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Mugabe and Mandela: Same Experiences, Different Paths

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The careers of two of Africa’s most prominent politicians, Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela, have striking similarities.

After Mandela’s passing and Mugabe’s “late” letter of condolences to Mandela’s family, a central question surfaces. How history will judge them and will historians be fair to both men since Mugabe, in a rare television interview this year, criticized Mandela for being too soft on South Africa’s white minority after the end of apartheid. Mandela on the other hand never criticized Mugabe openly. Mandela simply did not want to scare off investment by alienating the country’s former leaders, who dominated the economy. Experts on Southern African politics note that the two men had a strained relationship as they silently fought for relevance on the global stage.

Both were born in an era when white power prevailed throughout Africa, Mandela in 1918, Mugabe in 1924. Mandela and Mugabe were among that generation of African decision-makers whose reputations were forged in the struggle against colonialism or white minority rule. It was hard for many to let go of power, succumbing to the temptations of authoritarian control and its material spoils. Both were products of the Christian mission school system, Mandela of the Methodist variety, Mugabe of the Catholic. Both attended the same university, Fort Hare in South Africa. Both emerged as members of the small African professional elite, Mandela a lawyer, Mugabe a teacher. Both were drawn into the struggle against white minority rule, Mandela in South Africa, Mugabe in neighboring Rhodesia. Both advocated violence to bring down white-run regimes. Both endured long terms of imprisonment, Mandela, 27 years, Mugabe, 11 years. Both suffered the anguish of losing a son while in prison and both were refused permission to attend the funeral.

It has been argued that Mandela used his prison years to open a dialogue with South Africa’s white rulers in order to defeat apartheid and Mugabe emerged from prison bent on revolution, determined to overthrow white society by force. However, few analysts note that Mugabe’s role was central in the 1980s reconciliation between blacks and whites in Zimbabwe. Mugabe has perhaps been somewhat discredited since he took principled stances on opposing apartheid rule and on racial reconciliation towards white Rhodesians in the new Zimbabwe. In this sense he somewhat preceded Mandela.

On the other hand, we should not also forget that despite its angry Marxist past and the fears expressed by the white minority, after winning the 1980 election Mugabe appeared as a model of moderation, pledging to work for reconciliation and racial harmony. Even the recalcitrant white leader, Ian Smith, who had previously denounced him as “the apostle of Satan,” now found him “sober and responsible”. In its first year of independence, Zimbabwe was awarded £900m in aid, enabling Mugabe to embark on ambitious programs of education and health development. The white population also benefited from the growing economic prosperity.

But crucially and in sharp contrast with Mandela, Mugabe crushed his black political opponents in 1982 and in 1987. He established a one-party state and favored the military’s role in politics. It is quite true that the economy halted in the mid-1990s and the land reform program financed by Britain came to a halt when it was discovered that Mugabe was handing out farms intended for peasant resettlement to his own cronies. By 2000, Zimbabweans were generally worse off than they had been at independence: average wages were lower, unemployment had skyrocketed, public services were crumbling and life expectancy was falling.

Again, roughly during the same period, 1999 and 2000, the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms by Mugabe loyalists disrupted Zimbabwe’s agriculture-based economy. After the farm seizures, Mugabe’s party demanded that companies not already owned by blacks yield 51 percent of assets and control. Zimbabwe, a former breadbasket, now relies on food imports. Mugabe after the emergence of the new opposition party the ‘Movement for Democratic Change’ (MDC) is charged with masterminding the killing of their supporters. Mandela on the other hand, stepped down in 1999 after a single five-year presidential term, during which he preached reconciliation. The decision not to seek a second term, a disappointment to his followers, fit with his insistence that leadership was a collective effort, not an individual one. It could also be seen as a message to other continental leaders who had opted to stay in power.

Furthermore it was Mandela’s moral stature that made him more respected than Mugabe as he never had a Swiss bank account nor other excesses that come with ruling with an iron fist. Mandela never arrested a critic or anyone who disagreed with him. Many other leaders have labeled critics as “terrorists,” “saboteurs,” “counter-revolutionaries,” “colonial stooges,” etc. to be liquidated. One can even be jailed for saying that the president is not well.

