Africa Brief

From Algeria to Zimbabwe and countries in between, a weekly roundup of essential news and analysis from Africa. Delivered Wednesday.

How the Russia-Ukraine War Impacts Africans

Fleeing African students have been left stranded at the border as a food crisis looms for countries dependent on Russian and Ukrainian grain.

Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
People fleeing Ukraine wait at the main railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on Feb. 28.
People fleeing Ukraine wait at the main railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on Feb. 28.
People fleeing Ukraine wait at the main railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on Feb. 28. Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: China appoints a Horn of Africa envoy, the United States carries out a drone strike in Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo regains lucrative mining assets.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: China appoints a Horn of Africa envoy, the United States carries out a drone strike in Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo regains lucrative mining assets.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


What the Ukraine Crisis Means for Africans

As Russia bombarded key cities in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of civilians attempted to leave the country. Many were welcomed by neighboring governments in Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova, and Romania. But according to multiple reports, some nonwhite people fleeing Ukraine, including Nigerians and Indians, were prevented from escaping the war zone.

Several videos shared on social media appear to show Africans being blocked by Ukrainian security forces from boarding trains out of Ukraine in order to, according to Africans fleeing, make space for Ukrainians first.

Around 20 percent of Ukraine’s foreign students are Africans. Moroccans make up the largest group with 8,000 students, Nigerians are second with 4,000 and Egyptians are third with 3,500. In one video viewed over two million times, a crowd of Nigerian students can be seen pleading with armed border guards. Some kneel on the ground shouting, “We are students. We don’t have arms.”

At least two foreign students—one from India and another from Algeria—were killed during a Russian bombardment on Sunday of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

Racial bias. The contrast is not lost on those familiar with the Syrian and Afghan refugee crises. Criticism was leveled on European politicians and journalists for how they described Ukrainian refugees by denigrating refugees from elsewhere. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told journalists earlier this week that his country would welcome Ukrainians because “these are not the refugees we are used to … these people are Europeans,” he said. “These people are intelligent. They are educated people.”

In a rare emergency special session on Monday of the United Nations General Assembly on Ukraine, Secretary General António Guterres urged taking in those seeking safety to be “extended without any discrimination based on race, religion or ethnicity.”

Comments by an Al Jazeera English presenter also came under fire after he said, “These are prosperous middle-class people … they look like any European family that you would live next door to.” The channel issued an apology for a “breach of professionalism.”

Governments M.I.A. African students recount being pushed, beaten and dragged off public transit by Polish and Ukrainian border forces. Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said in a video statement that once airports reopened, his government would assist with the evacuation of Nigerians. But with Ukrainian airspace closed, Africans pointed to the lack of proactive intervention by some embassies and the African Union.

Two weeks prior to the Russian invasion, the Moroccan government called on citizens to leave Ukraine, while the head of the Egyptian community in Ukraine, Ali Farouk, said the Egyptian embassy was coordinating the return of Egyptian students. After facing backlash for not helping its citizens, Ghana’s government announced Friday it would arrange transport of Ghanaian nationals, including over 1,000 students out of Ukraine.

The first safe evacuation was confirmed by the National Union of Ghana Students on Saturday, and those evacuated arrived in Accra on Tuesday. Yet some Ghanaian students I’ve spoken to said they have yet to receive any help and were waiting on the outcome of a meeting in Accra convened by Ghana’s government and parents and relatives of citizens stuck in Ukraine.

The fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war will impact all Africans at home and abroad. Tough economic sanctions imposed on Russia including the removal of key Russian banks from the SWIFT financial system, measures against Russia’s central bank, and the barring of business transactions in dollars will directly impact African trade.

North Africa’s food security. African countries imported agricultural products worth $4 billion from Russia and $2.9 billion from Ukraine in 2020 at a time of soaring prices in global markets. From Russia, about 90 percent was wheat. “Since 2014 Russia has considerably diversified its economic partnerships with African countries,” Tatiana Smirnova, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre Franco Paix in Conflict Resolution and Peace Missions at the University of Quebec, told Foreign Policy.

Egypt imports nearly 85 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and it is Russia’s top African trade partner. Russia has invested around $190 million in developing special economic zones in Egypt’s Port Said. The country issued a new global tender for wheat on Saturday and said reserves could last nine months. In Tunisia, already struggling economically, the agriculture ministry said it was looking elsewhere for wheat supplies.

Still, there are some African countries who will gain. Oil prices have surged past $100 a barrel, the highest level since 2014. A Russian oil embargo would benefit the economies of Nigeria and Angola. Ethiopia with its large wheat fields could have stood to gain from supply shortages but its own production has been disrupted by civil war.

“If you were to look five years back, they were on the trajectory of being an impressive player in Africa’s grain markets,” Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, said.

Proxy wars. Perhaps not wanting to be drawn into a proxy war, few African countries have issued an official response to Russia’s aggressions. Kenya, Gabon, Ghana, and Nigeria have spoken out against the escalating conflict. Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations made a rousing speech at the United Nations Security Council comparing the Ukraine conflict to the colonial legacy in Africa.

While South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, historically a key Russian ally in the BRICS group, appealed for a “mediation process” to bring the hostilities to an end, South Africa has also asked that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

Russia has been expanding its military support in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mozambique with advances in Mali in fighting rebels and jihadist insurgents. The second Russia-Africa summit was scheduled for October to November this year in Addis Ababa. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, the deputy leader of Sudan’s junta, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, led a delegation to Moscow to strengthen closer ties between the two countries. (Russia has gold mining concessions in Sudan.)

