Food, fertilizer and fuel are among the reasons Africa needs the Russia-Ukraine war to end quickly. With Africa becoming an arena for geopolitical competition, the June mission of seven African countries to Ukraine and Russia was important, and represented a sea-change in continental diplomacy on non-African security crises.
The African delegation proposed a 10-point plan for de-escalating the war, but the mission stood little chance of nudging the positions of either Ukraine or Russia closer to a ceasefire. Despite efforts by major and emerging powers such as China, Turkey and Indonesia, a negotiated settlement is still far off.
The African mission didn’t provide a roadmap for mediation beyond the one-off trip. The initiative also raised questions about the relevance of the African Union (AU) in crisis diplomacy outside Africa. Was the delegation acting on behalf of the continent or playing into the interests of South Africa, who led the mission? Why was the AU Commission not part of the delegation? Should the mediation have been mandated by the AU?
The mission was driven by the long-standing goal of meaningful African representation in global politics. That goal is being aggressively pursued by coalitions of willing African states, which are an attractive option in the absence of official AU endorsement. They allow leaders to retain stronger control over outcomes and conduct ad hoc diplomacy more efficiently.
The Ukraine-Russia mediation wasn’t coordinated through AU high-level channels such as the Assembly or Bureau – the statutory bodies that can commission government leaders on such initiatives. A formal mandate would have required agreement on the peace plan, necessitating a protracted negotiation process among AU member states. Given these obstacles, including the AU chair in the delegation – Comoros President Azali Assoumani – was the appropriate political approach, giving the mission informal AU involvement.
But organizing the mediation outside AU frameworks raises questions about the continental body’s relevance and stance on high-level diplomatic interventions. Regular calls for common African positions, stronger AU-United Nations (UN) relations, and AU representation in the G20 are at odds with this ad hoc style of Pan-African diplomacy.
The initiative is the second attempt at AU-led crisis diplomacy on the war that failed to create collective ownership among AU countries. Member states haven’t found a consensus position on Russia’s war in Ukraine, so couldn’t have delegated the peace initiative.
The first effort in June 2022 by then AU chair and President of Senegal Macky Sall, with AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, included a visit to Russia, but not Ukraine. Without a clear mandate from member states, the two AU leaders had earlier that year called for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty to be respected and consideration given to the economic impacts of the war on Africa.
Mahamat’s involvement was a success for the AU Commission, but his side-lining in the June 2023 peace mission suggests member states are reluctant to see a more independent commission acting on their behalf.
The June 2022 mission reportedly had the blessing of the AU Assembly Bureau. But it lacked a formal mandate from the AU Assembly and the backing of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC), whose mandate is interpreted as limited to Africa. Yet, the shifting geopolitical dynamics and impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war on Africa show the need to redefine the PSC’s mandate concerning non-African crisis diplomacy.
Without the political legitimacy that an AU-led initiative would have provided, the June 2023 peace mission was vulnerable to accusations of partiality. Despite their non-aligned stance, four of the nations involved (Egypt, South Africa, Republic of the Congo and Uganda) pivot towards Russia. In contrast, Zambia and Comoros are more aligned with the West.
South Africa’s leadership of the mission was a success for the country’s international standing. But its alleged shipment of weapons to Moscow via a ship under United States sanctions called into question South Africa’s credibility as group leader. Egypt and Uganda are also linked to Moscow through arms purchases.
So, what role could the AU have played? The initiative could have benefited from the AU Commission’s experience with high-level preventive and crisis diplomacy. An AU-driven African peace initiative, with perhaps a stronger role for the AU Assembly’s Bureau, would have contributed to the AU’s aspiration of ‘Africa as a strong, united, resilient and influential global player and partner.’
As the AU’s decision-making organ for preventing, managing and resolving conflicts, the PSC’s involvement in agreeing the 10-point plan would have linked the peace effort to the council’s work on humanitarian, food and security challenges in Africa.
The continent is deeply divided on how to deal with the resurgence of global great power competition, and overcoming the current collective paralysis will take time. Any opportunity to reap the benefits for Africa’s long-term economic and political aspirations should be taken. Across AU institutions, abstract aspirations of African agency should be clearly defined and put into practice. Repeated failures to finalize an AU partnership strategy show the gridlock to be overcome.
AU member states need to integrate the dynamism of ad hoc diplomatic efforts into long-standing institutional development. Tensions between the AU Commission, PSC and member states must also be navigated if the AU is to elevate Africa’s role in global crisis diplomacy.
The AU Executive Council meeting in Nairobi on 13-14 July is an opportunity for a candid exchange and debrief on the African peace mission to Ukraine and Russia. A statement on the initiative or even an expression of gratitude from the Executive Council for the mission would be beneficial.
The continent’s leaders should underscore the relevance (and difficulty) of Africa taking a stance on non-African security challenges. And to retain positive dynamism around the AU’s participation in the G20 and UN Security Council, future mediation missions should include a better-organized and pro-active AU Commission.
Hubert Kinkoh is a researcher, African Peace and Security Governance, at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Addis Ababa and Ueli Staeger, University of Geneva and UN University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies
Contributed by Yared Haile-Meskel