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Conflict in Ethiopia extends the Greater Middle East’s arc of crisis

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Authors: James M. Dorsey and Alessandro Arduino*

Ethiopia, an African darling of the international community, is sliding towards civil war as the coronavirus pandemic hardens ethnic fault lines. The consequences of prolonged hostilities could echo across East Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Fighting between the government of Nobel Peace Prize winning Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan nationalists in the north could extend 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.

It would also cast a long shadow over hopes that a two-year old peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea that earned Mr. Ahmed the Nobel prize would allow Ethiopia to tackle its economic problems and ethnic divisions.

Finally, it would  raise the spectre of renewed famine in a country that Mr. Ahmed was successfully positioning as a model of African economic development and growth.

The rising tensions come as  Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan failed to agree on a new negotiating approach to resolve their years-long dispute over a controversial dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile River.

US President Donald Trump recently warned that downstream Egypt could end up “blowing up” the project, which Cairo has called an existential threat.

Fears of a protracted violent confrontation heightened after the government this week mobilized its armed forces, one of the region’s most powerful and battle-hardened militaries, to quell an alleged uprising in Tigray that threatened to split one of its key military units stationed along the region’s strategic border with Eritrea.

Tension between Tigray and the government in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa has been mounting since Mr. Ahmet earlier this year diverted financial allocations intended to combat a biblical scale locust plague in the north to confront the coronavirus pandemic.

The tension was further fuelled by a Tigrayan rejection of a government request to postpone regional elections because of the pandemic and Mr. Ahmed’s declaration of a six-month state of emergency. Tigrayans saw the moves as dashing their hopes for a greater role in the central government.

Tigrayans charge that reports of earlier Ethiopian military activity along the border with Somalia suggest that Mr. Ahmed was planning all along to curtail rather than further empower the country’s Tigrayan minority.

Although only five percent of the population, Tigrayans have been prominent in Ethiopia’s power structure since the demise in 1991 of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ruled the country with an iron fist. They assert, however, that Mr. Ahmed has dismissed a number of Tigrayan executives and sidelined businessmen in the past two years under the cover of a crackdown on corruption.

Like Turkey in the Caucasus, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, Mr. Ahmed may be seeing a window of opportunity at a moment that the United States is focused on its cliff hanger presidential election, leaving the US African Command with no clear direction from Washington on how to respond to the escalating tension in the Horn of Africa.

Escalation of the conflict in Tigray could threaten efforts to solidify the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace process; persuade Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki, who has no love lost for Tigray, to exploit the dispute to strengthen his regional ambitions; and draw in external powers like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, who are competing for influence in the Horn.

The conflict further raises the spectre of ethnic tension elsewhere in Ethiopia, a federation of ethnically defined autonomous regions against the backdrop in recent months of skirmishes with and assassinations of ethnic Amhara, violence against Tigrayans in Addis Ababa, and clashes between Somalis and Afar in which dozens were reportedly injured and killed.

Military conflict in Tigray could also accelerate the flow of Eritrean migrants to Europe who already account for a significant portion of Africans seeking better prospects in the European Union.

A Balkanization of Ethiopia in a part of the world where the future of war-ravaged Yemen as a unified state is in doubt would remove the East African state as the linchpin with the Middle East and create fertile ground for operations by militant groups.

“Given Tigray’s relatively strong security position, the conflict may well be protracted and disastrous. (A war could) seriously strain an Ethiopian state already buffeted by multiple grave political challenges and could send shock waves into the Horn of Africa region and beyond,” warned William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

*Dr. Alessandro Arduino is principal research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore.

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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Africa

Walking On A Tightrope Of Rights And COVID

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At the outset let me say this: It is an inherent human right to protest and express one’s views and political belief without being subjected to suppression or harassment. However, with freedom comes responsibility. In this time of the deadly pandemic, common sense dictates that public gatherings of protest must be COVID-compliant. 

As a human rights activist and someone who worked in Somalia in recent years and has been in constant communication with health care workers and members of the civil societies there, I can affirm that the Somali people are struggling to manage the resurgence of the deadly second wave of COVID-19. This, unfortunately, came at an election year and at the peak of Somalia political dispute between the Central government and two of the federal states on one hand, and the Central government and the opposition on the other hand. It is the season when resources of the government and the opposition are routinely and exclusively allocated for political contention instead of putting the pandemic on top priority.

Sadly, the deadly COVID-19 is becoming a political football between people who see it as an opportunity for one end or another. Other than issuing artificial statements of concern, none of these political contenders has forged a serious strategy to fight this deadly disease. In a country where an estimate of 70 percent of the population is jobless and over one million people are internally displaced people (IDPs), poverty is a glaring reality, and drought and famine are looming in some regions, the situation is very desperate, to say the least. 

