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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

The Transitioning Democracy of Sudan

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Sudan has been the focus of conflict for much of its six decades as an independent nation. Despite being an anomaly in a region crippled with totalitarian populism and escalating violence, the country hasn’t witnessed much economic or political stability in years. While the civic-military coalition, leading a democratic transition towards elections, has managed to subside the fragments of civil war, growing hostility in the peripheries has begun threatening the modest reforms made in the past two years. The recent coup attempt is a befitting example of the plans that are budding within the echelons of the Sudanese military to drag the country back into the closet. And while the attempt got thwarted, it is not a success to boast. But it is a warning that the transition would not be as smooth a ride as one might have hoped.

The problems today are only a reflection of Sudan’s issues in the past: especially which led to the revolution. The civil unrest began in Sudan back in December 2018. Sudan’s long-serving ruler, Omer al-Bashir, had turned Sudan into an international outcast during his 30-year rule of tyranny and economic isolation. Naturally, Sudan perished as an economic pariah: especially after the independence of South Sudan. With the loss of oil revenues and almost 95% of its exports, Sudan inched on the brink of collapse. In response, Bashir’s regime resorted to impose draconian austerity measures instead of reforming the economy and inviting investment. The cuts in domestic subsidies over fuel and food items led to steep price hikes: eventually sparking protests across the east and spreading like wildfire to the capital, Khartoum.

In April 2019, after months of persistent protests, the army ousted Bashir’s government; established a council of generals, also known as the ‘Transitional Military Council.’ The power-sharing agreement between the civilian and military forces established an interim government for a period of 39 months. Subsequently, the pro-democracy movement nominated Mr. Abdalla Hamdok as the Prime Minister: responsible for orchestrating the general elections at the end of the transitional period. The agreement coalesced the civilian and military powers to expunge rebellious factions from society and establish a stable economy for the successive government. However, the aspirations overlooked ground realities.

Sudan currently stands in the third year of the transitional arrangement that hailed as a victory. However, the regime is now most vulnerable when the defiance is stronger than ever. Despite achieving respite through peace agreements with the rebels in Sudan, the proliferation of arms and artillery never abated. In reality, the armed attacks have spiraled over the past two years after a brief hiatus achieved by the peace accords. The conflict stems from the share of resources between different societal fractions around Darfur, Kordofan, and the Blue Nile. According to UN estimates, the surging violence has displaced more than 410,000 people across Sub-Saharan Africa in 2021. The expulsion is six times the rate of displacement recorded last year. According to the retreating UN peacekeeping mission, the authorities have all but failed to calm the rampant banditry and violence: partially manifested by the coup attempt that managed to breach the government’s order.

The regional instability is only half the story. Since the displacement of Bashir’s regime, Sudan has rarely witnessed stability, let alone surplus dividends to celebrate. Despite thawing relations with Israel and joining the IMF program, Sudan has felt little relief in return. The sharp price hikes and gripping unemployment which triggered the coup back in 2019 never receded: galloped instead. Currently, inflation runs rampant above 400%, while the Sudanese Pound has massively devalued under conditions dictated by the IMF. And despite bagging some success in negotiating International debt relief, the Hamdok regime has struggled to invite foreign investment and create jobs: majorly due to endemic conflicts that still run skin-deep in the fabric of the Sudanese society.

While the coup attempt failed, it is still not a sigh of relief for the fragile government. The deep-rooted analysis of the coup attempt reveals a stark reality: the military factions – at least some – are no longer sated in being equal-footed with a civilian regime. Moreover, the perpetrators tried to leverage the widening disquiet within the country by blocking roads and attempting to sabotage state-run media: hoping to gain public support. The population is indeed frustrated by the economic desperation; the failure of the coup attempt means that people have still not given up hope in a democratic government and a free-and-fair election. Nonetheless, it is not the first tranche of the army to rebel, and it certainly won’t be the last. The only way to salvage democracy is to stabilize Sudan’s economy and resolve inter-communal violence before leading the county towards elections. Otherwise, it is apparent that Bashir’s political apparatus is so deeply entrenched in Sudan’s ruling network that even if the transitional government survives multiple coups, an elected government would ultimately wither.

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Money seized from Equatorial Guinea VP Goes into Vaccine

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As a classic precedence, the Justice Department of the United States has decided that $26.6m (£20m) seized from Equatorial Guinea’s Vice-President Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue be used on purchasing COVID-19 vaccines and other essential medical programmes in Equitorial Guinea, located on the west coast of central Africa.

“Wherever possible, kleptocrats will not be allowed to retain the benefits of corruption,” an official said in a statement, and reported by British Broadcasting Corporation.

Obiang was forced to sell a mansion in Malibu, California, a Ferrari and various Michael Jackson memorabilia as part of a settlement he reached with the US authorities in 2014 after being accused of corruption and money-laundering. He denied the charges.

The agreement stated that $10.3m of the money from the sale would be forfeited to the US and the rest would be distributed to a charity or other organisation for the benefit of the people of Equatorial Guinea, the Justice Department said.

The UN is to receive $19.25m to purchase and administer COVID-19 vaccines to at least 600,000 people in Equatorial Guinea, while a US-based charity is to get $6.35m for other medical programmes in Equatorial Guinea.

Teodorin Nguema has been working in position as Vice-President since 2012, before that he held numerous government positions, including Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. Known for his unquestionable lavish lifestyle, he has been the subject of a number of international criminal charges and sanctions for alleged embezzlement and corruption. He has a fleet of branded cars and a number of houses, and two houses alone in South Africa,

Teodorin Nguema has often drawn criticisms in the international media for lavish spending, while majority of the estimated 1.5 million population wallows in abject poverty. Subsistence farming predominates, with shabby infrastructure in the country. Equatorial Guinea consists of two parts, an insular and a mainland region. Equatorial Guinea is the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

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African Union’s Inaction on Ethiopia Deplorable – Open Letter

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The crisis in northern Ethiopia has resulted in millions of people in need of emergency assistance and protection. © UNICEF/Christine Nesbitt

A group of African intellectuals says in an open letter that it is appalled and dismayed by the steadily deteriorating situation in Ethiopia. The letter, signed by 58 people, says the African Union’s lack of effective engagement in the crisis is deplorable. The letter calls on regional bloc IGAD and the AU to “proactively take up their mandates with respect to providing mediation for the protagonists to this conflict”.

The letter also asks for “all possible political support” for the AU’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, whose appointment was announced on August 26, 2021. A United Nations Security Council meeting on the same day welcomed the former Nigerian president’s appointment.

Earlier in August 2021, UN  chief Antonio Guterres appealed for a ceasefire, unrestricted aid access and an Ethiopian-led political dialogue. He told the council these steps were essential to preserve Ethiopia’s unity and the stability of the region and to ease the humanitarian crisis. He said that he had been in close contact with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and had received a letter from the leader of the Tigray region in response to his appeal. “The UN is ready to work together with the African Union and other key partners to support such a dialogue,” he said.

August 26, 2021 was only the second time during the conflict that the council held a public meeting to discuss the situation. Britain, Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway and the United States requested the session.

Fighting between the national government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front broke out in November 2020, leaving millions facing emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity, according to the United Nations. Both sides have been accused of atrocities.

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