“Africa is actually taken hostage” in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amid catastrophically rising food prices, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the African Union continental body during a closed-door address on Monday.
Russia's invasion, and its blockade of Ukraine's grain exports, have sparked grain and fertiliser shortages and put millions of people at risk of hunger.
The chair of the AU commission said there was an "urgent need for dialogue" to restore global stability.
Western countries have urged Russia to release Ukraine's vast grain stores. The blockade has sent food prices soaring.
"Africa is actually a hostage... of those who unleashed war against our state", Zelensky said in his speech.
West hopes to woo Africa away from Russia
It took weeks of requests for Zelensky to address African nations, many of whom retain close ties to Russia and failed to support a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion earlier this year.
Ukraine and the West hope to weaken those ties by emphasizing that Russia’s actions are to blame for dramatic shortages of wheat and edible oils and skyrocketing food and fuel prices across the African continent of 1.3 billion people. Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian exports is a “war crime,” the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said on Monday.
“They are trying to use you and the suffering of the people to put pressure on the democracies that have imposed sanctions on Russia,” Zelensky told the AU, whose leaders recently met in Russia with President Vladimir Putin and echoed Moscow’s assertion that Western sanctions are in part to blame for the food security crisis.
They appealed to other countries to ensure grain and fertilizer exports from Russia and Ukraine aren’t blocked.
Before the war, African countries imported 44% of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine alone grew enough food for 400 million people.
Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports is contributing to what analysts have called a “perfect storm” for global food supplies, as farmers face rising oil and fertiliser costs and the lingering effect of coronavirus labour restrictions. Drought is also threatening to reduce wheat harvests in countries including France, the US and India.
Proposals to end the blockade have been made. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said on Tuesday that he and the German chancellor had put to Vladimir Putin ending the blockade under the terms of a UN resolution. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will visit next week for talks to address among other things opening a Black Sea corridor for Ukrainian grain exports.
Muted African response
Official reaction to Zelenskyy’s speech was muted.
African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, one of those who met with Putin, tweeted that African nations “reiterated the AU position of the urgent need for dialogue to end the conflict.”
Current AU chair and Senegalese President Macky Sall tweeted that Africa respects “the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the freedom of commerce.”
African countries have been divided in their response to Russia's war in Ukraine. In March, 17 African countries abstained in a UN vote to condemn the invasion.
Russia is the largest weapons exporter to sub-Saharan Africa, and Moscow emphasizes its long ties with African nations dating to the Soviet Union. Some African leaders, meanwhile, are exasperated by global powers’ efforts to choose one side or another.
Moscow has blamed the global food crisis on western sanctions. Lavrov, said on Tuesday his country would guarantee “free export of Ukraine grain by ships that are now locked in Ukrainian ports” if Ukraine removed mines from its coastal waters.
He said western countries had created “a flurry of artificial problems” by closing their ports to Russian vessels, a sanction passed by the EU and the UK.
(with inputs from AP)