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Senegal: The "Voice" of Africa in the Russian-Ukrainian Crisis

Three questions to Babacar Ndiaye

INTERVIEW - 1 July 2022

Senegal abstained from the March 2 UN General Assembly vote, condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, yet while visiting Vladimir Putin in Moscow in early June, Senegalese President Macky Sall called for an end to the war. How should Senegal’s posture toward the conflict be understood? For this 4th installment of Ukraine Beyond the West, Babacar Ndiaye, Director of Research and Publications at WATHI, argues it could be a sign of Africa reviving its historical position of nonalignment with the West.

Senegal, whose President Macky Sall holds the rotating chairmanship of the African Union, abstained from the United Nations General Assembly vote on March 2 demanding that Russia "immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders". Where does Senegal stand on the conflict? And how does it justify its position?

Senegal appears to be taking a neutral position on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, having chosen to abstain on two consecutive votes at the United Nations following Russia's invasion. The first was the United Nations General Assembly resolution of March 2, 2022 demanding that Moscow immediately withdraw its military forces from Ukrainian territory. Senegal abstained from voting on the resolution and Senegalese President Macky Sall made a point of reminding Russian President Vladimir Putin of this decision during his recent visit to Russia. 

On March 9, 2022, in his capacity as chair of the African Union, Macky Sall held a phone conversation with the Russian leader. Sall called for a lasting ceasefire while also commending Putin's willingness to listen and keep open lines of communication toward a negotiated solution to the conflict.

Senegal is known to be a country that fosters dialogue - neutrality being a key component of its diplomacy. 

Senegal also abstained from the United Nations General Assembly vote to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council on April 7, 2022. The Senegalese delegation called for de-escalation, an immediate end to hostilities, and continued negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in an effort to resolve the conflict. 

Many were surprised by Senegal's decision to abstain, particularly in Europe, but a closer look at recent history shows that the country had adopted a similar stance when voting on Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Such a posture is reflective of the country's diplomacy throughout history. Senegal is known to be a country that fosters dialogue - neutrality being a key component of its diplomacy. Some might even characterize this neutrality as a long running tradition that allows the country to maintain channels of communication with all conflicting parties in a crisis. 

This did not deter President Macky Sall, however, from sharply condemning the ill-treatment faced by African civilians fleeing the warzone in Ukraine for neighboring countries on March 3, 2022. He also called for the implementation of an international commission of inquiry into allegations of human rights violations in Ukraine.

The Senegalese President has traveled to Moscow and said he would also visit Kyiv on behalf of the African Union. What role will the pan-African organization (including through Macky Sall) play in resolving the conflict?

The African Union is a continental organization consisting of 54 member states. While some of them have diplomatic relations with Russia and Ukraine, most relations revolve primarily around trade. 

The Russian Ambassador to Senegal, Dmitry Kourakov, highlighted the importance of economic trade between the two countries at a press briefing. He indicated that bilateral trade between Russia and Senegal had increased by a factor of 2.2 from 2020 to 2021, reaching CFAF 513.3 billion. Senegal has become Russia’s largest trading partner in Sub-Saharan Africa, second only to South Africa. 

It is difficult to say what role the continental union intends to play in the Ukraine war, although President Macky Sall drew significant attention on his trip to Russia on June 3 with the African Union Commission Chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat. The two African leaders were given a warm welcome at a time when Russia is facing diplomatic isolation, notwithstanding the support it receives from China. 

A new geopolitical order could be taking shape, one where Africa revives its historical position of nonalignment with the West and defends its own interests. The African continent has emerged as an unexpected player in the Ukrainian conflict. On his trip to Russia, President Macky Sall called for the war to end and discussions with Ukraine to begin in order to resolve the conflict. 

