Ethiopian Province Rebels

A spreading military confrontation between the Ethiopian regime of President Abiy Ahmed and the Tigrayan provincial government could become a larger regional struggle, drawing in neighbouring Eritrea and Sudan. 

Tigrayans, a small ethnic group in northern Ethiopia, wield disproportionate political influence thanks to their lead role in overthrowing the military regime in 1991. Since then, Ethiopia has been ruled by a coalition of regional parties representing the major ethnic groups. Abiy is the first president drawn from the Oromo, the largest ethnic group, but is also allied to the Amhara, the second largest. 

Since coming to power in 2018, Ahmed has freed political prisoners, attacked corruption, signed a peace agreement with Eritrea and launched a new political party to which all non-Tigrayan regional parties have since joined. These moves have all helped undermine Tigrayan political power. Things came to ahead when Tigrayan troops reportedly raided an army arsenal and captured heavy weapons. Abiy on November 4th ordered airstrikes and sent the army into the rebellious province in what he called a “law enforcement exercise.”

The Ethiopian army has moved along three axes into Tigray. One axis is designed to cut off Tigray from Sudan, the neighbour with the closest links to the Tigrayan leadership. Tigrayan special forces and militia number over 250,000. Some 15,000 Ethiopian army soldiers based in Tigray seem to have joined the rebellion. Tigrayan are considered the most battle-hardened of Ethiopian soldiers.

This civil conflict could spread across borders. Eritrea has a tense history with the Tigrayans and has deployed soldiers along its border with Tigray. The rebels fired missiles at Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, presumably a warning against involvement. Sudan has strained ties with Addis Ababa thanks to the Fashqa land dispute and concerns over a new Ethiopian dam across the Blue Nile. Sudan can lengthen the Tigrayan conflict if it supplies weapons and money to the rebels. So far, Khartoum has preferred neutrality though it will be tempted to demand concessions from Abiy on either Fashqa or the dam. Egypt, also unhappy with the dam, announced it had sent military forces to Sudan for a joint military exercise set to last until November 26th

The Tigrayan conflict, said one commentator, extends “an evolving arc of crisis that stretches from the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict in the Caucasus, civil wars in Syria and Libya, and mounting tension in the Eastern Mediterranean into the strategic Horn of Africa.”


Democracies in Turmoil

Cote d'Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara invited opposition leader Henri Konan Bedie “for an open and sincere dialogue to help to restore confidence” in mid-November. Ouattara won a third term in the country’s October 31st election in a landslide, a victory validated by the highest court. But opposition leaders boycotted the vote and have said they will establish a rival government. Around 50 people have been killed in election-linked violence since August. The opposition say Ouattara violated a constitutional two-term limit. He says the ban was removed in 2016. One opposition leader, formerly an ally of Ouattara, Guillaume Soro, called for the Ivorian army to mutiny and join the opposition government.

Tanzania’s opposition leader Tundu Lisse was escorted out of the country on November 10th under the protection of the United States, Belgian and German ambassadors. He had earlier taken refuge in the German Embassy in Dar es Salaam, claiming he was “not safe” and calling the recent national elections a “butchery of democracy.” Incumbent President John Magufuli won re-election in a contest marred by a media crackdown, cases of ballot stuffing and, according to the United Nations human rights chief, the arrest of nearly 150 opposition politicians. Lisse claims he was beaten by police and orders were issued to kill him. Magufuli admits the election faced a “few challenges” but says they were otherwise peaceful. Lisse has said he will be in Belgium for medical treatment and then plans to return.

Nationwide protests, largely by youth, against police brutality rocked Nigeria in late October after a young man was shot dead by police. The worst civil strife in a generation culminated in police shooting dead a dozen protestors. The government has since been suspending bank accounts and travel documents of those involved but has also called for a dialogue with youth leaders. Nigeria’s police have a reputation for abusing their power. One federal police body, the Special Anti-Robbery Squads, was targeted by the protests. The squads were set up in the 1990s to handle a spurt of robberies but have since become infamous for arbitrary arrests, torture and targeting youth. Commentators say youth anger reflects a larger sense of discontent over jobs, corruption and political paralysis in Nigeria. 

