Ukraine Sends Free Wheat to War-Torn Ethiopia

Farmers harvest a wheat field in the Ukrainian Kharkiv region on July 19, 2022, amid Russian invasion of Ukraine

The Cabinet Ministry of Ukraine announced recently that it would reimburse the government of Ethiopia, and neighboring Somalia, for about $11.4 million worth of wheat, Mogadishu’s Shabelle Media reported on Tuesday.

Kyiv Independent, a pro-government Ukrainian outlet, reported that Ethiopia would receive 50,000 metric tons of free wheat on Saturday, translating the official statement from the Cabinet Ministry that the Shabelle Media report also appears to be based on.

The shipments appear to be part of a plan to export Ukrainian wheat, which much of Africa and the Middle East depends on, orchestrated by the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations agency. As Ukraine is in communication with the WFP, which is chartering the cargo ships, the extent of cooperation between Ukraine and the recipient nations remains unclear.

Ukraine’s grain crops and shipments have been endangered for months thanks to the expansion of Russia’s eight-year-old invasion of the country that began in February. While Russia illegally colonized Ukraine’s Crimea region and began backing pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbass region in 2014, Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced a dramatic escalation of Russian military involvement in the country in February, claiming that Ukraine had “no tradition” of being a sovereign state and was “completely created by Russia.”

While Western media has invested heavily in covering the Ukrainian war, it has done comparatively little to cover the brutal civil war in Ethiopia, which observers say has descended into acts of ethnic cleansing and potentially genocide, including the blockading and starving out of the population of the country’s Tigray region, about 6 million people.

The total shutdown of infrastructure, imports, and communication into and out of Tigray, abetted by Eritrea, has created what United Nations experts have denounced as a very real possibility of famine.

The leader of Ethiopia’s assault and potential genocide in Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. His prize has not been revoked in light of his call for war against the Tigray people – and, more specifically, the former ruling Marxist political party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – or widespread reports of atrocities committed by Ethiopian forces.

In addition to the civil war, Ethiopia and Somalia are both suffering food shortages as a result of a severe drought, which has made this year’s harvest insufficient. The United Nations has estimated that as many as 22 people in the Horn of Africa region, where the countries are located, are in danger of starving.

Ukrainian authorities confirmed the departure of a ship carrying 30,000 tonnes of wheat to Ethiopia this weekend.

“The bulk carrier IKARIA ANGEL, chartered by the UN World Food Program, sailing under the flag of Panama, carrying 30,000 tonnes of wheat, this morning departed from the port of Chornomorsk to the port in Djibouti, through which humanitarian cargoes arrive to African regions,” the state outlet Ukrinform reported on Saturday.

Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov told the state outlet that Ukraine was sending the grain to that country to avoid a “food disaster.”

Shabelle Media reported on Tuesday that Ukraine would not take payment for about $11.4 million worth of wheat from Ethiopia, presumably the Abiy government, or Somalia, promising to reimburse them the money. The reimbursement is notable given Abiy’s ties to the Russian government. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, as recently as in June, receiving a warm welcome, though no vocal support for the war in Ukraine.

Russia has invested heavily in diplomacy with African countries, particularly those that maintained friendly ties with the Soviet Union. Ukrainian officials have found little success in making inroads to find support in the region. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly spent months trying to convince the African Union to address its leaders and, when he finally secured a video chat in June, only four heads of state tuned in live, making their underlings listen, instead, according to French newspaper Le Monde.

Le Monde found in chatting with anonymous diplomats familiar with the Ukraine effort that African leaders appeared only interested in one basis of contact with the country.

“I don’t know what exactly he expects from us, but our priority remains the supply of grain and fertilizer,” one anonymous diplomat said. The French newspaper observed that the remark was almost identical to one made previously by Senegalese President Macky Sall on the Russian invasion: “We’re not really into the debate of who is right and who is wrong. We just want access to grain and fertilizer.”

The first ship to depart Ukraine for Ethiopia docked in Djibouti, a small nation bordering Ethiopia, in late August.

According to the WFP, 7.4 million people in Ethiopian are facing “severe hunger” thanks to the ongoing drought, and another 13 million are facing lack of access to food thanks to the civil war. Neither the Ukrainian government statements nor the African report on the free grain indicated if the WFP would be in charge of distributing the food once it arrived in Ethiopia or whether Abiy’s government would control it, but past shipments have arrived at WFP warehouses in Ethiopia, outside of the Tigray region.

Access to Tigray, where the worst of the food crisis is believed to be occurring, is not guaranteed; U.N. officials have regularly complained of lacking access to the region. The head of the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus – an ethnic Tigrayan and TPLF member – has told reporters that Ethiopia would not even allow him to send food or money to his own family.

“I will tell you my own story. I have many relatives there. I want to send them money. I cannot send them money. They’re starving, I know. I cannot help them,” Tedros said in August. “I cannot do that because they are completely sealed off. I want to speak to them. It’s a long time since I have spoken to them. I can’t speak to them. I don’t know even who is dead or who is alive.”

Tedros has repeatedly argued that the disproportionate attention Ukraine’s struggles are receiving compared to Tigray’s is racist.

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