In this confrontation between Russia and Ukraine rife with deep divisions, Africa could be the third voice in a conflict that rages far away from its borders. Although President Macky Sall has not yet traveled to Kyiv, the Ukrainian President was given an opportunity to address the African Union during a virtual meeting held on June 20 where four heads of state from the African continent attended, including the President of Côte d'Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, and President Macky Sall. 

A new geopolitical order could be taking shape, one where Africa revives its historical position of nonalignment with the West and defends its own interests.

Whether this was an attempt to win over the continent or find new allies in the war against Russia, President Zelensky expressed his desire to broaden relations with African countries and announced plans to create a "special Ukrainian envoy for Africa". The Senegalese President praised the convivial discussions held with his Ukrainian counterpart. 

The two diplomatic initiatives with the presidents of Russia and Ukraine may appear merely symbolic, but they also reflect a change in international relations and political stances around the world, among both traditional and emerging nations. Africa has an opportunity to develop fruitful relationships with countries like China, Russia and Turkey, which are growing their presence on the continent. 

Following the Ukrainian President’s address, Macky Sall stated that "Africa remains committed to respecting the rules of international law, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and freedom of trade". Strong principles in an extremely tense environment where it is hard to see "the light at the end of the tunnel".

What are the current and anticipated consequences of the war for Senegal and the African continent as a whole? Was President Sall’s trip to Moscow to "carry the voice of Africa" a success in this regard?

The consequences of the war are most certainly economic in nature and they are already being felt in Africa. This is happening just as African countries are revitalizing their economies after a difficult stretch owed to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the repercussions were not immediately apparent given that the conflict is far from home, they have now materialized, particularly in countries within West Africa and the Sahel region. 

In Russia, Macky Sall pressed Vladimir Putin to unblock exports of Ukrainian grains, including through the port of Odessa, as well as fertilizers used in agriculture, especially during this critical period for seeding. 

The African continent is one of the world’s largest consumers of grains originating from Russia and Ukraine. The Russian ambassador in Dakar mentioned in this regard that Russia supplies about 40% of wheat needs to Senegal. Inevitably, food prices have soared in the current environment, in particular for wheat-based products. Experts from the World Bank indicate that "local prices for rice, wheat, oil, sugar, and other processed imports have already risen between 20 to 50% in different countries of [West Africa]". African populations have been particularly hard-hit by the rising prices, especially since the continent does not have much leeway to limit the impact.

Russia’s blockade on Ukrainian grain exports is only exacerbating the food insecurity situation. 

Some countries like Chad have declared a "food emergency" citing a "constant deterioration of the food and nutritional situation" which has worsened due in large part to the crisis in Ukraine. Russia’s blockade on Ukrainian grain exports is only exacerbating the food insecurity situation. 

Grains are not the only commodity experiencing skyrocketing prices. Prices have surged for energy as well. In Senegal, the cost of fuel has risen by more than FCFA 100. In this environment of higher prices owing to the war in Ukraine, the African continent, through the voice of Macky Sall, has delivered several urgent messages. The President emphasized that Africa is not requesting humanitarian assistance but rather the return to a situation where countries are free to purchase grains from both countries at war. 

It is still too early to say whether the trip to Russia was a success, even though it was symbolic in nature. Its outcome will depend on whether the Russian President follows through on his commitments to give African countries renewed access to grain products from that part of the world. 

This also raises another important question that many Africans have asked: how can a continent so rich in natural resources and fertile land rely so heavily on Ukrainian wheat, fertilizer and Russian oil? Proposals have been made aiming to change eating habits in order to reduce dependency on foreign products and expand local production. Younger generations are leading the fight across the continent, including on social networks, and the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the crisis in Ukraine seem to confirm that the time has come to reduce all forms of external dependence. Young entrepreneurs in Senegal, Mali and Nigeria are trying to meet the challenge in the agricultural sector by promoting local crops and calling on governments to increase local production. Africa must adopt strategic postures to strengthen its sovereignty in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. 

 

Copyright: OHN WESSELS / AFP

 

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