November 10 happened to be the 25th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other environmental  activists by the Nigerian military regime of Sani Abacha. Saro-Wiwa had led a two-year protest by the Ogoni people against pollution and natural resource exploitation. They were  charged with murder and, despite international protests, executed.

​​​​Terror and Security

Islamicist militants captured two district capitals in mid-November and, in earlier attacks, beheaded more than 50 people during attacks on several villages in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique, according to media reports. The militants, part of a shadowy group linked to the Islamic State, were reported to have driven villagers onto a football pitch before murdering them. Cabo Delgado province has been ravaged by terrorist activity for nearly three years, fueled by perceived neglect of the region by the national government. India is among the major investors in a $ 15 billion LNG terminal in the province.

France has persuaded Sweden and Estonia to contribute soldiers to a new anti-jihadist force to fight the growing Islamicist terror problem in the Sahel. The new Task Force Takuba, deployed initially along the Mali-Burkina Faso border region, marks the first pan-European military force in the region. France has deployed over 5,000 troops there since 2013. Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom have publicly committed to sending troops. President Donald Trump has been trying to bring home the US special counter-terrorism force in the region.

The African Union’s (AU) peace and security council, at an October 28 meeting, failed to agree on creating a special counter-terrorism unit within the African Standby Force. The AU in February had called for such a unit to be considered. Africa is experiencing a surge in terrorist activity, with an 18% annual increase terrorism, and incidents spreading from the Sahel to the Great Lakes, Mozambique and even southern Africa. 

Analysts say a new counterterrorism policy should look beyond purely military responses and address the social causes of radicalisation. One advantage of a hybrid counter-terrorism strategy is that could be defined a “peace-supporting operation” and access funds from the AU’s Peace Fund. The creation of a counter-terrorism unit would also help bring coherence to the patchwork of counter-terrorism operations spread across Africa. Others feel there is a benefit in such an ad hoc approach given the ever-changing nature of the threat.

A draft bilateral agreement between Sudan and Russia, posted on a Russian government website on November 11th, would allow for a Russian naval logistics base on the Sudanese coast. While providing an operational base for naval activity in the Indian Ocean, it would allow Russia to position up to four warships and 300 personnel, including nuclear-powered vessels, at the base.

Nigeria has received and deployed four Chinese armed drones for use against Boko Haram and other insurgents in the north of the country. The drones, probably CASC CH-4s, have already been sent to Zamfara state in the north where a base for their use is under construction.

India and Africa

ONGC Videsh has entered into a “definitive agreement” to buy Australian firm FAR’s stake in the $ 4.2 billion Rufisque-Sangomar offshore oilfield in Senegal. FAR is selling its 13.6% stake in the exploitation area and 15% in the contract area of the oilfield. OVL is believed to be offering $ 111 million for the share with further pay outs once oil production begins. This is a distress sale by FAR caused by the oil price crash. If the deal goes through, it would be OVL’s first overseas acquisition in four years. Final say lies with Woodside Energy, another Australian firm, which owns 68% of the oilfield and has first right of refusal for FAR’s share. OVL would be getting the share at a 60% discount compared to offers made for the oilfield in August. Sangomar is believed to hold about five billion barrels of oil.

The Indian naval ship INS Airavat delivered 50 million tonnes of emergency food to the small strategic country of Djibouti on November 10th. The naval ship had already provided wheat flour, rice and sugar to Sudan and Eritrea and is scheduled to offload more for South Sudan for a total of 270 million tonnes of food aid. The deliveries are part of India’s Sagar-2 aid mission for littoral African countries affected by the pandemic and natural disasters. Sagar-1 saw India provide food aid to the island states of Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, and Seychelles. The programme is designed to have these countries see India as the first responder in case of a humanitarian crisis. 

