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We Should Exempt Africa from the Russia–UK Geopolitical Confrontation

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Today neither Russia nor the United Kingdom can claim a leadership role in Africa. London reached the peak of its influence here between World War I and World War II, when the British Empire had a larger part of the continent under its direct control. Moscow’s heyday in Africa goes back to the 1960s – 1970s, with the Soviet Union having played the role of the main overseas supporter of various national liberation movements. The odds are that in the XXI Century African countries’ destinies will depend more on the logic of the emerging US – China global competition than on any decisions taken in the Kremlin or at Downing Street, 10.

Moreover, today both Russia and the UK have limited economic, political and strategic interests in Africa, compared to some other parts of the world — e.g. Europe or the Middle East. Arguably, this is the main reason why Africa does not look as toxic for Russia–UK relations as some other regions do. However, we cannot rule out potential clashes between the two powers in various present or future crises and conflicts in Africa. We should avoid underestimating the likely benefits of Russia–UK cooperation, even if it remains quite limited.

Many current trends suggest the role of Africa in the international system will continue to grow over time — both in terms of global challenges that the continent is likely to generate and in terms of global opportunities that it is going to offer. If everybody’s attention seems to be focused on the Middle East today, tomorrow it might well shift to Africa. Russian and UK stakes on the continent are likely to grow, while the price of an uncontrolled confrontation is expected to increase.

Moscow and London have to start working on how to contain risks and cut costs of this confrontation. Ideally — on how to exempt Africa from their geopolitical confrontation altogether. The first important step might be to try to agree on an appropriate ‘code of conduct’ on the continent, which could be applied not only to Russia and the United Kingdom, but also to external players in general. Africa may well be an ideal place to test new ideas about such controversial notions as responsibility to protect, failed state, hybrid war or regime change. London and Moscow are more likely to reach an agreement on many African crises than on more sensitive matters like Ukraine or Syria. At the same time, with an understanding on ‘rules of engagement’ in Africa in hand, it would be easier to approach highly divisive cases in Europe or in the Middle East.

Another area for potential Russia–UK collaboration or, at least, for coordination in Africa could be the area of ‘African commons’. The continent is in desperate need of essential public goods, the demand for them is huge and our two nations could do better avoiding old-fashioned competition and increasing the efficiency of their respective assistance projects in Africa. Take, for instance, the domain of general and higher education and human capital development in Africa, where both the UK and Russia have considerable experience and overlapping comparative advantages. Another area for potential cooperation is public health, which will require substantial investment, as well as personnel training and emergency management. Joint projects in infrastructure development, including private-public partnerships, constitute yet another opportunity.

In the security domain, Russia and the United Kingdom could explore options for more intense interaction in fighting international terrorism coming from Africa or targeting African countries. At the same time, Moscow and London could consider enhancing their respective roles in the UN led peacekeeping operations in Africa and demonstrating more appetite for consorted votes within the UN Security Council. They can work together in fighting piracy in the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Guinea, and so on.

It is evident that any Russia–UK interaction in Africa or about Africa cannot and will not be completely separated from the rest of their bilateral relations. If we fail to settle the core problems dividing Moscow and London today, this divisive agenda will continue to limit opportunities for cooperation in Africa as well. However, the Africa of today and especially the Africa of tomorrow will be too important for the world at large to approach it only as an extension of the ongoing Russia–UK confrontation. It is one of the most apparent cases, in which an exemption would not be a manifestation of weakness or cynicism, but rather a demonstration of political wisdom and a strategic foresight.

From our partner RIAC

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Africa

Situation in central Mali ‘deteriorating’ as violence, impunity rise

Newsroom

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Local population in Ogossagou, a village in the Mopti region of Mali, which was attacked on 23 March 2019, leaving over 160 people dead, 70 injured, hundreds displaced, and numerous huts and granaries burnt. UNICEF/Maiga

The growing violence has contributed to a deteriorating security situation in central Mali, with impunity being one of the aggravating factors, an independent UN human rights expert warned on Friday.

“In central Mali, I observed an accumulation of security, judicial and administrative failures that facilitates mass violence with impunity. The Malian Armed Forces and MINUSMA (UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) have failed to provide adequate security for the civilians of the region,” Alioune Tine, the UN Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Mali, said in a statement following his visit to the country.

He said that civilians have been victimized by transnational criminal organizations, terrorist groups and armed militia which are grasping control of the region.

The human rights expert was told that the perpetrators of previous attacks in different regions have not been held accountable, thus making impunity as one of the aggravating factors of the current violence.

The slow judicial process is due to the security situation, which makes arresting the alleged perpetrators complicated, as well as the climate of fear, with witnesses and victims afraid of reprisals.

“The current violence is increasingly difficult to control and could become a major threat to the entire sub-region,” Mr. Tine warned, adding that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union must urgently find effective remedies to end violence and serious human rights violations in central Mali.

He also urged the UN Security Council to reassess the situation and adjust the mandate of the MINUSMA accordingly.

Improvement in northern Mali a ‘major turning point’

Despite the worsening situation in central Mali, there has been some positive progress in the north.

“The implementation of the Algiers Agreement in 2015 in northern Mali, with the gradual redeployment of the rebuilt Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) in Kidal and Timbuktu and their upcoming deployment in Menaka and Taoudeni, is an important step towards the return to peace,” said Mr. Tine.

Calling this improvement “a major turning point”, the UN expert also commended the efforts of the Malian state, armed groups and MINUSMA throughout this process.

“The resolutions currently being implemented bring a new hope for peace and for a gradual return to a peaceful political process in northern Mali, through the organization of legislative elections,” he said.

