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President Macron and Foreign Minister Lavrov vie for influence in pan-African tours this week

Russia and its western rivals are ratcheting up the blame game over deepening international financial and production crises

On parallel tracks across Africa, this week France and Russia are trying to win the information war over which state or alliance of states is responsible for the galloping food, fertiliser and fuel prices that are ripping through the continent's economies.

France's President Emmanuel Macron got a head start by inviting his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el Sisi to the Elysée Palace in Paris for an unpublicised tête à tête on 22 July. On the agenda was Egypt's hosting of the UN Climate summit COP27 in November and its deepening financial crisis, worsened by grain shortages, after Moscow's attack on Ukraine.

On the same day in Istanbul, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and UN Secretary General António Guterres were lauding a breakthrough agreement between Russia and Ukraine to secure safe corridors for the export of Ukraine's US$10 billlion grain stockpile – a deal that could ease chronic shortages in the Middle East and Africa.

Underlining the centrality of the grain crisis to Africa, Samantha Power, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged on 22 July to give Kenya about $225 million in emergency aid to relieve the drought in its northern provinces (Dispatches 15/7/22, Drought and fall-out from Moscow's war may trigger catastrophic famine).

Kenyan officials reckon that about four million of their people face acute food shortages amid a horrendous rise in child malnutrition, surging to 942,000 cases since March (Dispatches 10 May, The UN reports that food and energy crises are deepening due to Russia's war on Ukraine).

On 23 July, hopes for a wider breakthrough were dashed when Russia launched cruise missiles against Odesa, Ukraine's biggest port, from where Liberian and Sierra Leonean grain ships were due to sail. Russian officials insisted the attack was aimed at Ukrainian military facilities, not ships carrying food. But the missiles sent their own message.

Just after news of the attack broke, Russia's Sergei Lavrov landed in Cairo to meet Sameh Shoukry, his Egyptian opposite number, before talking to a wider audience of ministers from the Arab League. Like India and South Africa, Egypt sustains relations with both Moscow and all the leading NATO member states.

After Cairo, Lavrov flew to Congo-Brazzaville, a close partner of Moscow's from the first Cold War, before heading for Uganda and Ethiopia, both countries whose relations with the west have been shaky in recent years (AC Vol 63 No 7, Continental ties tested in a zero-sum game).

Lavrov's mission may be helped some well-placed articles in African newspapers in which he argues that Russia has '…always sincerely supported Africans in their struggle for freedom from the colonial yoke'. He added that Moscow appreciated Africa's 'balanced position' on Ukraine. That may wishful thinking or coded diplomacy – as the 54 states in the African Union share no consensus view on Ukraine but most of them have refused outright, like China, to endorse Moscow's attack (AC Vol 63 No 11, Diplomacy on ice).

President Macron's mission to Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau is just as problematic but for different reasons. True, Cameroon is buying military kit from Russia and signing on to training programmes. But the bigger headache there for Macron is that ageing President Paul Biya, a long-time ally of Paris, is losing his grip on the country as insurgencies, one by jihadists and the other by Anglophone separatists, rumble on.

Biya's misrule and grand corruption over the past four decades, in which French governments and companies have been implicated, have angered many Cameroonians who seek a fresh start and new international partners. Macron will find a similar dynamic in Benin where businessman-turned-President Patrice Talon has been stepping up authoritarianism and squashing his opponents.

Guinea-Bissau, the last port of call for Macron this week, whose pioneering anti-colonial campaigns were tarnished by its stint as a drug-trafficking entrepôt prone to military putsches, presents a different set of challenges. Most critical for Macron will be to build closer relations with Bissau's President Úmaro Sissoco Embaló, who has taken over as chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) from Ghana's Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo.

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