Peace, food and fertilizer: the challenge of African leaders towards talks with Moscow and kyiv

A delegation of six African leaders set to hold talks with Kyiv and Moscow aim to ‘initiate a peace process’, but also tackle the thorny issue of how a heavily sanctioned Russia can be paid for exports of fertilizer that Africa desperately needs, a key mediator who helped broker the talks said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Jean-Yves Ollivier, an international negotiator who has been working for six months to organize the talks, said African leaders would also discuss the related issue of facilitating the passage of more grain shipments out of Ukraine amid the war and the possibility of more prisoner exchanges when they travel to the two countries on what they have called a peacekeeping mission.

The talks will likely take place next month, Ollivier said.

He arrived in Moscow on Sunday and will also travel to Kyiv for meetings with high-level officials to work out the “logistics” for the upcoming talks. For one thing, the six African presidents are likely to travel to Kyiv by overnight train from Poland amid the fighting, he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have both agreed to separately host the delegation of presidents from South Africa, Senegal, Egypt, Republic of Congo, Uganda and Zambia.

The talks also have the endorsement of the United States, European Union, United Nations, African Union and China, Ollivier said in a video call with the AP Friday.

However, neither side in the war seems ready to stop fighting.

The talks were announced last week by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa just as Russia launched an intense airstrike on kyiv. On Sunday, Russia claimed to have taken the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut after heavy fighting, a claim Ukraine denies.

“We are not dreamers,” Ollivier said of the chances that African leaders will achieve an immediate breakthrough on ending the 15-month conflict. “Unless something happens, I don’t think we’re going to end our first mission with a ceasefire.”

The goal was to get started, said Ollivier, a 78-year-old Frenchman who brought opposing sides together in high-stakes negotiations in the late 1980s that helped end apartheid in South Africa.

“It starts with signs. It starts with dialogues. And that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Ollivier said. “There’s no guarantee that we’re going to be successful but, for now, Russia and Ukraine have accepted… a delegation coming specifically to their country to talk of peace.”

Cereals and fertilizers are an essential starting point for Africa.

The war has severely restricted the export of grain from Ukraine and fertilizer from Russia, exacerbating food insecurity and hunger around the world. Africa has been one of the hardest hit continents. Last week, Russia agreed to a two-month extension to a Turkey-UN-brokered deal that allows Ukraine to ship grain across the Black Sea and around the world, and the six presidents Africans would like this to be extended.

But they also need to find ways to make it easier for African countries to receive shipments and pay Russia for fertilizers, Ollivier said. Russian fertilizers are not subject to international sanctions, but the United States and some Western countries have targeted Russian cargo ships for sanctions. Russia’s access to the global financial transaction system SWIFT has also been restricted by the sanctions, leaving African countries struggling to order and pay for essential fertilizers.

“We will need a window in which SWIFT will be authorized for this specific point,” Ollivier said. “It will be on the table and we hope that in this case we will get Russian support for grain from Ukraine, and we will get Ukrainian support to find possible payments and shipments for Russian fertilizer.”

The African mission is not the only mediation effort. China offered its own peace proposal in February and a Chinese envoy held talks with Ukrainian officials. But China’s plan has been widely rejected by Ukraine’s Western allies and is clouded by Beijing’s political support for Moscow.

Ukraine and Russia are far apart in terms of agreements that could form the basis of a peace deal.

The African delegation still enjoyed a wide range of support, Ollivier said, after China “also came to us and offered support” on the basis that it would be a “parallel effort” to the map of Beijing.

“The more support, the more weight will be given to negotiation (with Moscow and Kyiv),” said Ollivier, founding president of the London-based Brazzaville Foundation, an organization that deals with conflict resolution. “If a party says no, they will wonder who they are saying no to. Are they saying not only to Jean-Yves Ollivier? To the Brazzaville Foundation? To the six (African) heads of state?”

“Or are they saying no to the United Nations, or the Chinese, or the Americans. To the British? To the European Union?


More AP news on the war in Ukraine:

This story was originally published May 21, 2023, 12:57 p.m.

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