Ukraine must lead Western strategic communication in Africa

9 July, 01:47 PM
Ukraine's inability to export its own grain freely has caused a major food crisis (Photo:$uraj / Pixabay)

Ukraine's inability to export its own grain freely has caused a major food crisis (Photo:$uraj / Pixabay)

Ukraine's lack of strategic communications led to African countries blaming the victim, not the aggressor, for the food crisis. Is the war of words lost?

One of the most powerful speeches “on the brink of a major conflict in Ukraine” at the UN Security Council’s emergency session on Feb. 22 was delivered by Kenya’s Ambassador Martin Kimani, who “echoed” Africa’s “own history” to reject Russia’s “irredentism and expansionism” on behalf of his long-suffering continent.

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Lo and behold, months into the conflict the global community failed to pull Russia back from, Ukraine found far less popular sympathy for its plights among the African nations than it had naively hoped for after Kimani’s heartfelt words.

At this point, everyone has already learned that the World Food Program sources 40% of its wheat for the emergency relief programs come from Ukraine.

According to the UN, Ukraine produces 42% of the world’s sunflower oil, 16% of its maize, and 9% of its wheat – enough to feed 400 million people. Between 2018 and 2020, Africa received $1.4 billion worth of wheat from Ukraine – 12% of its total wheat imports. Before Russia invaded, 98% of those exports would pass via the Black Sea. Ukraine has so far been unable to compensate for this lost trading route.

Around 20 million tonnes are “trapped in silos near Odesa and in ships literally filled with grain”, U.S. State Department Secretary Antony Blinken has said.

Russian forces “captured some of Ukraine’s most productive farmland”, “planted explosives throughout the fields,” and “destroyed vital agricultural infrastructure,” Secretary Blinken continued. He emphasized “credible reports” that Russia was “pilfering” Ukraine’s grain “to sell for its own profit” and “hoarding its food exports.”

David Beasley, the World Food Programme’s director, warned that nearly 49 million people in 43 countries, most of them in Africa, were “marching towards starvation” and “hell on Earth” unless the world “responds immediately” to “end that damn war” and “gets the port open.”

This cause-and-effect relationship, however, fractures before the message ever reaches the African continent.

As if in a game of Telephone, the West must “retract illegal decisions”, meaning sanctions against Russia, to unblock the supplies, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov whispered in.

And so, Macky Sall, Senegal’s president and head of the African Union, laid the blame squarely on the sanctions, not Russia’s actions that triggered them. He called to remove the trading barriers, stressing that food should be left "outside" the conflict.

This is despite the fact that Russia has hardly even tried to veil its true motives. When moderating a panel with President Vladimir Putin at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, RT’s propaganda editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan took “the ‘we’re hungry’ narrative a bit further”, repeating “a cynical joke, or even a slogan, has been circulating lately in Moscow.”

“Hunger is our last hope,” she confessed. “This means that once hunger sets in, this will bring them to their senses: this is when they will lift sanctions and will be friends with us because they will understand that there is no way around it.”

The rock-solid fact is that “Russia is still blocking millions of tonnes of desperately needed grain,” President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said.

“To those who are concerned that the sanctions we’ve imposed on Russia are somehow impeding the delivery of food,” Secretary Blinken’s response is “that is simply not true.” “The sanctions have exemptions for food and – including services necessary to make sure that food moves, like banking services.”

The looming famine “is on Russia” alone, he claimed. One senior U.S. official has been going around the world “to make that very clear to other countries and to help them with any questions they may have.” Yet, it may be safe to conclude that they have failed to deliver this message to the continent that endures an outsized share of pain.

Ukraine speaks out in its own voice

This simple truth struggles to gain a foothold in the far regions. The reasons are many, beginning with the West’s own tainted colonial legacy. For better or for worse, Americans and Europeans alike are simply not perceived as honest brokers – and the reputational damage will not be fixed any time soon.

This is as much a fact as the Russia-manufactured famine.

Ukraine is, indeed, an integral part of the West, but for no reason should it be held accountable or even suffer for someone else’s crimes, especially when its own history aligns it with the victims of imperialist oppression – not the perpetrator.

Yet, the sins of the past will continue to harm solutions of the present, unless there is a bold and daring policy overhaul, the one Ukraine’s President has recently championed.

The conflict may seem black and white to the Western public, but to other nations, it has many grey areas, wide open for interpretation. Thus, speaking to the African Union, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took it upon himself to be his country’s own chief communicator.

“The Russian troops have come to our land and want to conquer our people” while “taking Africa hostage,” he explained. To Russia’s intricate punditry, his counter-argument was that “such a problem did not exist on Feb. 23 this year,” but it “will continue as long as this colonizing war continues.”

