Russian President Vladimir Putin met with senior officials from the African Union (AU) on 3 June and sought to deny Russia’s role in the developing food security crisis in Africa. This follows a series of accusations exchanged between Russia and its Western rivals blaming one another for the developing situation. The root of this is the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has dramatically disrupted food imports to African states, particularly wheat, exacerbating existing food security challenges. This has left Africa facing a continent-wide food security crisis which could have major social, political, and security consequences.
Several regions in Africa were already facing food security challenges prior to the Russian invasion. These challenges formed the centre of a dire report released by the United Nations (UN) agencies the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) on 6 June, which warned that millions of people in Africa are at risk of starvation.
The Horn of Africa is facing a record-breaking drought driven by the effects of climate change and the current La Nina weather phenomenon. This situation has been worsened by the conflict in Ethiopia which has disrupted food production in that major country. Elsewhere, ‒ notably in North Africa and the Sahel ‒ persistent food security issues related to water scarcity have meant that several countries are dependent on food imports for survival. The most prominent of these are wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine which together account for over 30% of all wheat imports to Africa. The two countries are the first and third largest external sources of wheat for the continent. For countries in North Africa and the Horn of Africa, imports from Russia and Ukraine account for up to 80% of wheat supplies.
Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine caused a major shock to global food supply chains, especially wheat and cooking oil. Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea has prevented Ukraine from effecting exporting grain and Russian artillery strikes on Ukraine have destroyed thousands of tonnes of grain in the country’s silos. Further, although food exports have been exempted from sanctions levelled against Russia, the reluctance of global shipping companies to ship to Russia has limited the country’s ability to export key products such as wheat, maize, and fertilisers. All of this has been amplified by ongoing global supply chain disruptions related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Not only have Russian and Ukraine grain exports to Africa been disrupted. The conflict has caused a surge in the price of wheat, maize, and cooking oil. The price of wheat on global markets has increased by an estimated 45% ‒ making imports unsustainably expensive for most African states and driving food price inflation across the continent.
Diminishing food supplies and rising food costs will lead to a hunger crisis across much of the continent. The worst impacted countries are expected to be those in North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and Nigeria. Significantly, this impacts both of Africa’s two most populous countries Nigeria and Egypt who are among the world’s five largest importers of wheat. Notably, Nigeria, Egypt, and Morocco are all in the top ten largest importers of wheat.
It is clear that Africa’s food supplies are facing a dire threat that looks likely to worsen in the coming year. Firstly, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is set to drag on prolonging the above disruptions. This will be compounded by the fact that the war has disrupted Ukraine’s ability to plant seeds for the coming year’s harvest, which will further constrain supply shortages. This will all be amplified by the anticipated shift from the La Nina climate pattern to an El Nino pattern. El Nino typically results in flooding in East Africa and rain shortfalls and even droughts in Southern and West Africa. The ongoing drought in the Horn and East Africa means that the soil is ill-prepared for an increase in rainfall likely leading to flooding and crop destruction. Reduced rainfall in Southern and West Africa will likely mean that Africa as a whole will produce less wheat and become even more reliant on expensive imports.
The resulting food shortages will have a disruptive social and security impact. Failing crops and dying livestock will force rural populations to move to the cities and cross-border migration will increase. Pastoralists will also travel further afield in search of grazing lands. This will fuel inter-communal conflict as competition for land and water resources increases. Increased cross-border migration will also lead to increased social conflict and xenophobic violence in major cities. This threat is particularly acute in South Africa where foreign nationals are already blamed and targeted for a variety of social ills.
Food shortages and rising hunger rates will also fuel increased social unrest and protests placing political pressure on governments to alleviate the situation. This will test the stability of these governments, especially in protest-prone states like Sudan and Egypt. These governments have limited options and will likely be forced to depend on aid or borrowing to finance food imports. This will worsen their general economic situation and undermine the continent’s post-pandemic economic recovery.
It all leaves African states vulnerable to exploitation. The food crisis will be used as a tool in the ongoing contest for influence on the continent between the United States (US), Russia, China and ‒ to a lesser extent – India and Turkey. Putin himself exemplified this in his 3 June meeting with the AU when he made an overt effort to turn this crisis to his advantage ‒ promising AU leaders that he will facilitate increased wheat exports to Africa. Russia’s capacity to do so is doubtful, but Putin’s promise could prove effective in ensuring that African states remain neutral – if not supportive ‒ in respect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.