ETHIOPIA’S POWER SHIFT

The Ethiopian Federal Army has retaken control of most of the rebellious province of Tigray following fighting that began in November. Pockets of resistance continue in the mountainous region, leading to new waves of refugees crossing the border into Sudan. Ethiopia has deployed more troops and built fences along its Sudanese border area to block refugee movement. The presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray, working in tandem with Ethiopian troops, has been confirmed and points to the strength of the new understanding between Addis Ababa and Asmara. With the resistance of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front waning, the political dominance of the Tigrayans going back nearly 30 years has come to an end and a new power structure built around an Oromo-Amhara ethnic alliance, headed by President Abiy Ahmed, has consolidated its position. Fateh Moghaddam, director of emergency housing for refugees, told the Sudan Tribune the number of largely Tigrayan refugees and including soldiers of the TPLF is over 63,000.

Major General Belay Seyoum, the head of the Ethiopian army's northern division, in a video dated from the end of December and which emerged on social media admitted the presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray. Speaking to residents of the Tigrayan capital, Mekele, he said, "An unwanted foreign force entered into our territory" during the fighting. He insisted Eritrea's army "entered our territory by itself, this has to be made clear.” However, it is widely believed the Eritrean military intrusion had at least the tacit approval of Ethiopia. 

The United Nations, in a report, expressed fears of a “massive community transmission” of Covid-19 in Tigray because of the collapse of health services because of the conflict. Humanitarian workers have only now begun to access the region. The report warned that Ethiopia, which has one of the highest Covid-19 caseloads in Africa, had begun to see daily cases decline but the months of fighting has interrupted pandemic work in Tigray for more than a month. 

The UN is also striving to get a team on the ground to investigate alleged human rights violations, including mass killings in Tigray. “If civilians were deliberately killed by a party or parties to the conflict, these killings would amount to war crimes and there needs to be, as I have stressed previously, independent, impartial, thorough and transparent investigations to establish accountability and ensure justice,” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said. Media reports speak of localised killings of civilians by all three of the military forces involved in the fighting.​​​​ 

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Chinese digital and telecom giant, Huawei Technologies, is positioning itself to get more business in Ethiopia as it opens up its telecommunications sector. “Ethiopia is rising and becoming much more important for the future,” Loise Tamalgo, Huawei’s head of public relations for sub-Saharan Africa, said in an interview. The company is likely to move a regional office covering about five nations from the Democratic Republic Congo to Ethiopia, where it currently only has a country office. The company plans to leverage its position as the main vendor of the state-owned monopoly Ethio Telecom to bid for other opportunities in the country.

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SOMALIA AND THE HORN

Somalia tried and failed to get the regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to reprimand Kenya in December. The other member-states of IGAD opposed Somalia’s proposal to send an independent investigation team to the border with Kenya. They urged Somalia to focus on its domestic election schedule and reconciliation programmes. Somalia accused Kenya of supporting border militia opposed to the government in Mogadishu. Kenya denies the charge. Somalia recently cut off diplomatic ties with Kenya. 

US naval ships deployed last month off the coast of Somalia to support the withdrawal of some 700 military personnel. The troop withdrawal follows orders from outgoing US President Donald Trump in December to end US military operations in Somalia by January 15th, though these operations are largely anti-terrorist in nature. The US military AFRICOM Commander General Stephen Townsend said, “To be clear, the US is not withdrawing or disengaging from East Africa. We also remain capable of striking al-Shabab at the time and place of our choosing – they should not test us.” The troops are largely moving to neighbouring Djibouti and Kenya. But their departure, just months before Somalia goes to the polls, and complemented by the withdrawal of 600 Ethiopian troops called away by the Tigrayan conflict leaves a security vacuum in Somalia. The US carried out two airstrikes against the Islamicist militia and Islamic State affiliate, Al Shabaab, in early January as a warning. 
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The UN Security Council declined to extend the mandate of the UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan’s Darfur region. Sudan, backed by Russia and a number of African governments, had argued the force was no longer necessary. The mandate expired on December 31st. 

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TOTAL SUSPENDS LNG WORK

Jihadist violence in Mozambique has forced the French energy firm, Total, to suspend work on its $ 15 billion LNG project in its northern province of Cabo Delgado, a project that is one-third owned by a consortium of Indian oil and gas firms. The project is the single-largest private sector investment in Africa. After rebels carried out a New Year’s Day attack on Quitunda village, next to the gas project site, Total evacuated most of its 3,000 workers. 

“In view of the evolving security situation in Cabo Delgado province” Total “decided to reduce the number of personnel present at the Afungi site,” the company announced in a statement. Total “is taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety and security of its staff and subcontractors,” its statement said.

The insurgents, known as Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jammah and allied to the Islamic State, have carried out a series of attacks that have moved closer to the site 27 square mile construction site. The LNG terminal is supposed to begin production in 2024. Local communities have begun forming self-defence militia composed of veterans of Mozambique’s independence war of the 1960s and 1970s. The fighting between the militia and the insurgents has become increasingly violent as a consequence. The Mozambican army has struggled to hold back the insurgents. 