The 2015 Algiers Agreement is an Algerian-brokered agreement for peace and reconciliation in Mali, signed among the Government of Mali, the Coordination of Movements of Azawad and the Plateforme armed group.

Independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

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Escalating Burkina Faso violence brings wider Sahel displacement emergency into focus

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Family members who have fled conflict sit inside their tent at the Pissila camp for displaced people in Burkina Faso. WFP/Marwa Awad

Deadly attacks on villages in Burkina Faso have forced 150,000 people to flee in just the last three weeks, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday, warning of a displacement emergency in the wider Sahel region.

Amid a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets which the UN says have risen five-fold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2016, UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said that survivors needed safety, shelter, food and water “everywhere”.

Help is particularly needed in northern Burkina Faso, where displaced families are staying with host communities who have little in the way of resources themselves.

Some 4,000 people a day flee violence

The new arrivals are “occupying whatever space is available”, the UNHCR official explained, stressing that more than 4,000 people a day have fled attacks in Burkina Faso, since 1 January.

“So far, 765,000 people have already been displaced, of whom more than 700,000 in the past 12 months,” he noted.

Those forced to flee “report attacks on their villages by militant groups, killing, raping, and pillaging,” the UNHCR official said. “Terrified of these attacks, residents have left everything behind to find safety.”

A similar pattern of violence has driven people from their homes in Mali and Niger, adding to the longstanding insecurity crisis further afield in the Lake Chad region, where the UN humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) estimates that 2.3 million people are displaced.

Following a recent string of attacks in Niger’s Tillaberi and Tahoua regions, UNHCR reported that 4,400 people have fled into neighbouring Mali, while the same wave of violence has displaced around 11,000 people inside Niger.

“They have found refuge in nearby towns of Banibangu and Ouallam, where assistance is being provided,” Mr. Mahecic said, noting that the regions of Tillaberi and Tahoua host 58,000 refugees from Mali and nearly 81,000 displaced people.

In central Mali, the UNHCR official noted that the latest attacks on the village of Ogossagou on 14 February had claimed 30 lives.

‘Too afraid to move’

“Safety is needed for these people,” he said. “In some of these situations, people are so afraid of the insecurity and violence around them that even though they are under attack or fearing of an attack, they do not dare to move.”

The Sahel region encompasses an area south of the Sahara Desert spanning 10 countries from Senegal in the west to Eritrea, in the east.

Violence there intensified after the 2011 revolution in Libya, and an uprising in Mali a year later. As a result, terrorist groups, organized criminal groups and others took advantage of weak governance and ethnic tensions to move across borders and terrorize local populations.

Highlighting severe challenges in accessing the needs of victims of violence throughout the Sahel region, Mr. Mahecic explained that safety, shelter food and water were a priority.

Clothing and other basic items, including dignity kits for women and girls, were also urgently needed, he said, along with counselling for survivors of atrocities.

“What we know right now, is that the violence and the frequency of these attacks have increased, the intensity has increased, and we know that this is the key reason behind this massive displacement,” he said.

Safe access vital to traumatized communities

UNHCR and its partners have stepped up their response, including by strengthening health and education facilities for communities, Mr. Mahecic added, before appealing for safe access for humanitarians to deliver assistance.

According to the UN Special Representative and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), violence in the Sahel claimed more than 4,000 lives in 2019, compared to 770 in 2013.

In a briefing to the Security Council last month, Mohamed Ibn Chambas described “relentless attacks” that had shaken public confidence in the authorities.

“Most significantly,” he said, “the geographic focus of terrorist attacks has shifted eastwards from Mali to Burkina Faso and is increasingly threatening West African coastal States.”

Mr. Chambas also explained how the attacks were often perpetrated by extremists looking to engage in illicit activities that included capturing weapons and illegal artisanal mining.

“Extremists provide safety and protection to populations, as well as social services in exchanged for loyalty”, he said.

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Violence in North and West Africa increasingly targeting civilian and border areas

MD Staff

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Violence in North and West Africa is increasingly targeting civilian and border regions as today’s conflicts involve non-state actors with diverging agendas, according to a new report by the OECD’s Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC).

The report uses granular data to assess the intensity and geographical distribution of violence in the region since 1997. It finds that the last five years have been the most violent recorded in North and West Africa, with more than 60,000 people killed between January 2015 and the end of 2019. More than 40% of violent events and fatalities occur within 100 km of a land border, and 10% of deaths from political violence occur less than 10 km from a border. Civilians are increasingly specific targets of violence, rather than just being caught in cross fire.

The report uses a “Spatial Conflict Dynamics Indicator” to show which regions of North and West Africa experience the most conflict, how conflicts evolve geographically over time and how military interventions affect the intensity and spread of violence. It notes that attempts to stabilise the region are complicated due to the number of players involved and their shifting alliances.

“Paying close attention to the geography and dynamics of these deadly conflicts and the complex interactions between the large numbers of actors involved may help to find ways to resolve this worsening insecurity,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, presenting the report at the Munich Security Conference.

The Sahara-Sahel region is suffering from exceptional levels of political instability involving a combination of rebellions, jihadist insurgencies, coups d’état, protest movements and illegal trafficking of drugs, arms and migrants. Conflicts tend to regionalise across borders as armed groups defeated by counter-insurgency efforts relocate to other countries. The geographic spread and opportunistic relocation of conflicts is exacerbated by a lack of controls on many African borders that facilitates the circulation of fighters, hostages and weapons.

The study calls for states in the region and the international community to promote regional initiatives to restore state legitimacy, increase investment in border regions and improve protection of civilians — creating secure regions where inclusive forms of policies are put in place and a strong dialogue between states, local actors and populations is reinforced.

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