On August 27, Foreign Policy reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was considering suspending $130 million worth of US aid to Ethiopia. Within less than a week, the US on the orders of President Trump suspended some of the aid, in the hope that such action would cajole Addis Ababa to reach an agreement over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) with Egypt. The view from Washington DC is that they want an agreement reached before Ethiopia continues to fill the dam.
The American decision shows a limited understanding of the GERD, Horn of Africa geopolitics, and that a transactional foreign has many limitations. Fundamentally, the decision does not further American interests in the region, but rather weakens it as Ethiopia can easily find others to make up the shortfall.
Construction for the $4.8 billion the GERD begun in April 2011. The Dam, which draws water from the Blue Nile, should hold 74 billion cubic metres. It is expected to generate up to 6,000 megawatts of power and in doing so address Ethiopia’s energy insecurity: around 60 million Ethiopians have no access to electricity or very limited access. Moreover, the Ethiopian government was also hoping to export energy to some of its neighbours thus earning the country valuable foreign currency. Thus, the dam has become an important national symbol, with popular musicians releasing songs exalting the construction and what it would mean to Ethiopians ordinary people, as the government sold the dam to the people as the great panacea for Ethiopia’s energy insecurity.
The GERD as expected has become a major issue, primarily for Egypt, which relies extensively on the Nile. Egyptians are concerned that the dam would siphon off much of the water that Egypt needs for its burgeoning population, agriculture, and industry. There have been many attempts at negotiation, some sponsored by the United States and some by the African Union. But to date, no resolution to the dispute has been reached in part because Egypt cannot accept that it does not have full control over the Nile. Conversely, for Ethiopia, the GERD is the great hope for a better tomorrow.
One reason why the US decision is unlikely to encourage the Ethiopian government to change course stems from the recognition that Abiy Ahmed Ali is under enormous domestic pressures and compromising on the dam would only weaken his position. Abiy is dealing with anger at the way his government went about postponing the federal elections, leading to accusations of authoritarianism. Abiy is also contending with anger at the way the security services responded to the killing of musician-activist, Hachalu Hundessa, on 29, including the decision to arrest and detain thousands of people, many of whom are opponents of the government. There is also unhappiness with how the government has dealt with the Tigray Regional Zone, the centre of Abiy’s key political opponents, the Tigray for Democracy and Justice Party, and its demand to hold a regional election, which it has since held. The conflict with the Tigray stems in part from Tigray’s unhappiness of losing political power, which they have held since 1991, even though they account for about 5% of the population. The push for regional election emphasises growing demand by Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups for more power at the expense of the federation.
Another major challenge for Abiy is the state of the economy. He came to power on the back of an ambitious economic policy aimed at liberalising such sectors as telecommunication and finance but theCOVID-19 pandemic has derailed much of that program. Some of the measures adopted to combat the spread have had a dire impact on key sectors primarily agriculture but also construction. For example, the travel restrictions have affected the agriculture sector, already under pressure from desert locust infestations and perpetual underinvestment. It was therefore unsurprising to learn that in a World Bank survey many Ethiopians expressed great apprehension for the future.
Several things are working in Abiy’s favour as we look at the American decision to suspend the aid and why it is unlikely to dissuade the Ethiopians from reaching an agreement first with Egypt. The first is China. Sino-Ethiopian relations, which began in 1970, have always been strong. Early onBeijing recognised Ethiopia’s geostrategic importance whether in respect to its African policy (Addis Ababa is home to the African Union) or to Beijing’s revisionist foreign policy as symbolised by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Ethiopia was quick to sign up to the BRI, seeing it as a way to gain needed capital and expertise as successive governments seek to develop Ethiopia. China and Chinese companies provide capital for the construction of the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway, it constructs roads, a national sports stadium, and it has supported the construction of the dam. China has also provided humanitarian and specifically COVID-19 assistance to Ethiopia, including helping Ethiopia manufacture its COVID-19 test kits instead of relying on others. These are just some of the measures undertaken by Beijing to ensure that it has a strong footing in Ethiopia. Abiy knows he can rely on Beijing, which wants access to one of Africa’s fastest growing population.
A second thing working for Abiy is that he does have international support. Soon after coming to power in 2018, he reached out to Ethiopia’s long time enemy Eritrea and made important concessions such as giving up the village of Badme, which was awarded to Eritrea in 2002, without any preconditions. This led him to a Noble Peace Prize. Abiy has also benefitted from having a progressive domestic policy including releasing countless high-profile political prisoners.
The US decision, which allegedly was made by President Trump, is shortsighted because the size of the aid is relatively small to entice Addis Ababa to change course. Moreover, the cut will not affect US humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia, which has remained unaffected as USAID recognises over 16 million people need aid because of COVID-19 and other crises such as the locust infestation and climate change.
Secondly, Abiy knows that slowing down the filling up process or making significant concessions to Egypt would infuriate many Ethiopians who are looking to the dam as a panacea and the beginning of a golden tomorrow.
