African leaders in an historic first -- attempting to broker peace in Ukraine

Over the past weekend, a delegation of African leaders met presidents Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in Kyiv and Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in St Petersburg. Their mission was an effort to explore the possibility of a negotiated end to the ongoing war between the two countries.

Led by Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa, the delegation included the presidents of Zambia (Hakainde Hichilema), Comoros (Azali Assoumani) and Senegal (Macky Sall). The leaders of the Republic of Congo, Egypt and Uganda, who were also supposed to be on the trip, sent representatives instead. Mr Assoumani, who currently heads the African Union, was a late addition.

Contrary to some critical reports, the mission, which was cobbled together in May, was not an attempt to bring an immediate end to the war. The African leaders lack both the leverage to bring all parties to the table and the time to mediate even if they could, as Gilbert M. Khadiagala, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, noted in an article on The Conversation in May.

They sought to remind the world of the effects of the war on African countries, where food prices have shot through the roof due to the disruption of global markets.

The leaders were aware of this and did not presume to talk up the importance of their mission, even if they noted its historic value as the first African initiative of the sort in Europe. Their goal, instead, was to establish if, in the words of Khadiagala “the conditions are ripe for mediation, and whether the belligerents are ready to consider it.”

In short, they are the advance party of peace.



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And their strength lay primarily in their weakness. In the absence of any sincere efforts by major powers and the belligerents to secure peace, as evidenced by the sabre-rattling on both sides with regard to Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive, they sought to remind the world of the effects of the war on African countries, where food prices have shot through the roof due to the disruption of global markets.

It's unfortunate that many journalists sought to pooh-pooh the mission, evidently out of disdain for the position a number of African countries maintain towards the war. Some emphasised, for instance, the fact that Russia lobbed missiles at Kyiv while the Africans were there, while not reporting that Mr Ramaphosa condemned the attack during their joint press conference.

It is true that African countries haven’t fallen in line with the West with regard to the war. But this doesn’t mean that Africa’s position on the matter is unnuanced. On the eve of Russia’s invasion, for instance, Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, gave perhaps the most eloquent repudiation of Mr Putin’s casus belli, based on the experience of African countries after independence.

Yet, after the invasion, a number of African countries voted in support of Russia at the United Nations. Several abstained in such votes, while more than half have always voted in support of condemning the invasion and calling for a Russian withdrawal. All, however, have insisted on being non-aligned and emphasised the need for a negotiated end to the war.

This complexity was evident even in the African peace delegation. Its leader, Ramaphosa, is not only chummy with Putin, his country has even been accused of supplying Russia with arms, an accusation it denies. Even more jarringly, all the leaders that dropped out of the delegation are unelected dictators; the entire party was therefore made up of elected leaders of relatively stable democracies.

In short, only one thing unites African countries with regard to the war between Russia and Ukraine: the need for peace. It is understandable that Western leaders and media should feel frustrated at the apparent African equivocation on the matter, but perhaps this is also a reflection of their own obsession with winning the war at all costs, rather than seeing it peacefully resolved.

The desire for peace expressed by African countries, meanwhile, is no mean proposal. Perhaps more than any other part of the world, Africa has the freshest experiences of the suffering caused by war, as well as immense experience in bringing back peace through negotiation. It isn’t wise, therefore, to discount a mission of the kind mounted by the African leaders.

In fact, in some regards, the mission can be said to have been successful. It was the first delegation to meet the leaders of both warring countries since the war began, as well as the first to raise the same issue with both of them. They presented a peace proposal predicated on ten key elements, with which both Mr Zelensky and Putin agreed, even if they differed quite materially on the details.

That said, it remains to be seen what specific fruits the mission will bear. In the meantime, shouts of war yet rise from the battlefields, as the two countries throw bodies and metal at each other, each in a vain effort to win a war that has already been lost thousands of times by the fallen.


Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image credit: Volodymyr Zelensky and Cyril Ramaphosa during a joint press conference in Kyiv. The Presidential Office of Ukraine.

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