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    Nat Quinn

    On Tuesday last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that he would be part of an African initiative to seek peace in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. At a media conference he said that a group of African leaders had been discussing the conflict in Ukraine; although Africa was not directly at war, it was suffering collateral damage through the disruption of supply chains, and the resultant increases in the cost of foodstuffs and fuel. 

    The mission would comprise the heads of state of six countries – Egypt, Congo Brazzaville, Senegal,  South Africa, Uganda and Zambia – and would be received by both President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
    While it might be easy to be cynical about this, it does at least represent an attempt at shifting the needle on this debilitating conflict towards resolution; it is worth probing what it means.
    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war it occasioned is not an African conflict, but it is one that has had severe implications for Africa. Tim Hughes, international relations consultant, told the Daily Friend that any thinking about a peacebuilding endeavour would need to start with its mandate: whom does it represent and what are its objectives. Neither of these questions has a clear answer.
    It appears to be the project of the states themselves, perhaps with the retrospective approval of the African Union affixed to it. (As much as the AU may be a weak and sometimes dysfunctional body, there are diplomatic niceties about operating through it, or on its mandate, when claiming to work on behalf of the continent.) South Africa in particular has been prominent in it. The notion of a role for South Africa – plausibly or otherwise – has been circulating since the beginning of the conflict, and it’s surely noteworthy that it was President Ramaphosa who announced the mission.
    Even less clear are its objectives. ‘Ending the war’ might seem obvious, though conflict resolution is seldom achieved through a miracle breakthrough, still less as a result of a short-term intervention by an outside party. ‘If this is about African diplomacy in a global situation, it just isn’t plausible’, Hughes comments.
    Steven Gruzd, head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, concurs about the limits of Africa’s potential to assist in resolving the conflict. For him, a key issue is that the conflict is not yet at a point where the protagonists are amenable to this sort of effort. Both Ukraine and Russia, he said, still believed they could win the fight on the battlefield, and with the European summer approaching, so would come the campaign season.
    Professor Hussein Solomon of the University of the Free State says that at present ‘everything points to escalation’.
    But if the African mission is facing long odds because of its timing, could the continent still play a useful role when the situation changes? Here the obvious issue is whether Africa has any tools or experience that could be brought to bear.
    Gruzd says that Africa can point to a great deal of experience with conflict. ‘It’s fair to say that Africa has to deal with more conflict than any other region of the world. There have been a great many mediation efforts, not always very effectively – one could ask why there is a push to assist in resolving a conflict in Europe, rather than focusing, say, on Sudan.’
    This experience – to say nothing about South Africa’s own experience of transitioning to democracy in the 1990s – is the essential offering that this delegation would want to make. For President Ramaphosa, his own role in South Africa’s negotiations in the early 1990s, and in the writing of the Constitution, are a powerful part of his personal brand. It was largely on the basis of this memory that his accession to the Presidency was hailed as a ‘New Dawn’ for the country.
    This misses the point, though, that peacebuilding in Africa and the transition in South Africa attempted to address problems fundamentally different from what is currently transpiring in Ukraine.
    Indeed, Africa has actually had a relatively good record of maintaining the borders of its countries. Wars between states have been relatively uncommon. Conflicts in the continent have tended to take place within states, possibility with intervention by outside forces. The situation in South Africa in the 1990s was not only unique at the time, but was also a political conflict that needed to be resolved through a transition that most actors agreed on; at issue was the character of the post-apartheid state and the terms of a common citizenship.
    None of this has much applicability to the war in Ukraine. As Solomon remarks: ‘There were particular problems within South Africa in the 1990s. This is different. It is the invasion of a sovereign country by another. It’s also a question of scale. This is the big leagues.’
    Besides this, the leading role of South Africa is likely to work against the mission. ‘Neutral’ or ‘non- aligned’ it may claim to be, but this has increasingly been seen as rhetoric rather than reality (and sometimes not even that). The position of the South African State has closely mirrored Russian talking points, to the extent that it even countermanded its own statement at the opening of the war calling on Russia to withdraw.
    That in itself might not be fatal. Interlocutors in peacebuilding efforts do not need to be ‘neutral’, or a so-called ‘honest broker’. They might in fact be deeply partisan, and this may be a strength: allowing them to speak with some influence to their allies. What counts more is whether they can exert influence, and how that is perceived to be wielded. No one would doubt that in the Middle East, the United States is firmly committed to Israel, for example, but it has the resources and global standing to make its views heard and to offer inducements to other parties – something that has been used to great effect in respect of Egypt.
    South Africa, however, lacks this over either Russia or Ukraine – and none of the other participants seem to have much to offer in this area either.
    South Africa’s own history of peacebuilding diplomacy has had mixed outcomes. Recognising its dominant role on the continent and the damage to the latter’s prospects caused by conflicts, South Africa put enormous resources into this work. This was fairly successful in ending the Second Congo War through the Sun City Agreement in 2003. Here, South Africa had substantial regional influence, along with the support of other countries and the Southern African Development Community. There was also significant buy-in from actors outside the continent. South Africa was sensitive to the ethnic and political dimensions of the war. Building institutions and getting diverse stakeholders on board was a priority.
    Other attempts have borne less fruit. Former President Thabo Mbeki’s attempts to broker agreements in Côte d’Ivoire failed, with critics charging that he lacked understanding of the country and the region – it is a Francophone country, after all – and that he was undermining regional work.
    In Zimbabwe, South Africa had vast influence, but ultimately chose a course calculated to shore up the governing Zanu-PF. In this instance, it was very much a dishonest broker.
    Recent events may well have made South Africa unpalatable to the Ukrainians. Never an ‘honest broker’, allegations that South Africa may have supplied military equipment to Russia – perhaps even if only as a commercial transaction – would cast it as an active enemy of Ukraine.
    For Solomon, this has changed the whole calculus of any South African diplomacy, and effectively written it out of influence (which was never significant to begin with) over the conflict.
    Gruzd suggests that this initiative may have a lot to do with President Ramaphosa’s political standing. Against the backdrop of severe domestic difficulties, he has become ‘a President in need of good press’, which even the appearance of statesmanship in pursuit of peace might afford him. Solomon adds that ‘he is trying to play the neutrality card’. Stung by US criticism (to which no convincing rebuttal has yet been made), and facing severe economic consequences for what his government may have allowed to happen, he is seeking to reassert some sort of positive South African credentials with its major trading and investment partners.
    All in all, the prospects for this mission are not propitious. However, this does not mean that it might not be without value. Hughes points out that Russia and Ukraine are major producers and exporters of wheat and maize. These are food supplies desperately needed by Africa, and the consequences of the war pose an ‘existential threat’ to the continent. South Africans would have seen this in the 14% year-on-year food price inflation that was announced last month. ‘There is legitimacy for African countries to seek resolution of the conflict, in Africa’s interests’, he says.
    In other words, rather than focusing the intervention on offering the continent’s good offices and expertise to resolve a conflict that may not at present be resolvable, it might be of greater value to focus on more modest goals, such as pressing the continent’s case for keeping grain shipments going, and pressing the case – especially on Russia, it should be said – for the imperative of ending the war. This just might be achievable; changing the geopolitics is not.


    SOURCE:Mission to Moscow… and Kyiv – Daily Friend

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