Russia may have genuine grievances over what it is getting from the United Nations and the Türkiye-brokered grain deal. It may want to renegotiate the deal. It may want to get more sanction relief and better deals for its fertilizer and grain exports.
But by terminating the deal and going all out to bomb the port city of Odessa and especially, Ukrainian grain export facilities, Mr Putin is not only threatening to plunge the world into another global food crisis, but he is also directly hurting his allies or friends mainly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia that disproportionately depend on Ukraine grains for its food.
This is after seven African leaders, including Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, went to beg him to allow the exports to continue. This is after South Africa foolishly incurred the wrath of the United States and European Union – by far more important trade partners to South Africa than Russia – by allowing arms export to Russia from its ports. This just shows the utter diplomatic weightlessness of Africa and how African needs and concerns do not matter and are always ignored in global affairs.
Yet, Russia is expecting the entire 54 African leaders to gather in St Petersburg starting today, for the Russia-Africa summit while it directly precipitates a food crisis in the countries. What exactly would they be discussing?
But what’s even Africa’s reaction to the scuppering of the deal? Silence, except for a lone Kenyan official’s tweet calling the decision by Russia to exit the black sea grain deal “a stab [in] the back” by Russia. Continuing, Abraham Korir Sing’Oei, the Kenyan official, said the resulting rise in global food prices will “disproportionately impact countries in the Horn of Africa already impacted by drought.”
If African leaders have any shame, they must all boycott the summit to register their displeasure at Putin’s actions. But I won’t put my money on African leaders to know what to do. If history is anything to rely on, they will mostly queue up in St Petersburg once again to beg Putin to no avail.
Africa: Trade, trade, trade!
But why should Africa, which has the potential to produce all its grains and food, depend so much on Russia and Ukraine for grains? I explained some weeks ago that it was mainly because of the need to earn dollars. Because of this need, a significant part of African farmlands is dedicated to producing cash crops – coffee, cocoa, cottonseed oil, and horticultural products that Africa does not eat – mainly for export.
Meanwhile, we import what we eat – wheat, rice, and even maize. But intra-African trade can do away with the craze for dollars and still ensure self-sustenance. So why is Africa not pursuing that strategy? Because intra-African trade and travel are still not popular.
Time was when calls to Cotonou from Lagos – a distance of only 121.5 kilometres, had to be routed, first through London (6, 769.1 km from Lagos), then Paris (6, 309.3 km from Lagos) before it was connected to Cotonou. While today, this may not sound reasonable, it made perfect sense for the European colonial masters.
They were in Africa for the benefit of their countries and so roads, railways, and other communication infrastructure were built not to connect or enable inter-African trade or interaction, but to enable easy movements of goods to the sea where they would be transported to the metropolitan centres.
Unfortunately, the overall orientation hasn’t changed much since independence. The bulk of the continent’s trade is still with Europe and America, and more recently, Asia. Intra-African trade has improved only marginally, despite the existence of several regional economic and trade communities.
Even with the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) by 54 of the African Union’s 55 member states and 44 have deposited the instruments of ratification, Intra-Africa trade stands at a mere 14.4%. In comparison, inter-European and inter-Asian trade stands at 60% while inter-American trade stands at 40%.
Allow Africans to move freely within Africa
One of the barriers to intra-African trade is the difficulty in movement within Africa. Transport and other infrastructure that will enable intra-African trade and communication are still underdeveloped and, in many cases, worse than they were during colonial times. But a large part of the problem is just plain African unwillingness to allow cross-border and intra-continental travel.
The numbers tell the entire story. While 44 African countries have deposited their instruments of ratification of the AfCFTA, only four have ratified the Protocol on the movement of people, and only three – Benin, Gambia, and Seychelles – allow visa-free entry to all Africans.
What is more, non-Africans have more freedom of movement in Africa than Africans. According to Dangote, Africa’s richest man, who has investments in many African countries, constantly complains about how difficult it is for him to travel across Africa, even with a specially designed African Union (AU) passport, which was designed to grant African important African personnel and business tycoons free access and movement within the continent.
According to him, some African countries would just not accept the passport but would easily allow his bagman with an American or European passport. “We go with a British guy or maybe a Nigerian holding a British passport and he is allowed in that country, but we are still arguing and debating about my visa, and I am the one with the money,” the business tycoon volunteered. “If you are making life difficult for me”, Dangote continues, “there is no way I will go and invest in your country”.
Even when one eventually gets visas, intra-African travels are so prohibitively expensive as to discourage real travels beyond only necessities.