Africa Digest - November 2019

Focus: Terror Threat Widens in West Africa

Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups upped their attacks across the Sahel region of West Africa in November and December, feeding off local ethnic and resource disputes. The year 2019 saw a record 700 attacks in the central Sahel region of the continent.
A twin attack on Christmas Eve in Burkina Faso against a military base and the town of Arbinda left 42 soldiers and civilians dead. Though no group has claimed responsibility, the attack mimics those carried out against Burkina Faso by Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliates in the region. On the same day, Boko Haram killed seven people near the town of Chibok. The three attacks come on the heels of a December 10 attack when Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) fighters attacked a Niger army camp in Inates and killed over 70 soldiers. A November raid led to the deaths of 24 Malian soldiers.
Improving regional cooperation to tackle the terror threat was a main theme at the last Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) summit in Nigeria that took place soon after the attack. The 15 ECOWAS leaders met soon after the Inates attack. French President Emmanuel Macron, during a state visit to Cote d’Ivoire, warned that the next few weeks would be “absolutely decisive” in counter-terrorism in the region.
The United Nations special representative for the region, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, warned the Security Council in December that “religious violence has been exceptionally brutal, particularly in Burkina Faso, which has experienced unprecedented anti-Christian attacks and similar patterns of targeted religious violence in Niger.”
Deeper Looks at Sahel Terror: Since Boko Haram began its armed campaign in northern Nigeria in 2009 the terror group and various spinoff groups have spread to Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and beyond. Sahel terror groups now include ISWAP, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin and other affiliates, most of whom have declared allegiance to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Over two million people have been displaced by the violence and a total of 4776 people killed in the Sahel between November 2018 and March 2019, says Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Rivalries between the terror groups mean they occasionally fight each other.
An International Crisis Group report after the Niger attack analysed the complex interplay of tribal and environmental issues helping feed the rise of Islamicist terror in the region. Besides the Islamic State affiliates, there are several Al Qaeda groups under the banner of Group to Support Islam and Muslims. The Islamic State has now spread into all the three major Sahel ethnic groups, assassinated local chieftains and threatened tribes that join the government forces. “In barely a year, Inates had therefore gone from a little-known and long-neglected border zone to featuring prominently in a glossy Islamic State publication,” noted the report.
An Africa Center for Strategic Studies report noted there are three broad terror networks operating in the central Sahel region and that violence has doubled every year since 2015. “Employing asymmetric tactics and close coordination,” the report notes, the groups recruit and spread by “amplifying local grievances and intercommunal differences”.
Trump Wants US Withdrawal: The battle against Sahel terror will be crippled if US President Donald Trump goes through with his declared plans to shut down the US military’s counterterrorism efforts in the region. Roughly 7,000 US troops and a network of bases, including a large drone base in Niger, along with considerable French military commitment have been the backbone of Western efforts to fight the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in the region. US Defence Secretary Mike Espers has given the Pentagon until January to draw up a plan on how the US can wind down its African operations with the idea the freed resources can be used to counter Russia and China. There are voices in the US warning the US’s shrinking African footprint is creating a vacuum being discreetly filled in by Russia. One report says Trump is considering appointing a special envoy for the region to help coordinate regional counterterrorism efforts.
Trafficking Funds Militancy: African migrants and the profits made from trafficking have become a major source of funding for organised crime and terrorist groups in the region. Human smuggling along the trans-Sahara routes alone creates a market worth $ 765 million annually, says one report. “A significant share of this flows to criminal and violent extremist groups” including the terror groups in the Sahel region. Southern Europe continues to intercept an average of 78,000 African migrants a year. But the main migration patterns are within Africa, with nearly one million economic migrants moving from one part of the continent to another.

Sudanese Mercenaries for Yemen

The civil war in Yemen has become a major source of employment for men and boys of Darfur province in Sudan. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a militia accused by human rights groups of atrocities in Sudan, has become a mercenary recruitment and training centre.

