African peace delegation's visit to Ukraine marred by controversy and lukewarm response from Kyiv

African peace delegation's visit to Ukraine marred by controversy and lukewarm response from Kyiv
President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa at a press conference in Kyiv / Presidency South Africa Twitter account
By Dominic Culverwell in Kyiv June 19, 2023

The African delegation’s visit to Ukraine on June 16 to promote peace was embroiled in controversy, while Kyiv met their proposal with a lukewarm response.

The President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Senegal President Macky Sall led a peace delegation alongside the representatives from Egypt, the Republic of the Congo (ROC), Uganda, Comoros and Zambia in an attempt to “initiate a peace process” and “confidence building measures” between Ukraine and Russia.

"The main component of the mission with which we came here is that this war must be settled, peace must be achieved through negotiations, diplomatically. We are certain that we must move towards peace, because all wars end someday. We believe that this war must be ended as soon as possible," Ramaphosa said, Ukrinform reported.

The proposal included the de-escalation of hostilities, respect for the sovereignty of states and peoples under the UN Charter, security guarantees, the security of grain and fertiliser exports, humanitarian assistance to victims of the war, the exchange of prisoners and captives, post-war reconstruction and improved interaction between Kyiv and African countries.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also discussed the grain crisis with the delegation, as food prices in Africa have soared since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The president highlighted the creation of grain hubs in Africa and presented the results of two initiatives the Black Sea Grain Deal and Grain From Ukraine emphasising their importance in maintaining social stability and price predictability in the food market.

“The food supply must be reliably guaranteed and the right of every person to food must be ensured by the preservation of any attempts by states such as Russia to use the threat of famine and social instability to blackmail the people,” he said, according to Interfax Ukraine.

Nevertheless, Zelenskiy responded tepidly to the proposed peace agreement and stressed the need for Russian troops to withdraw from Ukrainian territories before negotiations can begin, a key component of Kyiv’s own peace formula.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukraine’s Presidential Office, also pointed to Zelenskiy’s plan as the only viable option. In addition, he claimed the delegation was primarily interested in suspending the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children.

Scepticism around Ramaphosa’s impartiality has been brought up in recent months and in late May, South Africa provided immunity for people to attend the BRICS Summit in August, a decision seen as a way to ease the path for Putin to attend the event with no risk of arrest. In addition, the US has accused South Africa of loading weapons onto a Russian ship destined for Moscow in December 2022, known as the ‘Lady R’ incident.

As the African leaders arrived in Kyiv, air-sirens blasted throughout Ukraine and Russia fired twelve missiles and two drones at the capital. Although Ramaphosa denounced the attack, controversially his spokesperson did not, resulting in backlash from Ukrainians.

“Strangely, we didn’t hear the siren or explosions. African Peace Mission programme is proceeding as planned,” wrote Vincent Magwenya on Twitter.

Journalists from Reuters who witnessed the delegation entering air raid shelters debunked the comment. Bne IntelliNews can also confirm that explosions were heard on June 16. All the missiles were shot down.

Many Ukrainians are sceptical of the African Peace Delegation and see them as being in the pocket of Putin, who has rekindled former Soviet-era relations with the continent. Magwenya’s comment added further fuel to the fire, unhelped by Ramaphosa and the Official Presidency of South Africa Twitter account repeatedly spelling Kyiv in its Russian form Kiev. However, both accounts have since shifted to the Ukrainian spelling.

Controversies arose before the delegation even arrived in Ukraine after Polish authorities refused entry to some of Ramaphosa’s security team and media, leading to a diplomatic row and accusations of racism. Ramaphosa's head of security, Maj Gen Wally Rhoode, claimed that Poland was putting “the life of our president in jeopardy” as around 120 people remained stuck on the aircraft at Warsaw's Chopin airport and were unable to travel to Kyiv.

Poland denied the accusations of racism and said the security guards did not carry the necessary weapons permits. Warsaw Chopin airport spokesman Piotr Rudzki said the security team would have been allowed to disembark if they had left behind their weapons, but they chose not to do so.

As bne IntelliNews previously wrote, Kyiv is struggling to find allies on the continent, despite a push toward improving relations with Africa. Many countries have remained neutral over the conflict or openly support Russia, and Moscow has been making friends and business partners in the region since the West imposed sanctions in 2014 for the illegal annexation of Crimea, doubling African-Russian bilateral trade over six years to $20bn in 2021.

Putin has positioned Russia as an alternative to the West without the colonial trauma and insists that the food crisis is due to Europe hogging grain supplies instead of fairly distributing exports to the Global South. Moreover, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said that the US and Europe have mostly failed to free Russian food and fertiliser exports from sanctions, despite these being part of the agreement.

Russia's food and fertiliser exports are not under sanctions, but the restrictions imposed by the West on payments, logistics and insurance have created barriers to shipments. Moscow is threatening to pull out of the grain deal, saying the West failed to fulfil its promises of facilitating the export of Russian agricultural goods to global markets.

The delegation met with the Russian President on June 17 in St Petersburg.

“The Africa Peace Initiative has been impactful and its ultimate success will be measured on the objective, which is stopping the war,” Ramaphosa tweeted following his visit to Russia. 

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