- By Barbara Plett Usher
- BBC News, Nairobi
Seven African leaders have travelled to Ukraine and Russia on a peace mission, hoping to work towards ending the war, which has badly affected living standards across the continent.
The delegation from South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, Congo-Brazzaville, Comoros, Zambia, and Uganda is meeting President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday and President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.
But the timing of the visit seems off. It comes just as Kyiv is launching its much-vaunted counter-offensive.
So, what can this mission actually achieve?
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa offered no timeline or proposals when he made the announcement last month, joining a crowded field of would-be peacemakers that includes China, Turkey and the Pope.
“What is the strategic thrust of this intervention?” asks Kingsley Makhubela, a South African risk analyst and former diplomat. “It’s not clear. Is this a photo op by African heads of state?”
The mission is an unusual burst of activism given Africa’s largely hands-off approach to a conflict that many here see primarily as a confrontation between Russia and the West.
It is also a rare attempt at diplomatic intervention outside the continent – a “welcome development” given Africa’s growing demand to have a bigger voice at the UN and other international organisations, says Murithi Mutiga, Africa director at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank.
The man who has prepared the ground, Jean-Yves Ollivier, has talked about modest goals.
He heads a UK-based organisation known as the Brazzaville Foundation, which focuses primarily on peace and development initiatives in Africa, although his long-standing links to Congo-Brazzaville’s authoritarian leader have made him a controversial figure.
Mr Ollivier has stopped commenting publicly about the trip since the dates became official. But in previously published interviews he has laid out his approach.
He said the aim was to start talking rather than to resolve the conflict, to begin a dialogue on issues that do not directly affect the military situation and build from there.
One of them is a potential swap of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war.
The other is to try and find solutions to issues that matter to Africa, like grain and fertiliser.
The war has severely restricted the export of grain from Ukraine and fertiliser from Russia, intensifying global food insecurity. Africa, which depends on imports of both, has suffered the most.
Mr Ollivier said the African leaders would seek to persuade the Russians to extend the fragile agreement that allows Ukraine to ship grain through the Black Sea.
And it will urge Kyiv to help find ways to ease restrictions on the export of Russian fertiliser currently being held up in ports.
There are indications, however, that the leaders “seek to offer a more substantive deal between the two sides”, says Mr Mutiga.
US pressure on South Africa
The delegation has been designed for breadth and balance, with members from different parts of Africa who have different views on the conflict.
It includes four presidents, Egypt’s prime minister, and representatives from Uganda and Congo-Brazzaville
South Africa and Uganda are seen as leaning towards Russia, while Zambia and Comoros are closer to the West. Egypt, Senegal and Congo-Brazzaville have remained largely neutral.
But recent developments in South Africa appear to be influencing the venture.
Mr Ramaphosa’s government has come under growing pressure from the US because of its alleged support for Russia’s war. This centres on claims of an arms shipment to Moscow, which South Africa has denied.
The Biden administration is waiting for the outcome of Pretoria’s official investigation, but a bipartisan group of US lawmakers wants the White House to punish South Africa by reconsidering important preferential trade benefits.
“I think [the mission] is now aligned with a need for South Africa to explain itself,” says Alex Vines, director of the Africa Programme at London’s Chatham House think-tank.
Dr Vines says the Americans are no longer trying to make Africa choose sides in the conflict as they did when Russia first invaded Ukraine.
Many African states have maintained a non-aligned position, a stance the US acknowledges is rooted in the history of the Cold War and does not necessarily mean support for Moscow.
Washington now “advocates true non-alignment”, he says, “hence the pressure on South Africa at the moment to prove that it’s truly non-aligned”.
Mr Ramaphosa has been a driving force in getting the trip into shape, nailing it down with calls to Mr Putin and Mr Zelensky, and briefing UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Although neither Russia nor Ukraine have shown any interest in peace talks, both have an interest in this visit.
Moscow has been cultivating influence in Africa as a counterweight to the West and is hoping to showcase that in a Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg next month.
Ukraine has been trying to catch up on African diplomacy from a standing start. It recently sent its foreign minister to the continent to plead its case and would welcome another chance to do so.
The Ukrainians “will probably try to persuade the African mediators not to attend the summit”, says Dr Makhubela.
“The Russians want to show that they are not isolated. But their interests are… mutually exclusive. That’s why this is going to create a dilemma for African heads of state as to whether they go to St Petersburg,” he adds.
Analysts see the summit as an important indicator of Africa’s relations with Russia, but not an ideological one.
“Africans are transactional in this,” says Dr Vines, noting that the biggest worry of ex-guerrilla fighters in Mozambique he had spoken to recently was the cost of living because of “this distant European war”.
“It’s not their war,” he says.
That is in fact one of the few advantages the African leaders could bring to the peace table as mediators, according to Mr Mutiga, should the parties ever decide to sit at it.