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Did the United States demand that Africa boycott Russian cereals?

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American diplomats in Africa are said to have warned a dozen African states about buying Russian cereals. According to the US State Department, it would be "stolen grain" in Ukraine. The message from the USA is not getting through as African countries watch the Ankara talks carefully.

The New York Times recently revealed thata missive from the US State Department was collectively sent to the foreign ministries of 14 countries “including a majority of African countries”. The letter would concern the movement of Russian freighters loaded with cereals - especially wheat - bound for these countries.

According to American diplomacy, it would be "wheat looted in Ukraine". The US newspaper comments: “The US grain scare has only heightened the dilemma for African countries, many of whom already feel trapped between East and West”.

But, in reality, the revelation of this "alert", which many countries such as Senegal, Algeria and Ethiopia deny having received, comes at the right time after Macky Sall's visit to Russia last Friday.

Read: Macky Sall meets Vladimir Putin amid food shortage

Indeed, the African diplomatic position on the conflict between Russia and the West clearly disturbs Westerners. Especially since analysts have noted a lot of symbolism in the reception of the Senegalese president, and current president of the African Union (AU) in Moscow. A proximity between Putin and Macky Sall which has earned the latter about thirty cartoons in Western newspapers since the weekend.

Be that as it may, the New York Times (NYT) article sparked some reactions in Africa and elsewhere. And it seems that the stakeholders really take a dim view of the American demands — in substance and in form — which come at the worst possible time.

Russian wheat and the American message, an open secret

Over the weekend, several African diplomats refused to comment on this American "alert". One of the cargo ships reported by the United States, belonging to the maritime carrier Sampiyon Trabzonsport, has already reached Douala in Cameroon. Another, Kocatepe, is currently at the port of Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital.

Tanzanian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mindi Kasiga said: “Our position (on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, editor’s note) has always been neutral.”

Kenyan Foreign Secretary and former United Nations Ambassador Macharia Kamau said he was "surprised" by the US demands. "Why would they need to warn us in the first place?" asks the diplomat. “Why would Kenya buy 'looted' goods? The assumption looks like a propaganda ploy,” laments Kamau.

An Egyptian diplomat told the Journal de l'Afrique that his country "has no bias on the sanctions of the United States and the European Union against Russia". "If American diplomacy does not go through official channels to express its reservations, Egypt is not required to comment," he continued.

The director of the HORN Institute for Strategic Studies, Hassan Khannenje, believes that “any Western pressure on the cereals supplied by Russia could turn against the West”. And to continue: “If the West can provide alternatives, African countries will listen to that. But getting hysterical about it will only push them into the arms of Russia.”

A diplomatic challenge of the first order for relations between Africa and Russia

It would be hard to ignore that this story arises just as Turkey is trying to find a solution to unblock Ukrainian grain exports. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Ankara on Tuesday evening to discuss the establishment of maritime corridors in the Black Sea. Nevertheless, Ukraine expressed its fears to lift its blockade for fear that Russian forces would invade the ports concerned.

The Ankara talks are very important for AU Chairman and Senegalese Head of State Macky Sall, to whom his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin promised to facilitate Ukrainian wheat exports to African countries last week.

The grain shortage has hit North African countries hard, especially Egypt and Tunisia. But also Somalia, Benin, Senegal, DRC and Sudan. Between autarky plans and soaring prices, the supply of Russian and Ukrainian wheat is currently the priority of several African countries.

Read: Food shortages in Africa: whose fault is it?

Therefore, the discussions between Ukraine, Turkey and Russia are also essential for Africa. But for Moscow, it will be a question of keeping a promise made personally and publicly by Vladimir Putin to Macky Sall. This makes it a major diplomatic issue on which Moscow's African diplomacy is based in the short term.

The NYT article also pretends to be a foil for American diplomacy. "African countries are potentially faced with a difficult choice between, on the one hand, profiting from possible war crimes and displeasing a powerful Western ally (the United States, editor's note), and on the other hand, refusing to cheap food at a time when wheat prices are skyrocketing and hundreds of thousands of people are starving,” it reads.

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