President Zelenskyy stayed on his audience-tailored message: “The sanctions policy is aimed only to stop Russia from trying to turn Ukraine into its slave.”

On a side note, serfdom in Ukraine, established by Catherine II, was abolished in 1861. “Have you heard about this from your Russian partners?” he challenged his listeners, acknowledging the successes Russia has made in the information war in Africa, while the West naively believed these states would subscribe to its concept of good-vs-evil without further questions.

Russia “needs this crisis” and is “trying to use you and the suffering of the people to put pressure on the democracies.”

The parallels continued, “We must free our people from the threats artificially created for us by any states that simply want to conquer us, use our resources and our land” – be it minerals, rare earth elements, or grain, Zelsnskyy said.

Coming from a Western leader, these words would sound blasphemous or disingenuous, to say the least. “The time of empires” – whether it is an old-school British, Russian, or Soviet empire – “is over”, Zelensky proclaimed.

Through the older generation, Ukraine still has a living physical memory of Holodomor, the forced starvation of 1932-1933 orchestrated by Soviet imperialism.

The president’s own home region of Dnipropetrovsk ranks first by the number of deaths out of several million people killed by the evil regime in the Kremlin. He does have the moral authority to state that “in order to avoid famine” in the 21st century, Russia’s “aggressive policy of colonialism must end.”

Ukraine means business

Ukraine does not want to be a security beneficiary, an economic and political dependant. Ukraine’s president does not speak from a position of Western comfort. Nor does he give a patronizing lecture on the moral high ground over self-service to those threatened with hunger. Zelenskyy does not dictate but rather invites Africa to “build a new political history” together.

Ukraine and African nations should “fully understand one another and interact without intermediaries” for the sake of common security interests, he says, adding that “the fact that there are such interests is quite obvious after Feb. 24.” Not to mention that independent Ukraine has contributed over 300 blue helmets to six UN missions to “maintain peace on the African continent.”

However, Ukraine must be bold and promote itself as a serious actor while convincing Africa that it is not just spouting empty talk. To substantiate his words, President Zelenskyy announced a “new policy of Ukraine towards Africa” and the first-ever “Strategy for the Development of Ukraine's Relations with the African States.”

A Special Representative for African Affairs will begin working soon, and the Foreign Minister’s first regional tour to Sub-Saharan Africa is being prepared. Ukraine will send parliamentary delegates and invites reciprocal visits “to renew our bilateral ties.”

Separately, it was recently reported that the Foreign Minister had found himself in the crosshairs of criticism for the country’s diplomatic missions’ poor performance in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

A win-win-win situation

Where the West has an image problem, Ukraine can come to the rescue. It may be one of few Western nations uniquely positioned to speak about and against the colonial legacies. So far, Ukraine has demonstrated excellent communication skills, appealed to non-traditional audiences, hit all the right cultural and historical points, and generated an ambitious plan – all amidst fighting a brutal war of aggression.

However, it cannot pull off this mission alone. It obviously lacks financial and human resources for even a tactical campaign to get the African nations on board – to say nothing of leading an all-front diplomatic operation.

To put flesh on the bones, Ukraine badly needs the West. This might be an area where Ukraine and the EU could partner and incorporate the existing networks the member states have formed. For instance, President Zelenskyy has proposed to convene “a large conference "Ukraine – Africa" in Kyiv.

The event would carry far more weight with a much broader European engagement – a trialogue among government officials and policymakers, business and industry leaders, NGOs and the academic community.

Ukraine aims even higher – long-overdue UN Security Council reform, where Africa’s “voice” should be “fully heard.” The free world must not let Russia highjack the issue and pretend to be the leading advocate for democratizing the international structures to better represent the rapidly developing regions. In his address to the UN Security Council, President Zelenskyy proposed post-war Kyiv as a venue for “a global conference on UN reform and transformation.”

The UN has utterly failed to stop two major global crises – the genocidal war in Europe and the food blackmail in Africa – disasters of the exact kind it was founded to prevent while allowing the sole perpetrator of both to maintain its seat as a UNSC permanent member.

A victorious, free, and democratic Ukraine will, indeed, be a perfect location to usher a new era of peace and prosperity devoid of the colonial and imperial demons.

Sweden has successfully performed the mediator role in countries where the Western presence, albeit diplomatic, may still be unwelcome. Instead of the EU acting as a spokesperson for Ukraine in Africa, Ukraine, too, can serve as a liaison to bridge the troubled past across the brighter future on the two continents. It might be a radical agenda to take on, but Ukraine has shown it can punch above its weight.

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