The Federal government, regional states, and the opposition groups must collectively and urgently prioritize the protection of civilians who are desperately struggling to survive the second wave of this pandemic. This deadly virus coupled with an already crippled health care system, paves the way for a fatal consequence not only upon the Somali citizen but also on the Somali nation.

Going back to the core contentious, we have two competing issues:  the first and most immediate contentious issue is whether or not a peaceful demonstration against the current government could take place in Mogadishu. As I expressed in the opening lines, the answer is yes. But that yes must be handled responsibly. 

The second and the long-standing issue is the deadlock over the election process. This protracted deadlock is related to who wheels the power of the selection process. More specifically, the competing sides quarrel over who manages the processes of the election in the Gedo region and the Somaliland future parliamentarians and, more critically, the legitimacy of the electoral model and members of the electoral commission. Despite the September 17, 2020 election agreement signed by all sides, the Jubaland and Puntland leadership have consistently refused its implementation. On their part, the Federal government which considered the said agreement favored the federal states, has been giving it lip service, at best.  

With the foregoing and as someone dedicated to fairness and the cause of saving Somalia and her citizens, I strongly encourage the contending parties to exercise restraint and give wisdom and the love of the country the chance to prevail. Further, I appeal to the Central government, federal states, and the members of the opposition to consider the following:

 With regard to the demonstrations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic 

1.      There has to be a mechanism in place to safeguard the safety and security of the protesters

2.      Spoilers, both domestic and foreign actors, must not be allowed to take advantage of the prevailing disagreement and exploit the demonstrations as a venue and as a platform to implement evil destructive intentions

3.      The government’s security forces must not intervene, in any way, in a peaceful demonstration.  If any such intervention is warranted, it has to be only to stop violent groups from taking advantage of this civic engagement

4.      To pursue the above, it is important to form a committee comprising relevant government institutions, opposition, civil society, AMISOM to oversee peaceful demonstrations to happen

5.      In addition, protesters have to be educated on the precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the COVID-19.  FM radios, TVs & social media can be used to inform and encourage protesters to practice safety measures and to encourage anyone with signs of infection to stay home. 

6.      Arrangements must be made to provide masks, hand sanitizers to the protesters and to encourage social distancing. 

With regard to resolving the existing dispute and conducting free and fair elections:

There is a need for a political continuity to avoid political vacuum and safeguard stability. Constitutional bodies 

(the executive and the legislative) need to remain until elections take place and new leadership is elected. 

To break the deadlock and as a compromise, an inclusive and independent body may be instituted to guide the process around the elections, including validation of the electoral commission and setting an election timetable and resolving other outstanding disagreements. The formation and composition of this body have to be done consultatively. 

Last but not the least, individuals seeking presidential election including the incumbent and other candidates, will have to stay away from direct involvement in decisions affecting the outcome of the elections. 

The critical situation at hand tests the leadership capacity of all sides. At the end of the day what would matter is not who won or who lost, but how many lives were saved by their compromise.

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South Sudan’s transition from conflict to recovery ‘inching forward’

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South Sudan’s transformation from conflict to recovery is underway, but much needs to be done before securing “a peaceful and prosperous future”, the UN Special Representative to the country told the Security Council on Tuesday. 

“Because of the collective efforts of so many…South Sudan is in a better state”, the head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), David Shearer, said in his last briefing, after serving as Special Representative for four years. 

However, he stated that “it is inching forward – frustratingly slowly – with still so much to do”. 

Despite recently marking the one-year anniversary of the transitional government, progress is lagging – including in reconstituting a Transitional National Legislature, constitution-making, transitional justice, and economic reform, according to Mr. Shearer, who also pointed out that troops that have yet to be unified. 

“Slow implementation comes at a cost. The power vacuum at a local level has opened opportunities for spoilers and national actors who have exploited local tensions and fueled violence”, he said. 

The UNMISS head also noted “a worrying surge in violence” between various heavily armed community militia in Warrap, in the Bahr el Ghazal region, while highlighting that despite the deaths of nine aid workers last year, humanitarian agencies continue to provide “critical assistance”. 

Four years later 

Reflecting on how far the nascent State has come since 2018, Mr. Shearer spotlighted a ceasefire, a peace deal, improved political security, a transitional government, a presidency, council of ministers, governors and local leadership, which is “slowly being installed”.  

Moreover, political violence had reduced “by a power of 10” compared to those who were dying or displaced from widespread conflict in 2016, he informed the Ambassadors. 

