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Russia joins Gulf states in coaching Sudan’s military

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Russia has emerged as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ silent partner in assisting the Sudanese military’s efforts to weaken, if not defeat a months-long popular revolt that has already toppled president Omar al-Bashir.

Documents leaked to The Guardian and MHK Media, a Russian-language news website, by the London-based Dossier Centre, an investigative group funded by exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, disclosed Russia’s hitherto behind-the-scenes role in Sudan.

Laying out plans to bolster Russia’s position across Africa by building relations with rulers, striking military deals, and grooming a new generation of leaders and undercover agents, the documents included details of a campaign to smear anti-government protesters in Sudan.

The plan for the campaign appeared to have been copy-pasted from proposals to counter opposition in Russia to president Vladimir Putin with references to Russia mistakenly not having been replaced with Sudan in one document.

Russia advised the Sudanese military to use fake news and videos to portray demonstrators as anti-Islamic, pro-Israeli and pro-LGBT. The plan also suggested increasing the price of newsprint to make it harder for critics to get their message out and to discover “foreigners” at anti-government rallies.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg-based businessman and close associate of Mr. Putin, complained in a letter to Mr. Bashir before he was overthrown that the president was not following his advice.

Mr. Prigozhin, who was indicted by US special counsel Robert Mueller for operating a troll factory that ran an extensive social media campaign that favoured of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was according to the documents a key player in efforts to enhance Russian influence in Africa.

Mr. Prigozhin accused Mr. Bashir and his government of not being active enough and adopting an “extremely cautious position.”

If a visit this week to Sudan by foreign journalists at the invitation of the military to show them medical facilities that had allegedly been ransacked by protesters and demonstrate that hospitals that had been attacked by notorious paramilitary forces associated with Sudanese army were returning to normal, is anything to go by, Mr. Prigozhin’s criticism may have merit.

“It must have seemed like a good idea to somebody, although I cannot imagine why. The plan was to show us how terribly the protesters had behaved. If the world could see what they were really like they would understand that the regime had no choice but to send in the militia. Except from the moment we arrived at the first medical facility things started to go wrong,” said the BBC’s Africa editor, Fergal Keane.

To Mr. Keane, the omnipresence of paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) made the paramilitary headed by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo aka Hemedti, believed to be a Saudi and UAE favourite because his troops fought in Yemen and his reputation for ruthlessness, look “more like an army of occupation than an internal security force.”

Widely viewed as ambitious and power hungry, General Dagalo resembles in the eyes of protesters Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the autocratic general-turned-president who in 2013 staged a Saudi-UAE-backed military coup that toppled Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

Defending the UAE’s contacts with the military council, Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said his country’s “credibility is our means to contribute to enhancing peaceful transition in a way that preserves the state and its institutions.”

Human Rights Watch this week called on the United Nations Security Council to halt the withdrawal of peacekeepers from Darfur, noting that the Rapid Support Forces “have a long track record of abuse. They carried out highly abusive counter-insurgency campaigns in Darfur, and the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile regions over the past five years, in which they attacked villages, killed and raped civilians, and burned and looted homes.”

Witnesses outside a medical facility and a hospital that Mr. Keane visited countered the military’s tale, describing how troops stormed the buildings and looted and destroyed facilities. “”The international community has to intervene. There is no peace here in Sudan. People are suffering a lot… I am frightened for my country,” said a man as he drove by Omdurman Hospital.

The failed public relations tour, the crackdown, the Russian guidance and stalled talks between protesters and the military fits a Saudi-UAE promoted pattern that has evolved across the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 popular Arab revolts. It’s a pattern that aims to defeat popular protest at whatever cost.

The Sudanese protest movement has emerged from the crackdown that doctors said killed at least 118 people and efforts to delegitimize it battered, divided and potentially weakened but still standing.

A general strike declared at the beginning of this week initially paralyzed the capital Khartoum but within a day or two appeared to be weakening.

Ethiopian mediator Mahmoud Dirir said on Tuesday that the protesters had agreed to end the strike while the governing Transitional Military Council (TMC), headed by officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was ready to release political prisoners, one of several key demands of the protesters.

Mr. Dirir said the two sides had also agreed to “soon” resume talks to resolve the crisis even if they were nowhere near narrowing differences of returning Sudan to civilian rule. It was not clear what soon meant.

“Negotiation – even if it happens soon – will circle back to the same issue: will the military cede power to a civilian government? Nothing about the generals’ actions has indicated that this is an imminent possibility. The fear is that they will use any negotiations to try to divide the opposition while security pressure is maintained on the streets,” Mr. Keane said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Decade of Sahel conflict leaves 2.5 million people displaced

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Two displaced women sit at a camp in Awaradi, Niger. © UNOCHA/Eve Sabbagh

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called on Friday for concerted international action to end armed conflict in Africa’s central Sahel region, which has forced more than 2.5 million people to flee their homes in the last decade.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva, the agency’s spokesperson, Boris Cheshirkov, informed that internal displacement has increased tenfold since 2013, going from 217,000 to a staggering 2.1 million by late last year.

