Crises in the Sahel

Mali coup. A military coup in Mali highlights the multiple challenges facing the governments in Africa’s Sahel region: multiple Islamicist insurgencies, tribal conflicts over water and land, and overall environmental degradation thanks to climate change.

Mali’s embattled president, Boubacar Keita, was overthrown on August 18 by military officers who say they will rule for at least three years. The crisis combines two trends, one in the Sahel and the other among Francophone countries. Mali has been at the centre of Islamicist insurgencies that have spread across the Sahel since 2012. Keita was elected in 2013 as the insurgents nearly overran Mali and were turned back through French military intervention. Keita struggled to handle Mali’s multiplying economic and political problems. A leaked UN report described a country whose northern expanse had been taken over by terrorists while Bamako became a sinkhole of murderous militias and drug traffickers.

The president’s response was to consolidate power by undermining political institutions like the courts and the national assembly. Popular protests, dubbed the MS movement, led by civil society groups, the opposition and some religious figures began in June and have continued since. After attempts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to mediate failed, the military stepped in. ECOWAS has called upon the soldiers to reinstate Keita and allow him to finish his term. They also imposed sanctions against Mali and considered setting up a regional military body, a reminder of the strong negative response coups engender among African governments these days. The US and France backed the ECOWAS statement. The coupsters have said Keita resigned on his own accord, that they would set up a civilian transition team and eventually hold new elections.

Mali is only the most extreme example of a general breakdown of democratic political culture in Francophone West Africa. Unlike Francophone Central Africa, where dictators still hold sway, the western states began democratising in the 1990s. In recent months, the winds have been blowing in the other direction. The presidents of Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea president have announced plans to violate the term limits of their respective constitutions. Niger’s ruler has altered election rules to marginalise the opposition.
In Somalia, Al Shabaab, the local Islamicist militant group allied to Al Qaeda, escalated its activities in July. It attempted to kill Somalia’s military chief and, in one day, attacked two encampments of United Nations troops and three other targets. Al Shabaab continues to show new capabilities, for example it has begun using hand-launched drones. It has not been deterred by a spike in US drone attacks and the presence of the UN’s African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al Shabaab has a weak presence in Somaliland, the breakaway northwest part of Somalia, but enjoys operational freedom – along with Islamic State affiliates – in the nearby Somali state of Puntland. Michael Horton of the Jamestown Foundation argues that Somaliland’s security forces, despite few resources and no external support, have been able to hold Al Shabaab at bay because of the popular support enjoyed by its unrecognized government and the quality of its human intelligence network, “the bedrock of Somaliland’s counterterrorism strategy.”
Burkina Faso faces a massive humanitarian crisis because of Islamicist insurgencies in its north and east. A million people, five per cent of its population, have fled their homes, says the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), 450,000 of them this year alone. "Attacks by armed groups in the north and east of the country have forced people to move multiple times and are set to push the numbers still higher," said Babar Baloch, UNHCR Spokesperson in Geneva. Covid-19 has only exacerbated these problems. Some of the violence is now intra-insurgent. April saw 60 jihadists killed in Burkina Faso because of battles between the Al Qaeda linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Ten such intra-jihadi battles were reported this year, compared to only one in 2019.
Another related terrorist group, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter group of Nigeria’s main militant group Boko Haram, overran the town of Kukawa in Borno state in Nigeria on August 18. They seized hundreds of residents who had just returned to Kukawa after spending two years in displacement camps, part of a government-sponsored return programme. Local militia said the ISWAP fighters came in 22 trucks and engaged soldiers guarding the town. About two million Nigerians, mostly from Borno, have become internal refugees because of the fighting.
There about a dozen Islamicist insurgencies across Africa, mostly in the Sahel region between Mali and Chad and the greater Horn of Africa. But these conflicts are becoming increasingly internationalised thanks to the arrival of foreign fighters. At present, most of these fighters come from neighbouring countries but their numbers are increasing thanks to the spread of extremist ideologies, competition between Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and their splinter groups, and constraints on government action because of the pandemic. Of 370 insurgents prosecuted by Mozambique, 56 were foreigners largely from Tanzania. Somalia’s Al Shabaab may have as many as 2000 foreigners in its ranks. Boko Haram recruits from Cameroon and the Lake Chad region. Fighters from Chad and Sudan are turning up in the Central African Republic. Foreign fighters, writes analyst Austin Doctor, “tend to make insurgent organizations more resilient to military defeat, expand the range of tactics available to local insurgents, and increase the severity of targeted violence against civilians.” Some of the new tactics being used by Somali insurgents, such as improvised explosive devices, are possibly a result of foreign training. So far there is no major influx of veteran fighters from West Asia.