Evidently, Mandela’s work is unfinished. President Jacob Zuma was acquitted of rape, but history will judge him harshly for his lack of leadership and judgment. Still, for all that, it is better to have the promise of democracy and transition than the bitter aftertaste of a revolution gone awry.

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‘Full scale’ humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray

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Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

A “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in eastern Sudan, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported on Tuesday. 

More than 27,000 have now crossed into Sudan through crossing points in Kassala and Gedaref states, as well as a new location further south at Aderafi, where Ethiopian refugees started crossing over the weekend, according to UNHCR

The scale of the influx is the worst that part of the country has seen in over 20 years, according to the agency. 

“Women, men and children have been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since 10 November, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground,” said Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesperson, briefing reporters in Geneva. 

“Refugees fleeing the fighting continue to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings”, he added. 

According to news reports, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has indicated the military operation that was launched in response to the reported occupation of a Government military base by Tigrayan forces nearly two weeks ago, would continue, although he said it was now in its “final phase”.  

‘Needs continue to grow’ 

UN agencies, along with relief partners have ramped up assistance – delivering food rations, hot meals and clean water, as well as setting up latrines and temporary shelters. They are also supporting the Sudanese Government in its response. But the needs continue to grow.  

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is also supporting other humanitarian workers in its response, providing fuel for vehicles and generators in remote locations. The UN Humanitarian Air Service, managed by WFP, has also increased flights from three times per week to daily flights for aid workers. 

Since Saturday, UNHCR has relocated 2,500 refugees from the border to Um Raquba settlement site, in eastern Sudan. There is however, a “critical need” to identify more sites so that refugees can be relocated away from the border and can access assistance and services, said Mr. Baloch. 

UNHCR has also issued an emergency fundraising appeal, through which people can help provide urgent, lifesaving assistance to refugees. Click here to make a donation

‘On standby’ in Tigray 

Meanwhile in the Tigray region of Ethiopia itself, lack of electricity, telecommunications, fuel and cash, continue to severely hamper any humanitarian response, the UNHCR spokesperson said.  

“After nearly two weeks of conflict, reports of larger numbers of internally displaced grow daily, while the lack of access to those in need, coupled with the inability to move in goods to the region, remain major impediments to providing assistance,” he said. 

UNHCR and partners are on standby to provide assistance to the displaced in Tigray, including basic items, when access and security allow. 

The conflict is also a major ongoing concern for the Eritrean refugee population of nearly 100,000 in Tigray, who are reliant on assistance from UNHCR and partners.  

“Potential for further displacement of refugees inside the country is increasingly a real possibility … The humanitarian situation as result of this crisis is growing rapidly” he warned, reiterating UNCHR’s call for peace and urge all parties to respect the safety and security for all civilians in Tigray.

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Russia to Build Naval Facility in Sudan

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Emerging from the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi a year ago, Russia will make one huge stride by establishing a naval facility in Sudan. This marks its maritime security presence in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region. Sharing a northern border with Egypt, Sudan is located on the same strategic coastline along the Red Sea.

According to the executive order, the published document says “the proposal from the government of the Russian Federation to sign an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Sudan on creating a facility of the Navy of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Republic of Sudan be adopted.”

It also authorizes “the Defense Ministry of Russia to sign the aforementioned agreement on behalf of the Russian Federation.” The document stipulates that a maximum of four warships may stay at the naval logistics base, including “naval ships with the nuclear propulsion system on condition of observing nuclear and environmental safety norms.”

Earlier, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved the draft agreement on establishing a naval logistics base in Sudan and gave instructions to submit the proposal to the president for signing. The draft agreement on the naval logistics facility was submitted by Russia’s Defense Ministry, approved by the Foreign Ministry, the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee of Russia and preliminary agreed with the Sudanese side.

As the draft agreement says, the Russian Navy’s logistics facility in Sudan “meets the goals of maintaining peace and stability in the region, is defensive and is not aimed against other countries.”

The signing of the document by the Russia president shows the positive results of negotiations, the possibility of constructing a naval base in the region, over the years with African countries along the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean.

