H I G H L I G H T S
• ETHIOPIA UNDER SIEGE
• SUDAN’S COUPSTERS
• BLINKEN’S TOUR
• MOZAMBIQUE ARMS UP
• ISLAMIC STATE FACTIONS
• DROUGHT AND BRIBES
ETHIOPIA UNDER SIEGE
Embattled Ethiopian president, Abiy Ahmad, signalled an interest in mediation efforts led by the African Union and the United States as his country’s present civil war completed its first year. Abiy had used the Ethiopian army to end Tigrayan control of the Ethiopian government last year. But ethnic Tigrayan guerrillas defeated his army, turned the tables on him and now threaten his government. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front’s demand that Ethiopian officials must face trials for war crimes means the gap between the two sides remains unsurmountable. Mediation will be a viable option only when the military balance is more even.
Tigrayan fighters have now advanced to within 250 km of Addis Ababa, leading the US to warn civilian airliners of the danger of weapons fire if they operate from the capital’s airport. The Ethiopian army has imposed a blockade of Tigray and there are reports of medical supplies running short. The insurgents seek to sever Ethiopia’s main transport link to the outside world through the coastal enclave of Djibouti and have encouraged other ethnic insurgencies to rise up against the regime. The US is trying to persuade the two sides to agree to not take the fight into the capital. The Tigrayans have been joined by another ethnic insurgency, the Oromo Liberation Front, which has taken over large amounts of territory in the south.
US Secretary of State Tony Blinken was told by the Kenyan government during his recent visit that Abiy was open to a number of possible moves to ease tension and end the fighting. Abiy and the Tigrayan leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, have in principle agreed a political solution through dialogue is needed but there has been little progress beyond that. Both the African Union and the US special envoys to the region, Nigerian ex-president Olesegun Obasanjo and Jeffrey Feltman, have been camped in Ethiopia. Tigray has begun preparing the ground for a demand for greater autonomy, but it seems that so long as the war is going their way they will not settle for anything less than Abiy’s removal.
A stream of reports have underlined the brutality of the conflict with the initial fighting have caused thousands of casualties, led to atrocities by soldiers against civilians, and many Tigrayans across Ethiopia being incarcerated and untraceable. The Tigrayan advance on Addis Ababa has led the Ethiopian government to conscript thousands of civilians and send them to the frontlines with minimal training. Ethiopia, which in recent years had showcased itself as a business friendly environment and attracted considerable foreign investment in light manufacturing, is now seeing many of these firms leave the country. Some scholars have questioned whether Ethiopia will be able to survive as a unitary state if Addis Ababa falls.
Coup leaders in Sudan have reinstated deposed president, Abdalla Hamdok, after nearly a month of mass protests and constant international pressure. The Sudanese army head and coup leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, said Hamdok would head a technocratic transitional government that would include most political parties. However, the agreement excluded the Forces for Freedom and Change, the civilian coalition that has led the daily protests since the October 25 coup. The coalition has rejected the agreement, demanding a full civilian government be instated. Hamdok, who has been criticized for accepting Burhan’s compromise, said he agreed to end the bloodshed. Over 40 civilians have been killed by security forces during the protests.
The coup reflects a continuing battle over the political future of Sudan after protests helped overthrow the long-standing military ruler Omar al Bashir in April. The joint civilian-military council that took over, however, quickly began to fracture after the new president, Abdalla Hamdok, began trying to reform an economy battered by the secession of oil-rich South Sudan and experiencing 400% inflation. While Hamdok secured considerable multilateral financial assistance, he publicly criticized the military’s control and ownership of large chunks of the economy. A worried army carried out the coup to pre-empt full civilian handover in November.
Burhan had reached out to Russia to balance against Western sanctions, offering to reopen talks about a Russian naval base on Sudan’s Indian Ocean coast. Moscow ensured a United Nations Security Council resolution against the coup was watered down. But Russia could not replace the $ 700 million in financial assistance that the West has blocked. In the month before the coup, India and Sudan held their first naval exercises with one Indian and two Sudanese warships participating.
US Secretary of State Tony Blinken visited Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal in the first high-level visit by a Biden administration official to Africa. Blinken said the US and Africa had five areas of common interest: global health, climate, inclusive economic growth, democracy, and peace and security. Besides promising millions of more Covid vaccines and more assistance to tackle climate issues, he said the US would be supporting infrastructure development in Africa under its Build Back Better World initiative.
Blinken carefully avoided mentioning China in his speeches. He said Africa was geopolitically important in its own right because of its size, rising economic potential, and the entrepreneurship and support for democracy evident across the continent. The US’s top diplomat pointedly avoided visiting conflict-wracked Ethiopia, despite its being a close security and economic partner of the US. The Biden administration is sensitive to the coups experienced by several African countries the past few months.