Mozambican Port Captured
Mozambique’s Islamicist militant group, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamaa, overran the northeastern port of Mocimboa da Praia on August 11 and have held parts of the town since. The port is close to the site of natural gas projects worth $ 60 billion, including a planned $ 15 billion LNG terminal in which Indian firms have invested $ 5 billion, but the area has become wracked by the insurgency. Several hundred insurgents forced the Mozambican marines guarding the port to withdraw by boat when they ran out of ammunition. Over 50 government army recruits were reportedly killed during the battle. The insurgents had shut down roads and attacked government posts in the run up to the main assault.

The government has since rushed in hundreds of soldiers and surrounded the port. Ahlu Sunnah has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. While the militants have entered the port before, they have tended to stay for only a few days. The country’s defence minister, Jaime Neto, denied the government had lost control of the entire port. He said the militants had infiltrated certain neighbourhoods but fighting was still going on. The port remains in contention as of August 24.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC), the main regional grouping for southern Africa, met virtually for the 40th Ordinary Summit of SADC on August 17. The SADC issued a statement expressing “solidarity and commitment to support Mozambique in addressing the terrorism and violent attacks, and condemned all acts of terrorism and armed attacks.”
China In Africa 
African governments have rejected calls by the US to ensure their telecom networks do not include or limit equipment made by the Chinese firm Huawei. At the request of his country’s telecom companies, South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, publicly rejected the idea last year. Since then, Kenya, Ethiopia and other African governments have followed in his path. Ramaphosa argued this was about the US-China trade war and not a concern for Africa. A Bloomberg story in August says, “Huawei hasn’t lost a single order in Africa.”

Huawei has been operating in the continent for over 20 years and its low costs and robust equipment are seen as unmatchable. An estimated 70 per cent of the continent’s entire wireless broadband architecture is built around Huawei equipment. US officials warn Huawei could use its equipment to spy for China. The firm denies these charges, saying it is a private firm and does not act on Beijing’s behalf. But the firm is believed to have cooperated with African governments to help suppress domestic opponents. In Uganda, Huawei helped government officials infiltrate the WhatsApp messages of a political opponent, according to the Wall Street Journal. Similar allegations of intelligence gathering have surfaced in Zambia and Algeria. However, Africa remains some way away from a 5G rollout, the primary US concern.
China has promoted its version of party-army relations in Africa. However, African countries that have adopted the China model have not necessariy fared well. The People’s Liberation Army is described as a party-army in China, a military whose primary duty is the survival of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

African soldiers are exposed to this Chinese model at three career levels. One, a few thousand African military students receive training at various PLA regional academies like the Nanjing Military Academcy and the Dalian Naval Academy. Mid-career African officers are trained at command and staff colleges like the Army Command College in Shijiazhuang.

Senior officers are admitted to China’s National Defence University and National University of Defence Technology. These admit 300 foreign officers a year with about 60% of these coming from Africa. Officers also attend the PLA’s political schools, like the Kunming National Cadres Academy and the Pudong Cadre College, where they are trained on how the ruling party exercises control over the military, including the political commissar system.

Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe are among the countries who practice some form of the Maoist fusion of party and military. Some African governments, like Burundi, train party militia in these same schools. The liberation movements of Angola, Mozambique, South Africa and others, because of the support they received from China, set up similar schools when they came to power. Uganda’s Oliver Tambo Leadership Academy and Ethiopia’s Tatek Political School are examples. The CCP’s International Liaison Office donated $ 45 million towards the Mwalimu Nyrere Leadership Academy in Tanzania with the idea that the civilian and military cadres of the ruling parties of these African governments can be trained there.