The insurgents initially recruited from a local Islamicist sect, known there as Al Shabaab, which emerged in the province a decade ago but its message has become attractive to youth alienated by the lack of economic benefits from a growing number of external mineral investments. The terrorists have expanded their presence to almost all of Cabo Delgado’s 17 districts and control many of its key transport corridors. The strategy seems to be to depopulate the province which now has 570,000 displaced people out of a total population of two million. 
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TERROR IN THE SAHEL 

The past year has been the deadliest year of militant Islamicist violence in the Sahel, with an estimated 4,250 fatalities, an increase of 60% from 2019, said a report by the Pentagon’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is linked to more than half of these deaths. Established in 2015 as an offshoot of other terror groups in the region, ISGS has spread across Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, an area known locally as Liptako-Gourma. ISGS targets civilians in 45% and is particularly focused on controlling revenue-generation activities across the area. 

France could back talks with some jihadist elements in Africa’s restive Sahel region, a source in President Emmanuel Macron‘s office said in December. A dialogue with some elements of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) would be “possible” because their agenda was more local and opportunistic than other groups. France has more than 5,000 troops fighting jihadists in the region. Macron ruled out negotiating with jihadist groups in the Sahel last month, telling Jeune Afrique: “We don’t talk with terrorists. We fight.” The source said there could be no negotiation with Al-Qaeda, while talks with ISGS were also “neither possible nor requested by anybody in the region.” 

An international operation coordinated jointly by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the international police organization Interpol disrupted trafficking networks that supply terrorist groups across West Africa and the Sahel last month. Operation KAFO II targeted smuggling hotspots in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Niger over a seven-day period, resulting in the arrest of a number of suspected terrorists and the seizure of illicit firearms, ammunition and explosives. More than 260 officers from police, customs and other national services in the four countries participated in the operation which was conducted from 30 November to 6 December.

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SUCCESS OF AFRICAN SPRING

The past few years have seen a large number of mass protests in various African countries which have either overthrown autocratic governments or contributed to power transitions. The most impressive protests were those which overthrew the regime of long-time Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Analysis has shown the Sudanese protests were not spontaneous, but arose from a social movement rooted in Sudan’s grassroots opposition. The Algerian regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was brought down at about the same time. Other mass movements over the past several years have led to power transitions in Niger, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Senegal, Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The frequency of mass protests in Africa has increased more than 700% in the past decade, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. As important, non-violent protests in Africa have been more successful in achieving political aims than any other part of the world. Three reasons are given for the success of the African Street. 

One, the continent has been marked by inclusive movements, drawing in broad cross-sections of the population and cutting across ethnic, class and religious divides, unlike in the West where protestors are increasingly narrowing their bases of support. Some examples of this in Africa include the Sudanese Professionals Association which brought together people in healthcare, education and the legal professions and Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire who mobilised a coalition of youth, professional, working poor and even veterans of the country’s independence struggle of the 1970s. This inclusiveness helped protests to attract defections from security services, garner international support and win concessions from ruling elites. 

Two, the most successful social movements in Africa, while tactically using social media to mobilize large numbers of people, needed to build on a traditional civil society network. This combination was a key reason for the success of the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria which now merely organises protests, but provides legal aid, communication networks and raises funds. The South African protests that toppled the government of Jacob Zuma drew on many of the country’s powerful civic organisations. 

Third, African movements worked through both institutional mechanisms and the street to accomplish their goals. African reformers deliberately cultivated links with political parties, bureaucrats, economic elites and even the security system while mobilizing street performers. Senegal’s Y’en a Marre, while apolitical, organised meetings with local leaders and prominent citizens even while using hip-hop to excite youthful protestors. 

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Democracy is in retreat among African governments but popular support for the principle remains overwhelming, a number of analysts have noted. A 2019 survey of more than 30 countries by Afrobarometer showed three-quarters of African wanted free and open elections and otherwise express consistent support for multi-party democracy, direct elections of their leaders and presidential term limits. Unlike Asians, most Africans persist in the belief democracy is the surest path to development, says Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, Afrobarometer’s co-founder. 

Yet there are less functioning democracies in the continent these days. Africa’s autocrats have become adept at manipulating democratic norms to “deliver the appearance of democracy without its content.” Elections which are rigged or opposition leaders are hounded are common. Many leaders bend the constitution to breaking point to get around term limits. Soldiers donning civilian disguises is also common. Chidi Odinkalu of the Open Society Foundations reckons there are 21 ex-military men in power in Africa — including Angola, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe. Finally, governments are becoming less dependent on Western aid which was often tied to democratic reforms. Some countries turned to the Eurobond market for private commercial funds. More important has been the influence of China, the biggest lender to the continent for 20 years. “The model of authoritarian developmentalism has come from China,” says Mr Odinkalu. “And it comes with a spigot of Chinese money.”  

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BIG DATA SPY WAR

From 2013 onwards, the US Central Intelligence Agency began noticing that its operatives working in Africa and Europe were being surveilled and identified by their Chinese counterparts with amazing speed and ease. In the past it would have been assumed some sort of hack or a mole in the US agency was responsible. But the US spy agency concluded the reason was data. Thanks to China’s enormous accumulation of sensitive personal data, both legally and illegally, Chinese intelligence “had synthesized information from these massive, stolen caches to identify the undercover U.S. intelligence officials.”  The CIA’s Africa network seemed to have been the testing ground.   

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(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.