The Indian Navy has said its contribution to the Sagar initiatives are designed to promote “collaboration and cooperation” among friendly countries in the Indian Ocean region. This is the first element in its “three lines of effort” which include enhancing “India’s positive influence in the region” and increasing the  “reach and sustenance” of Indian influence.

The Indian-born United Nations diplomat and anti-apartheid activist Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy died at the age of 96 on November 1.  Reddy was secretary of the UN's Special Committee against Apartheid 1963-1965, director of its Centre against Apartheid 1976-1983, and UN assistant secretary-general 1983-1985. As head of the UN Trust for South Africa, Reddy routed large amounts of official funds to the anti-apartheid resistance, later admitting that if everything he had done was ever known he would have lost his job. His father was a compatriot of Mahatma Gandhi. Reddy began working with the UN in 1949, but became interested in apartheid after a chance meeting with an African National Congress leader. A tireless advocate for economic sanctions against South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela, Reddy once said he was motivated “by a feeling that I had not made enough sacrifice for India's freedom, so I should compensate by doing what I can for the rest of the colonies.” Reddy, who became a South African citizen, received a number of awards for his activities including a Padma Shri and the Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo from South Africa.

Economic Developments

Nigeria’s Federal Executive Council ratified the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) in mid-November, kicking of the implementation of the continent-wide free trade agreement. The ACFTA ratification process was supposed to have begun in July this year but was held up mainly because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Zimbabwe and other African governments have stated their readiness to implement the treaty in the next few months. Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast, says the World Bank, will be among the prime beneficiaries of the new free trade agreement. 

ACFTA, negotiated last year, is designed to create a single African market with the free flow of services and goods among all its members. When completed, it would create the largest free trade area in the world with a trillion consumers and a total GDP of $ 3 trillion – about the same as India. It would also help promote intra-African trade which amount to only 16.6% of Africa’s total exports. 

Indonesia announced it was in the process of ratifying its first comprehensive economic partnership with an African country, in this case Mozambique.

Chinese port building is consolidating its hold in the Horn of Africa. Haidob port on Sudan’s Red Sea coast is scheduled to be completed at the end of the year and is expected to be a hub for Sudanese livestock exports. Sudan’s port operator described it as the latest element of the Belt Road Initiative. The port is being constructed by China Harbour Engineering for $ 141 million. China is also financing two ports in the enclave nation of Djibouti. 

In early November, after a gap of several years because of sanctions, Sudanese trade ministry official met US embassy representatives in Khartoum and discussed Sudan’s potential accession to the World Trade Organisation.  The new government in Sudan is on the verge of ending nearly three decades of Western economic sanctions, particularly crippling following the break off its oil-rich southern provinces. Livestock and gum arabic exports are seen as potential growth drivers for the country.

Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and Tanzania are among the African countries who have used technology to increase digital financial inclusion among their citizens. Like India, they leveraged the widespread use of mobile phones to connect people to the financial system and used these links to help the poor during the pandemic. 

The Central Bank of Kenya used fee waivers and greater flexibility for low-value money transactions to add more than 1.6 million largely poor customers to its network. Rwanda waived all fees in March and saw the weekly value of its mobile money transactions increase 450% by April-end. 

An IMF blog on the use of mobile phone financial transactions during the pandemic said such policies succeeded if people’s needs were at the centre of the financial system, digital infrastructure and digital identification was available to all classes, and governance of global digital financial platforms was strengthened.

A sign of Africa’s increasing digitalisation is the large investments in data centres across the continent. Teraco Data Environments has begun constructing what will be the largest data centre in the continent. The new centre, called JB4, will be just east of Johannesburg and will have 50,000 square meters of building space and 38 MW of critical power load. Liquid Telecom raised $ 370 million in October to finance building data centres in five African countries including Ghana and Nigeria. Another firm, Raxio, announced plans to build 10 to 12 data centres in east and central Africa with the first one in Ethiopia, followed by Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Africa has doubled its data centre capacity in the past three years but is racing to keep ahead of surging demand.