The actual experience of these integrated party-army structures has been mixed. In Zimbabwe the political commissariat of the ruling party in Zimbabwe was staffed with generals. When the previous ruler Robert Mugabe ran into problems with his defence minister, an intra-party dispute resulted in a coup that unseated Mugabe. The Politburo of South Sudan’s ruling party is two-thirds soldiers and when disagreements within the party broke out in 2013, the South Sudan army also broke up, leading to a civil war.
China’s Hunan Province on August 18 opened a cocoa trading centre that would allow the direct shipment and sale of African cocoa to Chinese buyers. Africa is the world’s leading cocoa producer and China a fast-growing market. The African Cocoa Marketing Centre has been set up in Changsha and initial shipments will come largely from Ghana. Xu Xiangping, head of Hunan’s commerce department, said the aim was to build a major trading and processing centre for many African farming products including cashews, coffee, cotton and rubber. The cocoa centre was just the first “sub-centre” to be established, Xu said.
Mauritius Offers Diego Garcia Lease
The Mauritian Ambassador to the UN, Jagdish Kunjool, in an opinion piece iterated his country’s willingness to enter into an agreement that would preserve the Diego Garcia military base, “with British involvement if desired, and keep the US engaged in the region.” He said his country would be prepared to offer even a 99-year lease which would go beyond the present agreement the US has with Britain. But a Mauritian agreement ​​​​would not have the legality concerns that presently exist regarding London’s continuing control of Diego Garcia and the surrounding Chagos Archipelago. Mauritius, backed by India, has argued the British separation and control of these islands from Mauritius, dating back to the 1960s, is illegal. This view was backed by an International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory ruling. But the base, used largely by the US, is important to the latter’s military presence in the Indian Ocean which Mauritius has indicated it both understands and supports. “As comfortable as the US may feel with the UK under their current agreement, the writing is on the wall: the UK’s stand in rejecting the ICJ Advisory Opinion and the accompanying United Nations General Assembly resolution is not sustainable,” he warned.
Kenya Tea Exports Overtake India 
Deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan, flooding in eastern India and high Indian prices have given Kenyan tea exporters an edge over their Indian rivals, the secretary of the India Tea Association Sujit Patra told a Kenyan newspaper.  Kenya exported 93 million kgs of tea in the first five months of 2020 compared to India’s 74.40 millions kgs. Kenyan exports were higher than last year’s while India’s fell 26.6 per cent. Kenya accounts for 22 per cent of world tea exports. India was also losing out because its prices were higher than Kenya’s.

Remembering Festac 77

An article in The Guardian recalled  Festac 77, a huge black and African arts and culture festival hosted by Nigeria in 1977, held to serve as “the cultural climax of the Pan-African movement.” Designed to showcase worldwide black unity and self-determination, Festac 77 gathered African-origin musicians, designers and artists from 70 countries across the world. While receiving minimal international coverage, it was marked by the presence of Stevie Wonder, at that point at the apex of his musical career. It was by far the largest such event ever held in Africa, stretching over four weeks across 10 venues, with 15000 participants and was 12 years in the making. As the article notes, it “survived a civil war, a presidential assassination and two coups.” Lagos was virtually rebuilt to accommodate Festac 77. But it also cost Nigeria $ 400 million ($1.75 billion in today’s money).

Not everyone was pleased. Nigeria’s most famous musician, Fela Kuti, resigned from the organising committee in protest against the cost, the corruption and the overbearing military presence. He held a parallel, counter-Festac, which was raided by military thugs after the festival ended. One more Festac was held before the third one in Ethiopia was cancelled. Today, black-themed cultural festivals are commonplace across the world though most have no  sense of remembrance for this event.
World War II's African Veterans 
Nearly 90,000 Africans, mainly Kenyans, served in the British Army during World War II, many of them fighting in Burma with the King’s African Rifles. After the war London decided they did not deserve a pension. Many of the soldiers were also denied their promised war bonuses, over the protests of their British officers. A few were even settled in the wrong African country after the war with no means to get back home. A photo feature dwells on the lives of the remaining veterans and their views of their treatment and their service. The British government recently announced a 12 million pound fund to help the impoverished veterans.

(The views expressed are personal)

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About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhury

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta Aspen Centre

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.