The primary attraction for Darfur men is the pay. A six-month deployment in Yemen will earn a RSF foot soldier a million Sudanese pounds (around £17,000), more money than a poor person will earn in a lifetime. Officers’s salaries are double that while child soldiers make about half. The Sudanese mercenary presence peaked in 2017 at about 40,000 soldiers with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates the primary funders.

The past five years have also seen many of the fighters, now wealthy and trained, returning to Darfur and increasing tribal and sectarian tensions within the Sudanese province. “The war in Yemen has been the biggest employer in Darfur and is the main way out of poverty for the youth,” said one RSF captain, who returned from fighting in southwest Yemen at the start of the year.

West African CFA Becomes the Eco

The CFA franc will be renamed and reworked under a new agreement between France and its eight West African users, seven former French colonies and Guinea-Bissau. The new currency has been dubbed the Eco. It will remain pegged to the euro but African governments will no longer have to keep half their foreign exchange reserves in the French Treasury as was the case with the original CFA franc. Paris also agreed it would no longer have a representative on the currency union’s board.

Critics note the currency peg means a key problem of the CFA franc will continue with the Eco. Namely, the currency’s value will be determined by the monetary policies of Europe. Yet the African economies have markedly different levels of competitiveness and economic structures from each other, let alone with the eurozone. In the past, an overvalued CFA franc caused considerable damage to the African countries’ exports and drove up inflation. Supporters argue the peg helps ensure stability in a continent prone to hyperinflation and currency crises.

The original CFA franc was used by 14 West African countries with a combined population of 150 million and a GDP of $ 235 billion. The Central African version of the CFA is separate and will remain untouched by the new arrangement.

Gambia Drags Myanmar to Court

A case of genocide has been filed against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice by the small West African state of Gambia in defence of the Rohingya people. Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had to fly to the Hague in mid-December to speak in defence of her government. Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou led the opposing delegation. Suu Kyi argued Myanmar’s military actions against the Rohingyas was a response to a violent insurgency in the Rakhine State.

Tambadou took up the cause after visiting Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year. He said afterwards that what he saw and heard convinced him that a case of genocide could be made against Myanmar. A human rights lawyer by training, the minister had served on the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal set up to prosecute the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Gambia has received widespread cause for taking up the cause when larger Muslim countries have preferred to mute their criticism. Rohingya refugees watching the court proceedings are reported to have chanted “Gambia, Gambia.” The court is expected to rule sometime in January though there is little reason to believe it will have any impact on Myanmar’s policies.

India’s Piracy Problem

Twenty Indians were kidnapped from an oil tanker off the coast of Togo in late December. An earlier incident, on December 3, saw 19 Indian crewmen kidnapped in the Gulf of Guinea. They were released about twenty days later. The two incidents highlight the growth of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea which has in many ways replaced Somali as centre of piracy. As India imports ever more crude from Africa, including countries along the Gulf of Guinea like Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, the chances of shipments to India being intercepted are rising.


Africa considers Indian N-reactors

African governments have expressed interest in acquiring India’s small 220 MW pressurised heavy water reactors. The interest follows the difficulties faced by some governments thanks to a sharp drop in hydroelectric power thanks to drought and climate change. Zimbabwe and other southern African countries are experiencing unusually severe rainfall shortages. The small reactors are a workhorse of the Indian nuclear programme and cost half or less of similar reactors from other countries.

Ndjamena is Africa’s Most Expensive City

Chad may be among the poorest countries in the world, but its capital Ndjamena is the most expensive in Africa and the 11th most expensive in the world. The rating reflects the prices paid by expatriates, but most local residents complain that rents and food prices in the city are prohibitive. This reflects the lack of infrastructure, the country’s oil wealth and the need for most supplies to be brought to the city from long distances, often by aircraft. A World Bank study says African cities are 20 per cent more expensive than cities in other countries with comparable incomes because of similar inefficiencies.

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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.