One of the important sanctions against Moscow was on high technology imports to Russia, noted Smirnova. “This will have an impact on relations with Africa. I think that Russia will continue to search for markets specifically in countries that could provide minerals for electronic components like cobalt,” she said.

It is likely Russia’s isolation from the rest of the world could push it closer to countries such as Mali, which has been ostracized from much of Africa; the Central African Republic; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world’s largest producer of cobalt, a mineral essential for electronic products and vehicles.

The Week Ahead

March 2: Oil ministers from OPEC+ countries, including Sudan, meet virtually.

March 6: Independence Day in Ghana.


What We’re Watching

China envoy. China appointed senior diplomat Xue Bing to a newly created post of special envoy for the Horn of Africa to “advance peace and development” in the region. Xue previously worked as China’s ambassador to Papua New Guinea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced plans to appoint a special envoy during his tour of Eritrea, Kenya, and Comoros in January, marking a potential shift in Beijing’s policy of non-interference.

China’s Horn of Africa investments risk being derailed by ongoing instability in the region. Beijing has substantial oil stakes in South Sudan, Eritrea joined the Belt and Road Initiative last November, China funded and built a $4.5 billion railway line running from Ethiopia to the Port of Djibouti that began operation in 2018, and Beijing’s first overseas military base was established in Djibouti in 2017.

Kenya elections. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his ruling Jubilee Party endorsed veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga in a presidential election scheduled for August, rejecting Kenyatta’s deputy William Ruto, who was sacked from the party on Saturday. Kenyatta will not be on the ballot due to a constitutional limit of two five-year terms.

In the past five years Odinga, a former political prisoner, has gone from Kenyatta’s bitter rival to preferred successor. Odinga challenged the outcome of his last three campaigns for office, arguing his victories were stolen, leading to deadly clashes in 2007 and 2017.

Somalia drone strike. The United States conducted a drone strike against al Shabab militants in Somalia last week, the first in the country since August, the U.S. military’s Africa Command said. In 2017, former U.S. President Donald Trump granted powers to give commanders more authority to conduct airstrikes and raids against al Shabab without high-level interagency reviews.

Tighter controls were placed on drone strikes outside active war zones when U.S. President Joe Biden took office in 2021. But approval from Washington was not needed in the attack because Africa Command has the authority to “engage in collective self-defense of our Somali partners,” the U.S. military said. Africa Command said it was still trying to establish how many insurgents had been killed and said that no civilians were injured or killed as a result of the bombing.

Congo assets. Mining company Ventora Development, formerly known as Fleurette Group and controlled by Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, will give control of mining and oil assets worth about $2 billion back to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country’s presidential press office said last Friday. Gertler is accused of corruption in Congo’s lucrative mining and oil business.

In 2017 and 2021, the United States sanctioned Gertler and his associates for using his close friendship with former Congolese President Joseph Kabila to amass a vast fortune through mining deals purchased at knockdown prices. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, the country lost nearly $1.4 billion in revenues from underpricing of mining assets that were sold to offshore companies linked to Gertler, according to the U.S. Treasury. Gertler denies any wrongdoing.


This Week in Tech 

Egypt-Kenya deal. Kenya plans to buy electricity from Ethiopia’s hydropower dam on a Nile River tributary. The $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam began partial electricity generation on Feb. 20, and will provide power to the 60 percent of Ethiopia’s population “that have never seen a bulb,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said at a ceremony in Guba.

Ethiopia hopes to generate about $1 billion in annual revenue from electricity exports to neighboring countries when the dam is completed in 2024. But the project has long been opposed by Sudan and Egypt, who see the dam as a threat to their water security.

Ghana green bond. Ghana last week announced a bond exchange to be based in the capital Accra. Fintech Green Exchange aims to enable companies to issue billions in green bonds—standard loan-interest bonds that fund projects that have environmental benefits—and is targeting $5 billion in green bond sales within five years in Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya. There has only been limited issuance of such bonds from Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa, despite the continent being among the most at risk from climate change.


Chart of the Week

Sanctions against Russia are a worry for north African countries closely linked in trade. Egypt is Russia’s leading trade partner on the continent, and revenue from Russian exports and imports with Egypt reached $4.5 billion in 2020. The conflict is affecting its tourism sector, already impacted by the pandemic and heavily reliant on Russian visitors.


What We’re Reading

Egypt’s dangerous buildings. Amid the Egyptian government’s inaction to repair or demolish dangerous properties, about 500 Egyptian residents have died in collapsed buildings over the past seven years, found Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism. Data from the archives of Egyptian newspapers revealed incidents injured around a thousand people and, of the 500 killed, over two-thirds were women and children.

Around 100,000 residential properties are categorized as irreparable and “dangerous buildings” that must be demolished, according to the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.

How Spain’s right wing derailed women’s rights in Kenya. A supposedly local campaign against reproductive rights, which helped derail crucial new legislation to protect women’s rights in Kenya, was orchestrated from Spain, found journalists in The Continent. In 2020, Kenya’s upper house of Parliament debated a reproductive health bill that was met with online opposition through viral hashtags. It was apparently initiated and funded by CitizenGo, a conservative right-wing group based in Spain.

Around 15 Kenyans were paid $10 to $15 per campaign to operate multiple accounts on Twitter to spread disinformation about the contents of the proposed bill, according to research by Nairobi-based Odanga Madung of the Mozilla Foundation. As a result of the fake online outcry, the bill was withdrawn. A Twitter spokesperson said the incident was being investigated and more than 240 accounts had been suspended.

Correction, March 2, 2022: A previous version of this article misstated which country is the world’s largest producer of cobalt; it is the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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