by Aly Jonas

African presidents shun Volodymyr Zelensky

Les présidents africains boudent Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the African Union (AU) via videoconference. A meeting ultimately held behind closed doors, from which only a few elements filtered out.

Under pressure from Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, the current president of the African Union (AU), Macky Sall, tried to bring together as many heads of state from the continent as possible for a meeting with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Ultimately, only two presidents were interested in what the ex-comedian had to say to Africa. The president of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, as well as Macky Sall and his Congolese counterpart Denis Sassou N'Guesso were the only ones to be interested in the meeting which was held this Monday, June 20.

For the AU, organizing the meeting with Zelensky was a way of highlighting the neutrality of the pan-African organization vis-à-vis the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Indeed, before and after his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Senegalese President Macky Sall was urged by his Western counterparts to travel to kyiv, in order to see Zelensky as well.

In the end, Macky Sall simply promised to organize a high-level summit with African heads of state “who wish” to speak with the Ukrainian president.

A “high-level summit” that does not fly high

Things promised, things due. This Monday's meeting brought together Macky Sall, Denis Sassou N'Guesso, Volodymyr Zelensky... And that's it. On the call interface, we also see the management, and from the AU premises in Addis Ababa, the president of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki.

Some ambassadors and ministers representing Algeria, South Africa, the DRC, Nigeria and Egypt in particular also listened to Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as the head of the Libyan Presidential Council.

The symbolism is overwhelming: other African presidents simply boycotted the Ukrainian president. Additionally, the AU decided to hold the meeting behind closed doors at the last minute. A detail which aroused the annoyance of Western media, who believe that “African heads of state would like to prevent Zelensky's 'outspokenness' from fueling press headlines”, according to France24 editorialists.

Two first statements came from the meeting. First, Senegalese Head of State and AU President Macky Sall thanked Zelensky “for his friendly address to the virtual meeting of the Expanded AU Bureau.”

“Africa remains committed to respecting the rules of international law, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and freedom of trade,” says Macky Sall. The AU therefore maintains the same position, with priority for the return of Russian and Ukrainian exports of cereals and fertilizers. An emergency issue for a majority of African countries.

For his part, Volodymyr Zelensky declared: “Africa is in reality a hostage. He is a hostage of those who started the war against our state.” The Ukrainian president reiterated his accusations against Russia, which he claims is blocking Ukrainian grain exports.

What relations between Volodymyr Zelensky's Ukraine and Africa?

Regardless, this meeting between the AU and Zelensky is not devoid of context. Since taking office in 2019, diplomacy between Ukraine and African countries has suffered a setback due to the radical reduction of the rights of foreign students in Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky's desire to join NATO subsequently created a dilemma for the African countries closest to Russia. In this case Algeria, Angola, South Africa and Equatorial Guinea.

But it is especially since the start of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia that more and more African diplomats have condemned the double standards in the treatment of African nationals. Volodymyr Zelensky declared in February that all African students who leave Ukraine “will no longer be welcome there once the war is over”. Without counting, obviously, the scandal of the humanitarian corridors. Africans fleeing the war encountered the refusal of the European Union to welcome them in the same way as Ukrainian refugees.

Then, at the end of last February, the Ukrainian embassy in Senegal enlisted several dozen Senegalese to fight in Ukraine. An appeal criticized by the Senegalese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which condemned “this practice which constitutes a violation of the obligation to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State”.

So if Volodymyr Zelensky comes today to beg for broader African support, he seems to neglect that the variable geometry of emotion that his case provokes in the Western media means almost nothing to Africans. But, also, his statements against Russia are also dull in the eyes of the AU. Maybe by agreeing to relaunch grain trade with African countries from its ports, Zelensky will be able to buy a little goodwill with African diplomats.