UNMISS: ‘Stabilizing force’  

“A caveat is our concern about the upsurge in armed community militia seemingly in open defiance of state forces”, said the UN official, adding that UNMISS is making “a real difference in lowering the level of this kind of violence and bringing diverse communities together”.  

He called the mission “a stabilizing force that extends well beyond our physical presence – and which is welcomed by nearly 80 percent of South Sudanese who we have independently surveyed”.  

Mr. Shearer updated the Council that UNMISS continues to push the peace process forward by working closely with all political parties, in coordination with regional and international partners. 

‘Extremely fragile’ peace 

However, he underscored that “the peace process remains extremely fragile”, noting that many citizens question the political will and fear the collapse of progress.  

“It is for those people that we, the international community, must remain united and committed to pushing the peace process forward”, said the Special Representative. 

“We can’t sit on the sidelines as spectators…That’s what failure looks like”, he spelled out. 

Challenges ahead 

The UNMISS head highlighted the need for a financial system that works for the South Sudanese. 

“The wealth of this country – from oil and elsewhere – bypasses its people, siphoned off in secrecy with no public accountability for how it is spent”, he said, posing the “obvious question: Why would key decision-makers benefiting from their current positions hold an election that could put their access to power and resources at risk?”. 

Struck by the “immense pride” of the South Sudanese in their country, Mr. Shearer explained that “true sovereignty” means being responsible and genuinely caring for the nation’s 12 million citizens.  

“It also means independence”, he said.  

Yet the UN envoy referred to the country as “perhaps one of the most dependent nations in history”, drawing attention to education and health systems, roads and infrastructure “provided by outsiders”.  

“We have too eagerly stepped in…[and] added to their dependency – and, in doing so, undermined their dignity”, he said.  

Mr. Shearer maintained that the Government must also step up, saying, “State-building is a finely tuned endeavour that constantly needs to be re-evaluated and questioned”.  

Fond farewell 

The Special Representative praised the South Sudanese as “without doubt, the toughest, most resilient people I’ve ever met”.  

Despite hardship, he said “they can sit, discuss, and…laugh in the face of huge adversity”. 

Mr. Shearer expressed admiration for their “seemingly endless patience and hope as they fight against huge odds to achieve the much brighter future they deserve”. 

“I will miss this young country and I wish it well from the bottom of my heart”, concluded the outgoing UN envoy. 

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China’s vaccine diplomacy in Africa

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China appears moving steadily to deliver on its pledge by offering manufactured vaccines aim at eradicating the coronavirus in Africa. Simultaneously, China is strengthening its health diplomacy with Africa, and experts describe it as an additional step to reassert further its geopolitical influence in the continent.

Undoubtedly, the Chinese Sinopharm vaccines are increasingly becoming popular among African countries. Deliveries have already been made in Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Namibia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Chinese Foreign Ministry has indicated that China would help 19 African countries as part of its commitment to making vaccines global public goods. Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said on February 22 that China would also support enterprises to export Covid-19 vaccines to African nations that urgently need, recognize, and have authorized the emergency use of Chinese vaccines.

The aid is a clear manifestation of the China-Africa traditional friendship, Wang Wenbin said, adding assertively “China will continue to provide support and assistance within its capacity and in accordance with the needs of Africa.” Further to that, China welcomes and supports France and other European and American nations in providing vaccines to help Africa fight the pandemic.

In West African region, Sierra Leone became the latest African country to receive 200,000 coronavirus vaccine donation, and 201,600 pieces of disposable needles and syringes from the Chinese government. According to reports, the consignment arrived at the Lungi Airport on February 25, and was received by a high-powered government delegation.

Down in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe will buy an additional 1.2 million vaccine doses from China at a preferential price, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s spokesman said, after Beijing agreed to give more free doses to the southern African country. Zimbabwe has already begun vaccinations after receiving a donation of 200,000 doses from the China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm).

Chinese Ambassador Guo Shaochun said in a statement that his country had decided to double its donation of vaccines to 400,000 as part of its “solidarity and action” with Zimbabwe.

Mnangagwa’s spokesman George Charamba said the government, which had already bought 600,000 doses from Sinopharm and would increase its purchases from China. “Zimbabwe is also procuring more vaccines from China at a preferential price. Zimbabwe is set to purchase another 1.2 million doses from China,” Charamba wrote on Twitter.

It targets 10 million vaccinations as the country has been hit with increasing infections.  More than two thirds of Zimbabwe’s 35,910 coronavirus infections and 1,448 deaths have been recorded this year, according to a Reuters tally.

Separately, on February 24, neighboring Mozambique also received 200,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine donated by China. The delivery of the first consignment, ferried to Mozambique by an aircraft of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, was witnessed by Prime Minister, Carlos Agostinho do Rosário, Minister of Health, Armindo Tiago, Chinese Ambassador Wang Hejun and other senior government officials.