The number of refugees in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger now stands at 410,000, and the majority comes from Mali, where major civil conflict erupted in 2012, leading to a failed coup and an on-going extremist insurgency.

Increase in one year

Just last year, a surge in violent attacks across the region displaced nearly 500,000 people (figures for December still pending).

According to estimates from UN partners, armed groups carried out more than 800 deadly attacks in 2021. 

This violence uprooted some 450,000 people within their countries and forced a further 36,000 to flee into a neighbouring country.

In Burkina Faso alone, the total number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) rose to more than 1.5 million by the end of the year. Six in ten of the Sahel’s displaced are now from this country.

In Niger, the number of IDPs in the regions of Tillabéri and Tahoua has increased by 53 per cent in the last 12 months. In Mali, more than 400,000 people are displaced internally, representing a 30 per cent increase from the previous year.

Climate, humanitarian crisis

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating with crises on multiple fronts.

Insecurity is the main driver, made worse by extreme poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of the climate crisis are also felt more strongly in the region, with temperatures rising 1.5 times faster than the global average.

Women and children are often the worst affected and disproportionately exposed to extreme vulnerability and the threat of gender-based violence.

According to the UNHCR spokesperson, “host communities have continued to show resilience and solidarity in welcoming displaced families, despite their own scant resources.”

He also said that Government authorities have demonstrated “unwavering commitment” to assisting the displaced, but they are now “buckling under increasing pressure.”

Bold response

UNHCR and humanitarian partners face mounting challenges to deliver assistance, and continue to be the target of road attacks, ambushes, and carjacking.

In this context, the agency is calling on the international community to take “bold action and spare no effort” in supporting these countries.

UNHCR is also leading the joint efforts of UN agencies and NGOs to provide emergency shelter, manage displacement sites and deliver vital protection services, including combating gender-based violence and improving access to civil documentation.

In 2021, more than a third of the agency’s Central Sahel funding needs were unmet.

This year, to mount an effective response in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, the agency needs $307 million.

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SADC extends its joint military mission in Mozambique

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The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has collectively decided to extend its force mission mandate in Mozambique for three months to provide military support in fighting terrorism in Cabo Delgado, the northern seaside provincial district that suffered frequent militant attacks displacing thousands out of their homes.

The South African Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), according to the final communiqué released after the leaders of the southern African countries gathered to review significant issues, among them the operations of the joint military force dispatched last year as attacks reached its greater heights to Mozambique.

Chairperson of the SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defense and Security and South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa told the gathering in Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, where the regional bloc held its extraordinary summit and reviewed progress in Mozambique, described SAMIM as highly successful in defeating the militant groups particularly in Cabo Delgado.

“I would like to express my appreciation and commend SAMIM for its work on the ground, as well as recognize the member states that have supported this work financially and in the deployment of military personnel and equipment,” the final report quoted Ramaphosa.

SADC cannot allow terrorism to spread to other provinces in Mozambique and to the region, and it is imperative to promote a spirit of unity among member countries as terrorism and violent extremism threaten the stability and development that the region has achieved over the past four decades, says the report.

The communiqué also approved the framework for support to Mozambique in addressing terrorism outlines, among others, comprehensive strategic actions for consolidating peace, security, and the socio-economic recovery of Cabo Delgado.

The Maputo daily Noticias wrote after the SADC summit that a budgetary allocation of US$29.5 million has been set aside for the three-month extension, after several years of high-level consultations and this would mean until at least mid-April. The SAMIM extension set from mid-January.

Addressing the opening session of the summit, the current SADC Chairperson, Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera, urged regional bloc member states to stick together and ensure that SAMIM remains multidimensional and comprehensive. He entreated SADC member countries not to relent, regress or even retreat on their commitments.

“What remains now is for us to stay the course and stick together. We cannot relent. We cannot regress. We cannot retreat. Our approach to this mission must continue to be multidimensional and comprehensive. It must not only focus on neutralizing the threat, but also have post-conflict plans to rebuild,” said Chakwera, added that the collective mission is paramount and the stakes for all the Member States are high because what they are fighting for is regional stability, and the sustainability of the quest for the bloc’s integration and socio-economic development.

