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BBC: African mission in Ukraine - peacekeepers or double agents?

16-6-2023 |

Seven African leaders are travelling to Ukraine and Russia on a peace mission, hoping to work towards ending the war, which has badly affected living standards across the continent.

The delegation from South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, Congo-Brazzaville, Comoros, Zambia, and Uganda is meeting President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday and President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.

So, what can this mission actually achieve?

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa offered no timeline or proposals when he made the announcement last month, joining a crowded field of would-be peacemakers that includes China, Turkey and the Pope.

"What is the strategic thrust of this intervention?" asks Kingsley Makhubela, a South African risk analyst and former diplomat. "It's not clear. Is this a photo op by African heads of state?"

The mission is an unusual burst of activism given Africa's largely hands-off approach to a conflict that many here see primarily as a confrontation between Russia and the West.

It is also a rare attempt at diplomatic intervention outside the continent - a "welcome development" given Africa's growing demand to have a bigger voice at the UN and other international organisations, says Murithi Mutiga, Africa director at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank.

The man who has prepared the ground, Jean-Yves Ollivier, has talked about modest goals.

He heads a UK-based organisation known as the Brazzaville Foundation, which focuses primarily on peace and development initiatives in Africa.

Mr Ollivier has stopped commenting publicly about the trip since the dates became official. But in previously published interviews he has laid out his approach.

He said the aim was to start talking rather than to resolve the conflict, to begin a dialogue on issues that do not directly affect the military situation and build from there.

One of them is a potential swap of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war.

The other is to try and find solutions to issues that matter to Africa, like grain and fertiliser.

The war has severely restricted the export of grain from Ukraine and fertiliser from Russia, intensifying global food insecurity. Africa, which depends on imports of both, has suffered the most.

Mr Ollivier said the African leaders would seek to persuade the Russians to extend the fragile agreement that allows Ukraine to ship grain through the Black Sea.

And it will urge Kyiv to help find ways to ease restrictions on the export of Russian fertiliser currently being held up in ports.

There are indications, however, that the leaders "seek to offer a more substantive deal between the two sides", says Mr Mutiga.

The delegation has been designed for breadth and balance, with members from different parts of Africa who have different views on the conflict.

It includes four presidents, Egypt's prime minister, and representatives from Uganda and Congo-Brazzaville

South Africa and Uganda are seen as leaning towards Russia, while Zambia and Comoros are closer to the West. Egypt, Senegal and Congo-Brazzaville have remained largely neutral.

But recent developments in South Africa appear to be influencing the venture.

Mr Ramaphosa's government has come under growing pressure from the US because of its alleged support for Russia's war. This centres on claims of an arms shipment to Moscow, which South Africa has denied.

The Biden administration is waiting for the outcome of Pretoria's official investigation, but a bipartisan group of US lawmakers wants the White House to punish South Africa by reconsidering important preferential trade benefits.

"I think [the mission] is now aligned with a need for South Africa to explain itself," says Alex Vines, director of the Africa Programme at London's Chatham House think-tank.

During the delegation's visit to Ukraine, an air-raid alarm went off and explosions went off in Kiev.

Aide to President Cyril Ramaphosa, Vincent Mugwen said it was suspicious that in the second year of widespread warfare, Ukrainians were still going about their business just after the alarm went off.

"We were all puzzled when we were taken back to the hotel and driven through the streets where people were living their normal lives. This is very strange and in a sense is deliberate misinformation," he opined.

The diplomat also claimed that the delegation "did not hear" the explosions.

Source: BBC