A New Global Struggle? The Long-Term Implications of the War in Ukraine for Africa

The determination of Western countries to reduce their dependence on Russia for energy supplies, presents long-term opportunities for African countries, especially the major energy exporters, such as Algeria, Angola and Nigeria.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 sent shockwaves around the world. The repercussions of the conflict continue to reverberate. For Africa, the repercussions are evolving in roughly three phases. The first was the African-related ‘humanitarian’ phase, when the concerns focused on the safety of African students studying in Ukraine and the disruptions to their studies, as well as how they were being treated as they fled the conflict. Apprehensions regarding the safety of African and other students of colour grew after reports emerged that they were being prevented from boarding trains leaving Ukraine and, on arrival in some of Ukraine’s borders, were being mistreated. While the African Union decried the treatment of Africans fleeing Ukraine amidst the crisis, some members of the US Black Congressional Caucus urged humane and non-discriminatory treatment for all people of colour.

The humanitarian phase quickly gave way to the initial United Nations Response phase, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was discussed at the United Nations, first at the Security Council and later, at the General Assembly. The vote on the Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion and demanding the immediate withdrawal of its military forces saw eleven members vote in favour, one against, and three abstentions. Russia’s single negative vote was a veto of that resolution. This resulted in the resolution being taken to the UN General Assembly. This was done under the Uniting for Peace arrangement, which allows the UN General Assembly to consider issues relating to maintenance of international peace and security, when the Security Council fails to act because of lack of unanimity among the five permanent members. The General Assembly adopted that vote by 141 in favour, 5 against, 35 abstentions, and 12 absent votes. 28 African countries voted in favour, one against, 17 abstentions and eight absent. The lack of a unified bloc vote by African countries has attracted much attention, with one analyst noting that the existence of four African voting ‘camps’ for the resolution reflects nuance and complexity in individual countries’ foreign policies, and another calling on Africa to abandon neutrality in the aftermath of the Russian invasion.

As the Ukraine war has intensified, its short-term economic impacts on Africa have to come into sharp focus. Early analysis of the economic impacts of the Ukraine conflict for Africa have focused on several issues. A March 2022 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) showed that many African countries are heavily dependent on Russia and Ukraine for wheat, with a dependence ratio ranging from 38 per cent for South Africa to 82 per cent for Egypt and 100 per cent for Benin and Somalia. The Ukraine conflict has put further upward pressures on already rising food prices in many African countries, not only pushing more people into dire food and nutrition insecurity conditions, but also a projected weakening in the region’s economic growth in 2022 on the heels of the rebound in 2021. Meanwhile, there are growing fears of debt distress among some African countries, leading a few to request for debt relief, as a result of the cumulative disruptions from COVID-19 and the Ukraine conflict.

The long-term phase will play out over time. Regardless of when the Ukraine conflict ends, its aftermath will have broader implications for Africa than current preoccupations suggest. The issues that demand our attention today include new divisions over political systems; diversion of financial resources and diplomatic attention from Africa; sanctions and financial statecraft; and reducing the West’s reliance on energy supplies from Russia.


President Biden presaged the struggle between democracy and autocracy in his speech to the Summit for Democracy and amplified it, after Russia’s invasion, in his Warsaw Speech. Several explanations have been proffered for the invasion, namely, NATO expansion, Russian revanchism and a threat to democracy in Europe and everywhere. The latter explanation has acted as an accelerant to the notion that the Ukraine conflict represents a struggle between democracy and autocracy, and harkens back to the Cold War era, when the then two super-powers promoted rival ideologies.

This new struggle over political systems coincides with a global trend towards democratic backsliding, including in the United States, which has long prided itself as the defender of democracy. Illiberal tendencies in the US are exemplified in several states advancing legislation restricting access to voting and in the unsuccessful attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential elections. At the same time, in the European Union, there is growing concern that some member states are pivoting towards authoritarianism. For these reasons, the US and the EU bring low credibility to their renewed effort at promoting democracy in Africa.

