Africa Watch – A grinding halt

24th July 2023

Russia suspended participation in the year-old UN-brokered deal that lets Ukraine export grain through the Black Sea, spreading fear in poorer countries that price rises will put food out of reach. Hours earlier, a blast knocked out Russia’s bridge to Crimea in what Moscow called a strike by Ukrainian sea drones. The Kremlin said there was no link between the attack and its decision to suspend the grain deal over what it called a failure to meet its demands to implement a parallel agreement easing rules for its own food and fertiliser exports.

The Black Sea Grain Deal was brokered between Russia and Ukraine by the United Nations and Türkiye, where a centre was created to inspect grain shipments arriving and leaving Ukrainian ports to ensure they do not contain weapons. Despite the ongoing war, the deal allowed Ukraine to export grain through the Black Sea. But it has come under threat severally in the past, following Russia’s ambivalence to the deal due to its belief that grain is being diverted from needy countries—Lebanon, Haiti and African states—to “well-fed” countries in the Global North.

Russia’s claim is not unfounded. Data on Black Sea Grain Initiative exports shows that most exports went to wealthier regions like China, Spain, Türkiye, Italy and the Netherlands, accounting for 65% of total exports and receiving nearly 10 million metric tonnes of grain. In contrast, low-income African countries received only 2.5% of the exported grain. The only sub-Saharan African country comprising the top 20 is Kenya, in 13th place, receiving 0.44 million metric tonnes. For Russia, this forms a good argument against extending the deal, which was struck to reduce food inflation and combat hunger in several low-income countries.

However, African countries have benefitted indirectly, as increased supply has helped drive down global grain prices. Beyond this, Russia has also pinned renewing the deal on its own interests. It said the deal’s renewal in May would depend on certain conditions, including the restoration of access to the SWIFT network for Russian state-owned agriculture-focused bank Rosselkhozbank, a resumption of farm machinery supplies and the unblocking of foreign assets and accounts that the Russian agricultural companies hold.

From Moscow’s perspective, none of these demands have been met. Its annoyance surged this month when Türkiye not only released imprisoned fighters from the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, who were detained on Moscow’s behalf but also watered down its opposition to Sweden’s accession to NATO. In a way, Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative could be the country’s kickback against a string of setbacks. However, there is an outlet by which it can save face and retain the support it has enjoyed in the Global South.

In March, President Vladimir Putin said that if the deal were not renewed, Moscow could supply free grain to “especially needy African countries” without explaining the arrangement by which such could happen. So far, exports under the grain deal have been transported under commercial agreements. Putin’s largesse on paper might calm nerves, but practical implementation may seem sketchy. He can elaborate and make good on his promise in this week’s Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg. What would stand out if such a promise is remade is how long Russia would continue to subsidise African countries with grain, especially if it continues to hold out on rejoining the deal. That holdout would mean further instability in grain prices as insecurity around Ukrainian ports close to the Black Sea is heightened under the constant threat of Russian missile attacks.

As the UN scrambles to get the deal back on track, most of Russia’s detractors are refraining from protesting because not only can security in the Black Sea not be guaranteed for Ukraine, the scandal of the grain deal recipient and the fallout of Russia’s withdrawal is a diplomatic hot potato many would rather avoid. However, such protests would resume when attacks against civilian ships leaving the port of Odessa happen. Food insecurity is already spreading throughout Africa, and the disruptions in the Black Sea corridor, coupled with Russia’s suspension of the pact, are expected to exacerbate food security challenges on the continent. Resolving the Black Sea Grain Deal situation is in the continent’s interest, as it would reduce prices and increase grain supply and food security.