Thirdly, Abiy has support from key riparian states who are supportive of the dam and see the potential for their energy security. There is more distaste towards Egyptian attitude, with many of the affected states taking the view that Egypt has bullied the region for too long. Concomitantly, having President Trump in your corner when it comes to African affairs is not necessarily a good thing, as many on the continent, which he has never visited,remember the disparaging comments he has made towards the continent and its people.
Fourthly, Abiy knows that he can easily replace American aid, as countries recognise Ethiopia’s importance as it is a huge country, with over 100 million people many of whom are young and who look to benefit from the fruits of industrialisation. Moreover, it is believed that President Trump intervened because he supports President al-Sisi, an authoritarian leader. In other words, the US President is preferring an authoritarian, unpopular leader over a democratically elected popular leader.
To have a transactional foreign policy one need to have leverage but in this specific instance, the United States has seriously overestimated its leverage, thus limiting its ability to affect change and becoming less relevant in the Horn of Africa, at a time when China is cementing its presence in this crucial region.
Reducing industrial pollution in the Niger River Basin
The Niger River is the third-longest river in Africa, running for 4,180 km (2,600 miles) from its source in south-eastern Guinea, through Mali, Niger and Nigeria, before discharging via the Niger Delta into the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. Tributaries that run through a further five countries feed into the mighty Niger.
Hundreds of millions of people in West Africa depend on the river and its tributaries, for drinking water, for fish to eat, for irrigation to grow crops, for use in productive processes, and for hydroelectric power.
The health of the Niger River Basin is vitally important for the people and for the environment of West Africa. But this health is endangered by land degradation, pollution, loss of biodiversity, invading aquatic vegetal species and climate change.
To both assess and address these environmental issues, a Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded project has brought together international, regional and national entities to work on integrated water resources management for the benefit of communities and the resilience of ecosystems. (Project details can be found here.)
One part of the early project research found that as the Niger River passes through Tembakounda, Bamako, Gao, Niamey, Lokoja and Onithsa – major trading, agro-processing and industrial cities – wastewater and other polluting substances are discharged directly into the river, often without consideration for the environment. National governments of the countries which the river runs through are either unable to deal with the accumulated environmental problems and/or are ineffective at preventing, regulating, reducing and managing pollution from industrial activities.
For this reason, one component of the GEF project, implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), will facilitate the Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology (TEST) to reduce wastewater discharges and pollution loads into the Niger River.
Despite the limitations on travel resulting from measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus, in August this year, UNIDO successfully identified and engaged with 19 pilot enterprises in various sectors, including pharmaceuticals, mining and agribusiness, operating in ‘pollution hotspots’ in the countries of the Niger River Basin. This number exceeds the original target of one enterprise per country.
UNIDO experts are now introducing and sharing the Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology (TEST) methodology with the pilot enterprises. In essence, this will mean the application of a set of tools including Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production, Environmental Management Systems, and Environmental Management Accounting, which will lead to the adoption of best practices, new skills and a new management culture.
Armed with these tools, the enterprises will be able to reduce product costs and increase productivity, while reducing the adverse environmental consequences of their operations. An awareness-raising campaign will be carried out so that the demonstration effect resonates across the Niger River Basin, prompting other enterprises to follow suit.
Wagner: Putin’s secret weapon on the way to Mali?
France is outraged at the prospect of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group arriving in Mali. However, Paris is seeking a way out of an unwinnable conflict.
On September 13, a Reuters news agency article citing unnamed sources and reporting advanced negotiations between Mali and the Russian mercenary company Wagner sparked a firestorm of reactions. The United States, Germany, and the United Nations have all warned Bamako’s military against such collaboration. According to them, the arrival of Russian mercenaries – a thousand have been estimated – would jeopardize the West’s commitment to fighting the jihadists who control a large portion of Malian territory.
But France, understandably, is the most vocal against such a move. The former colonial power has maintained a military presence in the country since 2013, when it halted the jihadists’ advance on the capital. Florence Parly, the French Minister of the Armed Forces, visited Bamako on September 20th to warn Malian colonels in power following two coups in August 2020 and May 2021. Wagner’s choice, she said, would be that of “isolation” at a time when “the international community has never been so numerous in fighting jihadists in the Sahel”.
What the minister does not mention is that France’s commitment to Mali is waning. Emmanuel Macron used the second Malian coup d’état last June, less than a year before the French presidential election, to announce a “redeployment” of French forces in Mali. Although Paris refuses to discuss a de facto withdrawal, even if it is partial, the truth is that the tricolored soldiers will abandon the isolated bases of Kidal, Timbuktu, and Tessalit in the country’s north by next year, concentrating on the area further south of the three borders with Niger and Burkina Faso.
Europeans, who are expected to be more supportive of France, are also perplexed. The humiliation of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has served as a wake-up call. The Afghan government’s sudden collapse in the face of the Taliban has demonstrated how difficult it is to build a strong army and institutions. This scenario appears to be repeating itself in Mali.