During a visit by then-President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir to Moscow in November 2017, agreements were reached on Russia’s assistance in modernizing the Sudanese armed forces. Khartoum also said at the time it was interested in discussing the issue of using Red Sea bases with Moscow.

On the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Russia had a naval base in Somalia during the Soviet days. Currently, Djibouti hosts Chinese and American naval bases. China’s military base in Djibouti was set up to support five mission areas. India is another Asian nation that has increased its naval presence in Africa. In order to protect its commercial sea-lanes from piracy, it has established a network of military facilities across the Indian Ocean.

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Will South Sudan follow its northern neighbour’s lead?

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As the world watches to see whether President Trump accepts the US election results, few have noticed thatcivil war is looming in Ethiopia, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he was sending troops to the Tigray province. This imperils not only Africa’s second most populous state but its neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, as well.

Sudan has had a good run recently and is in a better position to weather any regional conflict. In a surprise movelast month, President Trump announced Sudan’s removal from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SST)in exchange for normalising relations with Israel. The US is understood to have sweetened the deal with a raft of economic and political incentives, including humanitarian assistance and high-level trade delegations. It would also support Sudan in its discussions with international finance institutions on economic and debt relief.

Since the toppling of President Bashir in 2019, the new transitional government, led by Prime Minister Hamdok, has focused on reviving Sudan’s economy and managing its $60bn debt burden. Hamdok faces a severe economic crisis, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, high inflation and the worst flooding in decades, that has affected more than 800,000 people and destroyed homes and large tracts of farmland just before the harvest. Food, bread and medicine are in short supply.

Thesanctions removal means that Sudan can now expect substantial assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bankand unlock investment into its fledgling economy.

This is good news for Sudan. But where does it leave its neighbour, South Sudan?

The international community had high hopes for South Sudan when it announced independence in 2011. But its optimism was misplaced. It never understood the Sudanese conflict that began with British colonialism and erupted after the British left in 1956. It wasn’t just a war between the Government of Sudan and the southern Sudanese rebels. Nor was it a fight between the Islamic North and the Christian South. It was a fight over resources and power.

South Sudan continues to fight. After its first post-independence civil war in 2013 and its endless cycle of violence and retribution, South Sudan is now as unstable as it was before it seceded from Sudan. To accommodate the different factions and keep old military men in power, the South Sudanese government and bureaucracy is peopled with those loyal to the former rebels.

Few have the skills needed to manage the country properly. They have squandered their oil opportunity, through mismanagement and corruption. With falling oil growth demand, oil is unlikely to remaina sustainable revenue source. This will challenge the South Sudanese economy which is 90% reliant on oil.

South Sudan is also facing multiple sanctions. In 2014, the international communityimposed travel bans and asset freezes, as well as an arms embargo. In 2018, the EU designated sanctions against individuals involved in serious human rights violations, alarmed  by “the outbreak of a destructive conflict between the Government of South Sudan and opposition forces in December 2013.” Most recently, the US added First Vice President of South Sudan, Taban Deng Gai to its Global Magnitsky sanctions list for his involvement in the disappearance and deaths of human rights lawyer Samuel Dong Luak and SPLM-IO member Aggrey Idry.

If US foreign policy towards Sudan was driven by religious and ideological interests in the 1990s and 2000s, what we are now seeing is a shift to transactional diplomacy. There is no reason to think that President Biden would change course.

South Sudan is watching closely. It may be why it has instructed a US lobbying  firm to allegedly lobby for their own sanctions removal. It is also why it welcomed a peace deal between Sudan and five rebel groups in September, paving the way for increased oil export cooperation with its neighbour. 

But stability in the youngest African state is fragile. Even with a recently signed peace agreement between former foes, President Kiir and Vice-President Machar, violence is always lurking. South Sudan is plagued with the same environmental challenges of flooding and poor harvests.  The fighting in Ethiopia will not help. 

As South Sudan looks to the North, it will see a New Sudan, unshackled by the weight of its history and benefitting from international goodwill. Will this encourage South Sudan to look forward instead of back? Or will it unleash demons from the past? 

Let’s hope that the international community pulls itself away from Trump’s horror show and starts paying attention to East Africa. It may be a long winter.

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