«It's an address that the African Union (AU) has delayed for as long as possible and has been keen to keep discreet, almost secret. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, addressed the members of the continental organization behind closed doors on Monday, June 20, via video conference from Kyiv. "Finally," some said.

Requested several times by the Ukrainian presidency since April and pushed back just as many times by the AU, the effort behind the organization of the simple video message illustrates the tense relationships between Mr. Zelensky and the leaders of the continent: While the first is trying to rally Africa to its cause in fighting against the Russian invader, the second is sticking to a neutral position, with unclear parameters.

For Mr. Zelensky, it was a matter of defending his version of the conflict and responsibilities in the food crisis suffered by the continent. "Africa is the hostage of those who started the war against our state," he said, referring to Moscow. The "unfair" level of food prices "caused by the Russian war is painfully felt on all continents," he said.

He also launched a charm offensive. After recalling Ukraine's contribution to peacekeeping missions in Africa and the commercial ties that unite it with the continent, the president announced the upcoming appointment of a special envoy for Africa and proposed the organization of a "major Ukrainian-African political and economic conference."

'Unrealistic projects'

However, Mr. Zelensky's 10-minute message generated little interest on the African side. "They're unrealistic projects that didn't have any major impact here," said an African diplomat who listened to the speech. Only four heads of state followed it live. At the same time, seven leaders were meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss security issues in the Great Lakes region.

Organizing this speech was a symbolic way for the AU to recalibrate its communication, which until then had been mainly directed at Russia. At the beginning of June, the AU's current chairperson and Senegal president, Macky Sall, and the chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki, traveled to Sochi to meet Vladimir Putin where Mr. Sall criticized the Western sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Zelensky's attempt to rally the continent to the Ukrainian cause is almost futile, as revealed by several diplomatic sources within the AU. "I don't know what exactly he expects from us, but our priority remains the supply of grain and fertilizer," said an East African diplomat. During a recent visit to Paris, Mr. Sall hammered home the message: "We're not really into the debate of who is right and who is wrong. We just want access to grain and fertilizer," he said in an interview with Le Monde.

Almost half of the African countries depend on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. 14 of them even receive more than half of their wheat from these two countries. In addition, fertilizer is also in short supply as both the rainy and the sowing seasons have begun.

'False naivety'

Within this context, the AU president is asking Ukraine to clear the strategic port of Odesa of mines to allow the loading of cargo ships, claiming to have received guarantees of non-aggression from Mr. Putin. "About Odesa, Mr. Sall is showing blatant false naivety," said Paul-Simon Handy, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. "He's taking Mr. Putin's words at face value."

In case of demining, Kyiv fears a Russian invasion through the Black Sea. In his video, Mr. Zelensky presented the cargo solution, recalling that "the food crisis started on February 24, when the Russian fleet blocked Ukrainian ports." "No real mechanism has yet been implemented to ensure that Russia doesn't attack the ports again," he stressed.

In concluding his speech, the leader tried to play on the AU's anti-imperialist stance. "Russia is trying to conquer our land, to turn Ukraine into a Russian colony," he said. Without much success. As the continent's leaders in this crisis, Mr. Sall and Mr. Faki are walking a tightrope, forced to maintain an ambiguous position that will please both Moscow's African supporters and neutral parties. Senegal president welcomed on Monday on Twitter Mr. Zelensky's "friendly address," reaffirming that "Africa remains committed to the respect of the rules of international law, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the freedom of trade."»

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