Speaking at the delivery ceremony, held at the Maputo Air Base, Agostinho do Rosario thanked the government and the people of China for the donation of the first batch consists of 200,000 doses and the same number of syringes. “The swift delivery of the vaccine mirrors the determination and commitment of the leaders of both countries to ensure the well-being of the Mozambican people,” the Prime Minister said, stressing that the government has adopted a vaccination strategy that attaches priority to high risk groups particularly health professionals on the front-line of the fight against Covid-19.

Chinese Ambassador Wang Hejun, however pledged to strengthen the cooperation between the two countries in the health field and reaffirmed his country’s openness to assist Mozambique in acquiring more vaccines.

He said the Mozambican health system is currently under increasing pressure, but believed the first batch of the vaccine will certainly make an enormous difference. Mozambique is among the first African countries to receive the Chinese vaccines. Vaccines are currently available from two Chinese companies, Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech.

The vaccine that arrived in Maputo was from Sinopharm. A major advantage of the Sinopharm vaccine is that it does not need to be stored at ultra-low temperatures. It can be kept at normal refrigeration temperatures of two to eight degrees Celsius.

Indeed, Indians are also speeding with donations to the African continent. The Indian government has promised to send Mozambique 100,000 doses of the vaccine developed by the Indian pharmaceutical industry. Still in the southern Africa, Namibian officials said Beijing would donate 100,000 doses vaccine while India promised a donation of 30,000 shots to Windhoek.

In order to sustain relations and as part of a “bilateral cooperation” efforts, Portugal plans to donate 5% its excess to a group of Portuguese-speaking African countries. With a population of just over 10 million people, Portugal is entitled to 35 million vaccine doses this year under an EU-coordinated purchasing scheme, mostly for double-dose inoculation, leaving it with millions of extra shots.

The 5% share would make up 1.75 million doses. The group of countries is comprised of Portugal’s former African colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, and Sao Tome and Principe.

Besides getting vaccines through the African Union, a number of African countries by bilateral agreements will purchase vaccines directly from China, Russia and India. For example, five (5) African countries (Algeria, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea and Tunisia) have registered the Sputnik V, which was developed by Russia’s Gamaleya National Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology.

The African Union and Africa CDC for its ongoing vaccine readiness work through the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team. The AU has secured vaccines through the COVAX facility for Africa. WHO has listed three (3) vaccines for emergency use, giving the green light for these vaccines to be rolled out through COVAX. The Group of Seven (7) leaders have committed US$4.3 billion to fund the equitable distribution of vaccines, diagnostics and treatments. European Union has also contributed an additional 500 million euros to COVAX.

The COVAX vaccine facility – which pools financial resources and spreads its bets across vaccine candidates – has handed over the first of 337 million doses it has allocated to around 130 countries for the first half of the year. COVAX receives around 90 percent of its funds from G-7 countries and the EU, but none from China, India or Russia.

By March 2, as reported by the GhanaWeb, the number of African countries to have received vaccine doses are the following:

  • South Africa – Johnson and Johnson (J&J)
  • Rwanda – Pfizer and Moderna (reportedly)
  • Egypt – Sinopharm
  • Morocco – AstraZeneca/Sinopharm
  • Seychelles – AstraZeneca/Sinopharm
  • Mauritius – AstraZeneca
  • Algeria – Sputnik V
  • Zimbabwe – Sinopharm
  • Sierra Leone – Sinopharm
  • Equatorial Guinea – Sinopharm
  • Senegal – Sinopharm
  • Ghana – AstraZeneca/Serum Institute of India (COVAX)
  • Ivory Coast – AstraZeneca (COVAX)
  • Guinea – Sputnik V (Experimental basis)
  • Mozambique – Sinopharm.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization has acknowledged that the pandemic has struck at a time of rapid transformation for Africa. “We cannot and must not see health as a cost to be contained. Quite the opposite: health is an investment to be nurtured – an investment in productive population, and in sustainable and inclusive development,” he explained.

According to Adhanom Ghebreyesus, it takes a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach, and added that “many African countries have low levels of coverage of health services, and when health is at risk, everything is at risk.”

Since April last year, World Health Organization and its partners have been working through the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator for the equitable distribution of vaccines as global public goods. As already known, so far around 200 million doses of vaccine have been administered, but unfortunately most of them in the world’s richest countries.

WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic in March 2020. Since then, more than 110 million cases have now been reported to this organization, and almost 2.5 million people have lost their lives. The overall number of Covid-19 cases in Africa currently stands more than 3.8 million late February, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Office for Africa.

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