is Italy, which recently signed agreements with Algeria, Egypt, Angola, and the Republic of Congo, with negotiations underway for a deal with Mozambique.
For a number of African economies, this reversal of attention towards LNG will be profitable in the short term. Yet it risks diverting attention from the development of a sustainable energy transition, a crucial element of the European Union (EU)-African Union (AU) dialogue.
No more than a week before the war began, the EU-AU summit in Brussels (17-18 February) agreed on a 'joint vision' outlining collaboration on Covid-19, security, economic growth, and climate change. Crucial to its implementation was an ambitious €150 billion investment package as part of the EU’s Global Gateway initiative, of which the green transition is a key component.
However, the Ukrainian crisis led to an immediate recalibration of European priorities and a shift in focus towards energy projects in Europe. A shift towards a more inward-looking approach may result in a significant step backwards as regards cooperation on the green transition between the two continents.
Scepticisms and uncertain global positionings
Africa’s scepticism towards Europe was already demonstrated after the response to Covid-19 as well as to the EU’s recent funding pledges. It will be reinforced by the fear that the war will recalibrate European and global priorities in terms of economic and development aid.
European countries displayed an unprecedented military commitment to supporting Ukraine, adding to the inevitable costs of hosting refugees and supporting the country’s future reconstruction. With available resources further limited by inflation, development agencies have expressed concern that donors will shift their short-term focus to supporting Ukraine, taking away from countries that are particularly dependent on development aid and thus more vulnerable to external shocks.
This is particularly significant in a context where the international alignment between African countries and the West is far from granted. Though the AU backed the EU and US in condemning the war, the lack of a common vision between countries belonging to the two continents quickly emerged.
This was evident on the 2nd of March, when the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Out of the 35 countries that abstained from voting, 17 (nearly half) were African. Twenty-eight African countries voted in favour, seven others did not participate in the vote, while Eritrea backed Russia.
One month later, a resolution to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council saw once again African countries failing to speak with one voice, or to align with Western nations, as 10 voted in favour, 9 against, 24 abstained, while 11 did not take part in the vote.
On Ukraine, therefore, African countries do not represent a common front, with some adopting a cautious approach, avoiding taking sides in an evolving context and maintaining a balanced position. Many are not willing to distance themselves from Russia, which has been gaining influence in the continent from both a strategic and soft power perspective.
Following the February summit between Europe and Africa, 2022 will also see the US-Africa Leaders’ summit and a Russia-Africa summit. The coming months will test the state of the relationship with the EU and African countries’ positioning vis-à-vis Russia as the war, economic constraints, and global diplomacy unfold.