The African Union leader met with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday, urging him to release much-needed stockpiles of grain that are stuck in Ukraine as many countries in Africa and the Middle East face alarming levels of starvation and starvation are.
Macky Sall, the president of Senegal and current chairman of the regional organization of 54 African countries, said Russia’s grain blockade threatens food insecurity on the continent. Speaking at a news conference with Mr Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Mr Sall also said Western sanctions on Russia had exacerbated Africa’s lack of access to grain.
“Our countries, while far from the theatre,” said Mr. Sall, “are victims of this economic crisis.”
The meeting between Mr. Sall and Mr. Putin takes place while tens of millions of people in Africa are on the brink of severe hunger and even famine. On Friday, Chad, a landlocked country of 17 million people, declared a food emergency and the United Nations warned nearly a third of the country’s population would need humanitarian assistance this year.
African countries are critically dependent on grains from Russia and Ukraine, which account for more than 40 percent of the continent’s wheat imports. Countries like Rwanda, Tanzania and Senegal rely on both countries for more than 60 percent of these imports. In Egypt, that number rises to 80 percent, while Benin and Somalia are completely dependent on Russia and Ukraine for wheat supplies.
African countries also depend on fertilizers from Ukraine, and shortages will affect this year’s planting season and be felt throughout next year, the United Nations Development Agency warned.
With pressure from Western leaders to unblock grain exports from Ukraine not working, there were hopes that a more neutral voice like Mr Sall’s could reach Mr Putin.
“Putin is more comfortable having Africa in front of him than Europe or the United States,” said Ousmane Sène, director of the West African Research Center, a think tank in Dakar. Still, Mr. Sène added, “It’s a bit like David walking towards Goliath.”
Mr Putin has told European leaders he is ready to release grain stuck in Ukraine on condition some Western sanctions against Russia are lifted. Russia has also claimed that mines laid by Ukraine have prevented wheat shipments.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Mr Putin plans to give Mr Sall a detailed explanation of the Russian perspective and explain “what needs to be done so that grain flow can resume”.
Pauline Bax, deputy director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group, said that while the European Union blames Russia as the “bad guy” responsible for the ongoing food crisis, some members of the African Union have argued that EU sanctions are to blame be.
That claim was echoed by some of Russia’s key allies, such as South Africa, and on Friday Mr Sall also argued that sanctions on Russia had only exacerbated grain access problems for African countries.
Mr Sall, speaking at an EU summit this week, said at the press conference with Mr Putin that he had reminded European leaders of the food crisis, telling them: “Yes, there is the war, the crisis, but there is also gives the penalties. We have to work on both fronts.”