The relative success of Sino-French commercial collaboration in Africa is analysed in a report by Johns Hopkins University’s China Africa Research Institute. In contrast, attempts to foster government-to-government cooperation in Africa have gone nowhere as Paris has become warier of Beijing’s ambitions. 

The first phase of Sino-French commercial work was instigated by African governments wishing to combine French technical expertise with Chinese low costs. An example is the Cote d’Ivoire government’s bringing together of French contractor Tractebel-Engie, the Chinese subsidiary of French turbine maker Alstom and Chinese construction firm Sinohydro to build the Soubre Dam between 2013 and 2017. 

The second stage of collaboration has been Chinese and French multinationals jointly handling contracts financed with Chinese money. Since China’s Eximbank can only provide funds for a contract won by a Chinese firm, a Chinese partner is needed by the French firm. But the latter’s presence reassures Africans government about the quality and viability of the project. In 2016, in the building of Cameroon’s Kribi port, the original contractors were two French transport and maritime firms, Bollore and CMA-CGM. To access Chinese finance, the China Harbour Engineering Company was added to the consortium. 

Though the idea was floated in 2013, Sino-French official economic cooperation in third countries has never taken off. The two government failed to align on a number of points, including the amount of funds and the role of African governments. French private firms were also unenthusiastic. By 2020, the French declined to issue any statement about the planned cooperation even while Chinese statements continued to mention it. 

French and Chinese Business Cooperation in Africa

Biden and Africa

The incoming US president, Joe Biden, laid out a number of Africa-friendly during his campaign. A Biden-Harris Agenda for the Diaspora praised Africans living in the United States, supported a more open immigration policy and called for an active US policy regarding economic growth and democracy in Africa. It also said it would continue Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. The agenda notably avoided promising greater aid for Africa or a greater US commitment to Africa’s security challenges. 

A lengthy analysis of the US’s interests in maintaining a military and security presence in Africa was written by Katherine Zimmerman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. The article argues the US reaps considerable benefits from its military role in Africa for relatively little cost. “China, Russia, and the Salafi-jihadi movement are all poised to seize opportunities as they present themselves—and America’s absence will only make those occurrences more frequent,” says the author.

A new US administration could mean more African debt relief if it allows the IMF to provide additional financing through Special Drawing Rights (SDR). The need for further action reflects the limitations of the G-20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). The DSSI covered only bilateral debt through the end of 2020 for the poorest African countries. The DSSI was extended in October but only for six more months. The DSSI was given a short timeframe because of difficulties in getting China and private creditors on board. China holds 20% of all African debt, the private sector 32% and multilateral financial institutions the rest. Many African governments feared accepting the DSSI and its repayment moratorium would meab a credit rating downgrade and the loss of access to private capital. 

The idea of using SDRs, which would have avoided these pitfalls, was rejected by the Trump administration because it would have included under-sanctions Iran. The SDRS would have been “game changing” because they would provide liquidity rather than merely stopping debt repayments. France has called for a summit in May 2021 to discuss alternative financing and private investment mechanisms for Africa. Complex OECD rules regarding aid have made it impossible for Europe to compete with China in providing financial assistance to Africa.

Africa's most wanted

Félicien Kabuga, a Rwandan businessman accused of organising, financing and directing the Rwandan genocide, was considered the most wanted in Africa and the US alone had a $ 5 million award for his capture. Kabuga was arrested in November in a suburb of Paris in May this year. He is expected to face trial in Tanzania in December though his lawyers have appealed for his case to be transferred to the Hague.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had indicted him 1997. But thanks to the support of groups in several African governments and the use of dozens of aliases and false passports, Kabuga avoided capture for decades. The Financial Times has a lengthy story describing the international manhunt that led to the capture of Kabuga.

(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.