There is no going back to the world as it was before the 24th of February 2022. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a historic turning point that will echo through time.

The aftershocks will play out for decades. European countries have made more far-reaching decisions on defence, energy and economic sanctions in the past two weeks than they have in decades.

Meanwhile, the worst refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster since the end of the second world war are unfolding on European soil.

But the consequences of Putin’s reckless gamble are not confined to Europe’s borders. The ripple effects are multiplying and Africa is radically exposed.

In my conversation with David McNair of the ONE Foundation, we discussed the implications of the conflict in Ukraine for a continent that is still reeling from the pandemic, but which is also determined to become a 21st-century economic superpower. These are his key insights:

Domino effects

Africa is exposed to the fallout from the conflict in multiple intertwined ways. Each separate impact, whether it is on food security, debt sustainability, geopolitics or political instability, is like a falling domino with knock-on effects for the others.

These impacts are contagious and unpredictable.

Food insecurity amplifies unrest

Just under half of African countries are dependent on Russia and Ukraine for a majority of their food staples. The dependency is much greater for some: 80 per cent of wheat imports in Sudan, Egypt, Tanzania, Eritrea and Benin and more than 95 per cent of sunflower oil in Algeria, Sudan, and Tunisia. 

Even before the invasion, prices had rocketed to their highest levels since the 1970s. The war has sent further shockwaves through markets for these commodities. In addition to cost explosion, there is a real risk of physical shortages due to blockages at Black Sea ports and Russia’s export ban on fertiliser ingredients necessary for the domestic production of food. 

David McNair

Food inflation and shortages will inevitably trigger social unrest and political instability. Just over a decade ago, a significant increase in food costs was one of the driving forces behind the Arab Spring. The magnitude of the problem is even greater today.

The West has repeatedly let Africa down

Subsidising the cost of food would cushion the impact of the shock. However many African governments don’t have the fiscal space to respond. This is scarcely imaginable to us in the rich West. In Egypt, for example, bread subsidies already comprise 2 per cent of the government’s budget. 

Western countries have repeatedly let Africa down on financial support, most recently President Macron’s commitment to making €100 billion of IMF funding available, which has fallen victim to partisan politics in the US. With 40% of African countries in debt distress, US interest rate rises will immediately increase their debt burden and limit their scope for fiscal action.

African countries reasons not to take sides in Ukraine

Western reporting of the UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion emphasised the fact 141 countries voted in favour, with only 4 against and 35 abstaining. However, as Adam Tooze pointed out recently, these numbers conceal clear dividing lines. Of the 7.7 billion people represented by governments taking part in the vote, those representing 51 per cent of the world’s population abstained, and half these were African.

Hard-headed consideration of national interest was central to this. African leaders are hedging their bets because they don’t see the West as a reliable partner. They are also determined to avoid getting involved in what they view as a regional war – just as the West stays out of Africa’s wars.

China’s growing economic influence also looms large. While African leaders are under no illusions about how China leverages lending to African governments to its geopolitical advantage, there is also the sense that China listens and responds to needs in a way the West does not. McNair’s anecdote about the senior African politician who said China would build a road in the time it took him to negotiate a contract with the EU testifies to a new great power playing the geopolitical game by entirely different rules.

The frontline in a new Cold War?

A likely consequence of the West’s economic war against Russia is that it will be pulled more closely into China’s gravitational orbit. 

At the same time, following its decisive intervention in the Syrian civil war, Russia has been steadily increasing its military presence in Africa. Russian forces have recently provided military support in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mozambique. Meanwhile, the Wagner Group mercenaries, sometimes called Putin’s private army, have fought back jihadists in Mali.

The obvious danger for the West is that if Russia is driven more into China’s sphere while both autocracies are expanding their presence in Africa is that a continent that is only 14 kilometres from Europe at its closest point becomes the frontline in a new Cold War.

Africa demands respect from the West

Africa is more ambitious and self-confident about its future than it has ever been. What the continent demands from the West is respect and a place at the table, not charity and a pat on the back.

Given the growing influence of China and Russia, it is clearly in the West’s interest to reciprocate with more than rhetoric and promises. This means reversing the economic relationship from one based largely on commodities to opening our markets to African goods and services. It also requires deep structural reform of Western economic assumptions and institutions, for example how rating agencies rate the debt of African governments.

Enlightened self-interest on our side can produce enormous dividends for both Africa and the West while keeping autocracies at bay. As McNair puts it, we need to see Africa’s future path as an existential issue for Europe in particular. In any of the great risks we face, whether it is food security, climate disruption, uncontrolled migration or the fiscal pressure on our ageing societies, we have everything to gain from a strong partnership with a dynamic, stable and prosperous Africa.