African Union Head Will Urge Putin to Release Ukraine’s Grain

DAKAR, Senegal — With many of the world’s poorest countries facing alarming levels of hunger and starvation, the leader of the African Union is set to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday and urge him to lift Russia’s blockade on urgently needed cereals and fertilizer from Ukraine.

President Macky Sall of Senegal, the African Union’s chairman, will deliver his plea to the Russian leader when the two men meet at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, an aide said.

Warnings by the United Nations that Russia’s naval blockade in Ukraine could lead to famines around the world, and accusations by Ukrainian and Western leaders that Mr. Putin is weaponizing a major source of the world’s food supply, have so far produced limited results. Millions of tons of grain remain stuck in Ukraine; Mr. Putin has suggested that this would change if the West lifted sanctions imposed on Moscow after the invasion.

Some hope the message will resonate differently when it comes from Mr. Sall, who will speak on behalf of many of the countries that will suffer most as the grain sits idle.

Russia and Ukraine account for more than 40 percent of Africa’s wheat imports. In countries like Rwanda, Tanzania and Senegal, that figure rises to more than 60 percent, and in Egypt, 80 percent. Benin and Somalia rely on Russia and Ukraine for 100 percent of their wheat supply.

“The entire world is suffering from this conflict, but we in Africa are already facing the collateral damages,” said Ousmane Sène, the director of the West African Research Center in Dakar. “President Sall will likely tell President Putin, ‘Think about the rest of the world.’”

An adviser to Mr. Sall, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Senegalese president would lay out to Mr. Putin the effect the war has had on Africa before pushing for cereal stocks to be released.

The Kremlin said in a statement that the two leaders would discuss “the expansion of political dialogue and economic and humanitarian cooperation with the countries of the continent.”

The war in Ukraine has compounded existing food crises in the Sahel and East Africa caused by drought and conflicts.

More than 14 million people are on the brink of starvation in the Horn of Africa, according to relief groups, and nearly 40 million people are at imminent risk of famine this year, according to the World Food Program, a United Nations agency. Aid organizations have also warned that diverting aid from African populations in favor of Ukrainian refugees will only make things worse on the continent.

In West Africa, one of the most visible effects of the war so far has been on bread prices that were already on the rise. In Burkina Faso, bakers went on strike last month after the government shuttered bakeries that had raised the price of a baguette. In the Ivory Coast, bakers have decreased the size of the baguette in the face of soaring wheat costs.

The African Union has vowed to maintain a neutral position on the war, but African countries have been divided over it: 19 of the continent’s 54 countries have not condemned the invasion by Russia, which is the continent’s largest arms supplier.

For months, African leaders also shunned President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who asked at least twice to address the African Union. Mr. Sall said Thursday that Mr. Zelensky could soon address the organization in a videoconference, although no date has been announced.

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