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Ukraine's aim to deepen ties in Africa leaves open questions

December 28, 2022

Ukraine wants to rekindle its presence on a continent where Russia already has significant investments and influence. But how do African countries view Ukraine's diplomatic initiative?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy standing behind a lectern
With Ukraine in the midst of a war against Russia, Zelenskyy's announcement came as a surprise for many Image: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/REUTERS

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently announced that new embassies would be opened on the African continent in first quarter of 2023.

"We are restarting relations with dozens of African countries. Next year we must strengthen this. Ten states have already been identified where new Ukrainian embassies in Africa will be opened," he said in a speech earlier in December.

In October, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba toured several African countries in an effort to intensify diplomatic ties. He had to suspend his trip after Russia carried out a series of massive missile attacks on Ukrainian cities at the same time.

Since the start of the Russian invasion in February, Ukraine has been trying to rally support in Africa — while Russia's influence across the continent has continued to gain momentum.

A destroyed house in the Ukrainian town of Dnipro
The war in Ukraine appears too far away for many Africans to feel involved and affectedImage: Metin Aktas/AA/picture alliance

First Ukrainian embassy to open in Ghana

Although Zelenskyy didn't mention the names of the countries where these embassies will be opened, Maksym Subkh, Ukraine's Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa, told the Ukrainian news outlet zn.ua that the initial emphasis would be away from Russia's African stronghold, the Sahel.

"We are currently focusing on sub-Saharan Africa, which no one in Ukraine has dealt with and where Russia currently has a strong position," he revealed in the interview. 

Subkh had said after Kuleba's visit to Ghana that "a decision was made to start the activity of the Embassy of Ukraine in this country. It will be open in the coming months."

No other countries have yet been specified, but Subkh also stated that during Kuleba's upcoming second African tour in the first quarter of 2023, visits to countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya would be part of the itinerary.

Subkh added that Ukraine was also working on appointing ambassadors to all African countries where it didn't have heads of foreign diplomatic institutions.

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An idealistic time frame?

Oleh Belokolos, a former Ukrainian diplomat and foreign analyst, told DW from Kyiv that a stronger Ukrainian presence in Africa was long overdue.

"We [Ukrainians] understand the importance of the continent, we know we have some potential to broaden our cooperation with African countries," he stressed, adding however that he still had some concerns about how quickly these new embassies could actually be operational.

"I support [Ukraine opening embassies in Africa] but I don't know whether we have enough resources in light of the war with Russia, and I don't know how fast this would proceed," he said.

Deepening economic ties

According to Zelenskyy's recent statement, Ukraine isn't solely interested in diplomatic representation in Africa but is also looking into deepening certain areas of trade.

"We have also developed the concept of the Ukraine-Africa Trading House with the opening of its representative offices in the capitals of the most promising countries of the continent," he said, stressing that it was necessary for his country "to achieve representation in 30 countries of the African continent."

Subkh said Ukraine is "currently working to ensure that the interest of Ukrainian business in Africa is systemic, not sporadic." He added there had been a "significant increase in the interest of companies in the agricultural sector and the food industry to enter the markets of sub-Saharan Africa."

Belokolos agreed that Ukraine has "a lot of space for cooperation from agricultural to some food products." However, he stressed that receiving greater sympathy from African countries in the face of the Russian invasion would further "facilitate this socioeconomic cooperation."

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(No) united front

Boni Yao Gebe, an Africa analyst and senior research fellow at the University of Ghana's Legon Center for International Affairs and Diplomacy, believes African nations could change their approach when entering areas of cooperation with Western nations. Instead of negotiating individually, he said African nations should enter cooperation deals as a block to maximize the benefits.

"When it comes to negotiations [...] Africa can speak with one voice. This is something that is lacking on the continent," he told DW.

He added that Africa stands to gain better results if it negotiates its terms with a united front through the African Union.

AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Africa should use the AU to present a united front in its cooperation deals, said expert Boni Yao GebeImage: Solomon Muchie/DW

Against this backdrop, Gebe questions the timing of Ukraine's latest move to deepen ties with Africa. "Why is Ukraine now interested in opening these embassies? Is this something that Ukraine has been considering — or is it because of the current political tension [with the war in Ukraine]," he said.

In Gebe's view, Ukraine has to explain its motivation to convince observers that its intentions to have a greater presence in Africa have carefully been examined, especially since Africa's condemnation of Russia's war has been far from qualifying as a united response. 

Is Ukraine hiding ulterior motives?

Meanwhile, Ukrainian diplomats like Subkh think deeper ties with the continent could actually lead to more pressure on Russia, in particular at the United Nations' level.

"Our task is to work with such countries [in Africa] because at the UN, every vote counts," he told DW.

Infographic highlighting Africa's votes at the UN condemning Russia's invasion

Gebe, however, believes Ukraine's goal to obtain more condemnation against Russia should not be its primary objective; he thinks that mobilizing support to ensure the war ends quickly would be a better approach. "The immediate preoccupation should be that this war should end so that there can be some return to normalcy. We want things to go back to where they were. 

"[The war] should not be the reason why Ukraine wants to open embassies on the continent," he stressed.

Competing with Russia for Africa's sympathy

Whatever the case, Ukraine is facing a tall order: Russia has more than 40 embassies in Africa, and is heavily investing in some countries, especially in the Sahel region. Meanwhile, grain deliveries from Ukraine to the drought-stricken Horn of Africa continue to depend on Russia's support and cooperation.

A UN-chartered ship is seen leaving the Ukrainian port town of Yuzhne on 16 August 2022
For the time being, wheat and other grain exports from Ukraine are reaching the Horn of Africa under Russia's watchful eyeImage: Str/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Russia's sphere of influence has made it difficult for some African countries to outright condemn its role in the current war. According to foreign analyst Belokolos, Russia's dominant presence in Africa will indeed pose a major challenge which Ukraine will have to tackle head-on. He said Ukraine would like to address the issue of Russian misinformation in Africa to help people on the continent learn to appreciate Ukraine's position in the war.

But Gebe believes Ukraine's quest to gain more support from Africa could be "self-conflicting, if not unattractive."

"Many African countries have trade relations with Ukraine just as they do with Russia. So I don't think the motivating factor should be that Ukraine would want African nations to support her in the corridors of the United Nations," he said.

Gebe thinks Africa should instead play a bigger role in normalizing relations between Ukraine and Russia. "I don't think opening embassies serves the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine," he said.

To him, there are "lingering doubts about the sincerity of Ukraine in this particular venture."

This article was edited by Sertan Sanderson.