Chakwera welcomed the comprehensive Cabo Delgado Reconstruction Plan launched by his Mozambican counterpart, Filipe Nyusi, and his government, which, among other issues, seeks to provide humanitarian support to the affected population, including internally displaced persons, and uplift their living standards.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi however expressed high optimism about the current military situation in Cabo Delgado. He said that all the bases from which the terrorists used to plan their actions are now in the hands of the Mozambican forces, and 2022 would be a decisive year to support the regional standby force in the final fight against terrorism in Mozambique.

For the Mozambican President Nyusi the extension of the SAMIM mission demonstrates the spirit of unity and solidarity that the Southern African Development Community members have readily and warmheartedly shown with the people of Mozambique.

Mozambique has grappled with an insurgency in its northernmost province of Cabo Delgado since 2017, but currently fast improving after the deployment of joint military force with the primary responsibility of ensuring peace and stability, and for restoring normalcy in Mozambique.

Mozambique has consistently maintained that all problems especially relating to conflicts and crises should be resolved largely based on the approaches of Africans, and of course with moral, political and material support from regional blocs such as SADC and the continental organization – African Union, and the involvement of United Nations with its UN Security Council.

With an approximate population of 30 million, Mozambique is endowed with rich and extensive natural resources but remains one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world. Mozambique is a member of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

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Mali: Security Council warned of ‘endless cycle of instability’

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The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, has supported peace and reconciliation efforts in the country. MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

A decade after civil conflict erupted in Mali, hopes for an early resolution to insurgency and strife have not materialized, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the country, El-Ghassim Wane, told the Security Council on Tuesday.  

Instead, the UN top envoy explained, “insecurity has expanded, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, more children are of out of school and the country has been affected by an endless cycle of instability.”  

In fact, more than 1.8 million people are expected to need food assistance in 2022 compared to 1.3 million in 2021, the highest level of food insecurity recorded since 2014.  

And more than half a million children have been affected by school closures, which the envoy believes puts “the future of the country in jeopardy”.  

Despite these challenges, Mr. Wane argued that the situation “would have been far worse” without the engagement of the international community, including the deployment of the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) in 2013.  

The Malian Government has been seeking to restore stability following a series of setbacks since early 2012, including a failed military coup d’état, renewed fighting between Government forces and Tuareg rebels, and the seizure of its northern territory by radical extremists. 

Standoff 

The Special Representative also briefed the Council on the current stand-off between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Malian transitional leadership, controlled by the military.  

Over the weekend, ECOWAS held an Extraordinary Summit and decided that the proposed timetable for the transition, lasting up to five and a half years, was “totally unacceptable”. 

Urging Malian authorities to focus on a speedy return to constitutional order, they decided to uphold individual sanctions put in place on 12 December and imposed additional ones. 

The new sanctions include the recall of ambassadors from Bamako, the closing of land and air borders, suspension of all commercial and financial transactions (with some exemptions), and the suspension of financial assistance, among others.  

Mali reciprocated by recalling its ambassadors and closing its borders with ECOWAS Member States.  

In an address to the nation on Monday evening, however, Transition President, Colonel Assimi Goita, called for unity and calm, stating that Mali remains open to dialogue.  

Mr. Wane explained that supporting the transition is a key aspect of the MINUSMA mandate, so the mission will try to find a consensual way out to overcome the impasse. 

“A protracted impasse will make it much harder to find a consensual way out, while increasing hardship for the population and further weakening state capacity”, he argued, warning that such scenario would “have far-reaching consequences for Mali and its neighbours.”  

Beyond the political transition, Mr. Wane believes it is also crucial that the Council continues to pay attention to the implementation of the peace agreement and to stability in the Centre of the divided nation, calling it two “building blocks” for a peaceful and stable Mali.  

‘Window of opportunity’ 

Back in December, a process of national consultation, known as Assises nationales de la refondation, ended with a series of main recommendations, including a constitutional review, the creation of a Senate, the acceleration of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process and territorial decentralization.  

For Mr. Wane, these proposals “offer a window of opportunity on which all stakeholders should build upon to move forward on the implementation of the peace agreement.” 

The Special Representative also provided an update on MINUSMA’s activities, noting that 2021 saw more extremist attacks than any years prior.  

The mission ended the year with the highest number of casualties since 2013, following a significant rise of attacks targeting main axes, convoys, camps, and temporary operating bases.  

In total, 28 peacekeepers died, including seven Togolese in a single incident back in December.  

Humanitarian situation 

The conflict has also had a devastating impact on civilians and the humanitarian situation.  

On 3 December for instance, 32 civilians, including 26 women and children, were killed near Songho when their bus was attacked by extremist elements.  

In just one year, the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) increased from 216,000 to more than 400,000.  

In such difficult circumstances, Mr. Wane described the response to the humanitarian appeal as “lukewarm”, with only 38 per cent of funding received.  

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