Blinken had been preceded by State Department number three, Victoria Nuland, who visited South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania and Niger. President Joe Biden had made it a point to include four African countries in his virtual summit on climate. A number of analysts have pointed out that the US needs to massively increase its development activities in Africa if it wants to serve as an alternative to the already sizeable footprint of China. African governments have pushed back against Washington’s attempts to stop them from installing telecom and internet equipment by Chinese firms like Huawei, asking whether the US has a viable alternative. Questions have been raised about the continuing US-Kenya free trade agreement talks and whether this is distracting from the much larger African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
Blinken’s tour corrected a more basic lacuna of the Biden administration – until mid-November, none of the senior members of the administration had visited sub-Saharan Africa despite numerous visits to Asia and Europe. President Joe Biden presently only attends summits.
MOZAMBIQUE ARMS UP
Mozambique’s government is quickly consolidating the military gains provided by the intervention of Rwandan soldiers against the shadowy Islamicist insurgency that has ravaged the northeast of the country. Earlier in the year, the insurgents had forced Total of France to put on hold a $ 20 billion liquefied natural gas terminal, a project which includes Indian and Japanese partners, being built in Cabo Delgado province. Two thousand Rwandan soldiers were brought in during the summer to tackle the insurgents and successfully drove them across the border into Tanzania. Media reports have speculated the Rwandan intervention was paid for by Total or Paris, a claim that the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, denied. Some analysts have pointed an overly generous foreign aid commitment by France to Rwanda.
The relative peace that has followed has meant Total is now expected to resume working on the LNG terminal by year-end. The Italian oil and gas firm ENI has begun bringing an offshore rig from South Korea to the same area. The Mozambican government has announced it is raising a special military force to handle the insurgents. The European Union has sent troops to help train and equip this force and will remain there for two years under a new agreement. Many argue that Mozambique needs to do more to economically develop and politically integrate its northern citizens who are on the margins of a country dominated by a southern coastal elite.
Rwandan troops cannot stay in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado forever, Kagame says
ISLAMIC STATE FACTIONS
The Islamic State’s affiliates in West Africa are in eclipse thanks to vicious infighting among its various factions. Three of its most notable jihadi leaders have been killed in recent months, two of them by rival Islamicist fighters. A recent article traces the Islamic State’s growth and fracture.
The original Islamic State affiliate, popularly known as Boko Haram, declared its allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015 and promptly broke into two parts the next year. One faction became the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) while the other retained the original name, still being popularly referred to as Boko Haram. The ISWAP saw phenomenal growth over the next few years and threatened a half-dozen Sahel countries, leading to US and French military intervention. ISWAP also went after its smaller rival and successfully killed its leader in May. But these Boko Haram remnants have since able to rebuild themselves, recruiting from ethnic groups around Lake Chad. While the details remain murky, it seems this new Bakura group was behind the death of the ISWAP leader in August. Another ISWAP leader was killed by French military and local factions have become increasingly caught up in tribal feuds, distracting them from larger jihadi goals. The present trough in Islamicist terror in this region is not expected to last. One study has analysed how the new faction re-engineers pickup trucks and shallow boats into fighting and logistics platforms in the Lake Chad area, the new epicentre of Boko Haram activities.
DROUGHT AND BRIBES
Madagascar. The Covid pandemic, a three-year drought and poor governance is resulting in near-famine conditions for 1.3 million people in southern Madagascar. The drought is partly being blamed on climate change. The pandemic has crippled an economy heavily dependent on visitors to support the economy and provide employment. The president’s populist response to Covid has not helped: he has promoted a questionable herbal remedy for the virus and declined to join the Covax vaccine programme by which subsidised vaccines are provided to developing countries.
Congo. The former president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila, and his associates plundered the official exchequer of hundreds of millions of dollars, say leaked bank documents. Three million documents from the Banque Gabonaise et Française Internationale (BGFI) have been obtained by a media consortium. Under the scam, what were effectively cut-out firms would open accounts at the bank and then receive tens of millions of dollars in deposits by state-owned enterprises. Millions of dollars of this money was then withdrawn as cash or given as payments to firms owned by Kabila’s relatives and friends. One such cut-out firm, Sud Oil, received $ 86 million worth of deposits from 2013 to 2017. The firm had only one employee, did not trade in petroleum products, and transferred millions to private firms owned by Kabila family members. The ex-president has denied the charges.
Somalia. The United Nations has warned that a worsening drought in Somalia has left two million people facing food and water shortages. The Horn of Africa is now “on the verge of a fourth consecutive failed rainfall season”, according to a joint statement by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Somali government. Nearly 20% of the country’s population is directly affected. The statement said climate change was one reason for the drought. Natural disaster has replaced conflict as the primary reason for human displacement in Somalia.