On the other hand, African countries have adopted, under the auspices of the African Union, several normative frameworks to promote democracy in the region, such as the 2000 Constitutive Act of the African Union, the 2003 African Peer Review Mechanism or ‘APRM’, and the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. All these normative frameworks of the AU reject unconstitutional change of government. The emphasis, then, should not be to warn Africans that the invasion of Ukraine serves as a wake-up call of Russia’s attempt to export its governance model to Africa. Instead, the focus should be on supporting democracy by combating the current sources of democratic recession in the region which include electoral malfeasance, tenure elongation, and resurgence of military coups.


Before the Ukraine conflict broke, increased international financial support for Africa were in prospect as the EU (through its Global Gateway) and the US (through its Build Better Back World or ‘B3W’) signalled renewed attention to Africa. The EU announced at the sixth African Union-EU Summit that it would earmark 150 billion euros ($170 billion) for Africa out of the 300 billion euros ($340 billion) it planned to invest globally. The US has not announced the magnitude of financial outlay for either the B3W or for Africa. Following the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict, however, hopeful anticipation may be giving way to diminished expectation of increased financial support for Africa.

The US approved a first tranche of aid to Ukraine in the amount of $13.6 billion and a second tranche of $40 billion, covering military, economic and humanitarian assistance. In the case of the EU, there is a growing sense that Ukraine conflict might result in the EU over-promising and under-delivering to Africa. Initial estimates of the cost of Ukraine post-conflict reconstruction has been put at $440 billion. Both the EU and US will likely make significant contribution to Ukraine’s reconstruction effort. Add to that the likely rise in defence expenditures of Europe and USA, and the elements for potential diversion of resources from Africa are complete. Meanwhile, two recent developments have increased the probability of diversion of diplomatic attention from Africa by the US and EU. Daleep Singh, US Deputy National Security Adviser for international economics, who has been responsible for promoting the B3W to African countries, now leads the US sanctions regime against Russia. During her visit to Kyiv in early April 2022, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU Commission, handed over an EU candidacy application form to the president of Ukraine—foreshadowing an admission process that will command much attention of EU policymakers.


The scope and size of the sanctions that have been imposed by Western countries on Russia, including its suspension from SWIFT—the messaging system for international financial transactions, caught many countries by surprise. Yet, even before these sanctions were imposed, both China and Russia had initiated steps to diversify their foreign reserve holdings and promote bilateral SWAP lines—which allow countries to trade in their national currencies. The 4 February 2002 joint statement between China and Russia in which they committed to ‘no limits’ and ‘no forbidden’ areas of cooperation could provide the impetus for promoting an alternative international payment arrangements. This would consist of a trio of new messaging system for international financial transactions; greater use of non-traditional reserve currencies for settlement of international payments; and promoting SWAP arrangements.

Before the Ukraine conflict, China had already signed SWAP agreements with six African countries: Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe, Morocco and South Africa. One legacy of the Ukraine conflict would be to make African countries to seriously consider joining an alternative to, or reducing its reliance on, Western-based international payment arrangements.


The determination of Western countries to reduce their dependence on Russia for energy supplies, presents long-term opportunities for African countries, especially the major energy exporters, such as Algeria, Angola and Nigeria. The EU has agreed to a partial ban on Russian oil imports up to 90 per cent by end of 2022 and has pledged to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds before end of 2022 and cease buying Russian fossil fuels by 2030. Some EU members have turned to African countries to reduce their reliance on Russia for energy supplies. Italy, for example, has signed a deal to import more gas from Algeria. EU’s designation of gas as green energy gives African energy exporters longer-term prospects in fossil-fuel trade.

Yet, the lack of infrastructure and under-investment could hinder Africa’s capacity to export more energy supplies. Add to that the push for energy transition (to net-zero emission targets) and energy security—twin processes being accelerated by the plans of several EU countries to adopt electric vehicles and renewable sources of energy—and it is clear that African countries have a narrow window to the benefit from the fossil fuels diversification efforts by western countries.

The geo-political and geo-economic realities of the post-Ukraine war will critically depend as much on the nature and scope of collaboration between China and Russia in its aftermath as how the conflict ends. If those two powers deepen their cooperation on a wide range of international issues, African countries will increasingly have to make policy choices shaped by big powers’ rivalry pitting the West against China-Russia. This will be a throwback to the early stages of the Cold War era before the Sino-Soviet split. African countries need to undertake individual and collective reflections on how they will adapt to the world that emerges at the end the Ukraine conflict. It is not too soon to begin that process

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