The possibility of a rapprochement between Bamako and Moscow is taken seriously because Putschists in Mali have always been sensitive to Russian offerings. Colonel Sadio Camara, Mali’s Defense Minister, visited Russia on September 4. Disagreements over a reversal of Mali’s alliances are said to have been one of the causes of the Malian colonels’ second coup, which ousted the civilian transitional government last May.
Russia also acts as a boogeyman for the Malian military. According to a Daily Beast investigation, the Malian army organized a supposedly spontaneous demonstration last May demanding Russian intervention. This was also a warning to the international community, which is growing weary of the country’s poor governance and repeated coups.
Is Mali transitioning from the French to the Russian spheres of influence? Since Moscow gained a foothold in the Central African Republic, the scenario is not a figment of the imagination. Russian instructors and Wagner’s mercenaries have proven their worth in this former French backyard. Even though the UN condemns Russia’s atrocities in this conflict, the Russians were able to push back the rebels who were threatening the capital Bangui last December with the help of UN peacekeepers and Rwandan reinforcements.
The Kremlin denies any involvement with the Wagner group. However, the company is actually run by a close associate of Vladimir Putin. The use of private mercenaries allows Moscow to avoid military commitments abroad, as it did previously in Ukraine and Libya. “Russia is not negotiating a military presence in Mali,” said a Kremlin spokesman in mid-September. When questioned by the magazine Jeune Afrique on September 20th, Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra swore that he had “not signed anything with Wagner.” “In the Central African Republic, we have companies that were established in accordance with the law and operate on liberalized markets,” he explained.
Nothing has been decided on Wagner, it is repeated in Bamako. According to the military, the selection of foreign “partners” is a matter of Mali’s “sovereignty.” They regard these “rumors” as an attempt to “discredit the country.” The Malian junta is under siege, not only from jihadists but also from the international community. The latter is calling for elections to be held in February to return power to civilians, as stipulated in the military-agreed transition charter. Electoral reform must come before the election. However, Colonel Assimi Gota, the transitional president, has shown little interest in preparing for these elections. The Malian junta may also be hoping that Russia’s partners will be less stringent on democratic requirements.
Google Drives Deeper into Africa
As the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the new initiative that places emphasis on intra-African trade – including free movement of goods, capital and people – foreign players have accordingly raising eyes on using the new opportunity to expand their operations in Africa.
Foreign enterprises are gearing up to localize production in industrial hubs and distribute their products across the borderless territory considered as a single market in Africa. Thus, by its description, Africa’s estimated population of 1.3 billion presents itself a huge market – from baby products through automobiles and to anything consumable.
Google LLC, the U.S. Global Technology Gaint, has primarily set its eyes on business, with a comprehensive plan to expand its operations into Africa. Google made known its plans to commit US$1 billion over the next five years in tech-led initiatives in Africa. It is investing this US$ 1 billion in Nigeria and African countries to support and transform the digital market over the next five years.
In its media release, it said the investment would include landing a subsea cable into the continent to enable faster internet speeds, low-interest loans for small businesses, equity investments into African startups, skills training and many more directions determined in future.
This is in a bid to enable fast, affordable internet access for more Africans, building helpful products, supporting entrepreneurship and small business, and helping nonprofits to improve lives across Africa.
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Google and Alphabet, Sundar Pichai, noted that the company was building global infrastructure to help bring faster internet to more people and lower connectivity costs. Through the Black Founders Fund, Google will invest in Black-led startups in Africa by providing cash awards and hands-on support.
The developing world represents the best chance of growth for large internet companies, and today, one of the very biggest set out its strategy for how it plans to tackle that.
“We’ve made huge strides together over the past decade – but there’s more work to do to make the internet accessible, affordable and useful for every African. Today, I’m excited to reaffirm our commitment to the continent through an investment of US$1 billion over five years to support Africa’s digital transformation, to cover a range of initiatives from improved connectivity to investment in startups,” said Pichai.
According to him, this is in addition to Google’s existing support through the Google for Startups Accelerator Africa, which has helped more than 80 African startups with equity-free finance, working space and access to expert advisors over the last three years. The subsea cable is set to cut across South Africa, Namibia, Nigeria and St Helena, connecting Africa and Europe.
According to Managing Director for Google in Africa, Nitin Gajria, it will provide approximately 20 times more network capacity than the last cable built to serve Africa. It is projected to create about 1.7 million jobs in Nigeria and South Africa by 2025 as the digital economy grows.
Google further announced the launch of the Africa Investment Fund, where it will invest US$50 million in start-ups across the continent providing them with access to Google’s employees, network, and technologies to help them build meaningful products for their communities.
It will additionally disburse US$10 million in low-interest loans to small businesses in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa in order to alleviate hardships brought about by the Covid pandemic.
Google is bringing venture capital into the continent. The fund might work in a similar fashion as the Google for Startups Accelerator programme.
Although Africa has a Big Four (Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Egypt) in terms of startup and venture capital activity on the continent, the accelerator has made sure to accept applications from startups in less-funded and overlooked regions. These countries include Algeria, Botswana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Founded in September 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google is considered as one of the Big Five information technology companies alongside Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Google specializes in internet cloud services, software and hardware as well as online advertising technologies.
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