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Conflict In Northern Ethiopia: Pathways To Peace And Normalization

Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag
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On 28 November, Ethiopian federal troops captured Mekelle, the capital of Tigray province in northern Ethiopia. For the first time in decades, the fighting involved formed military units after the Army’s Northern Command had been attacked by forces loyal to the Tigray TPLF.The TPLF political group held power in Ethiopia for decades prior to the government of PM Abiy. The last major military engagement in the Horn of Africa Region was fought on the 1000-kmborder between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the border war 1998-2000over areas close to the current conflict theatre. The fighting claimed over 100,000 lives and caused massive deportations on both sides.

Although an all-out siege of Mekelle was avoided, the region contains much combustible material and security risks- hovering perilously near an inter-state conflict. This was underscored by the rocket attack last Saturday from Tigray against the airport area in Asmara in neighboring Eritrea- the third such strike since the conflict started three weeks before. In the last few years, the wider Horn of Africa and IGAD region had become a beacon of hope  for increased stability and integration: this includes PM Abiy’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, political transition in Sudan after the fall of the Al-Bashir regime and peace deals with rebel groups earlier in 2020.  The new conflict has once again exposed the weak state of multilateralism during the COVID-19 Pandemic, lack of consensus in the UN Security Council and the gulf between ambitions and realities in conflict prevention and conflict resolution.

All signs point to continued escalation risks in the conflict. Foreign observers agree that there is no quick end to the fighting. TPLF has apparently sidestepped the Army’s assault and may still command a considerable arsenal, according to a new statement by the fugitive TPFL leader from near Mekelle. TPLFis poised to wage a guerilla campaign in the north, which has been its strength against previous central governments in Ethiopia. If the conflict spirals out of control and unrest affects other regions inside Ethiopia, there is a lot at stake: Ethiopia will be weakened as an eminent power in the region, spillover into neighboring states may occur.

Human Security, Protection Of Civilians And Economic Issues

Already before the conflict, the civilian population of northern Ethiopia was facing great challenges. The hostilities have further weakened human security in a region plagued by drought and food scarcity, experiencing climate change effects such as transboundary locust swarms. Refugee movements peaked last week in Sudan which has received some 43,000 arrivals from Tigray and increased the stress on its resources. UNHCR has appealed for about $150 mln USD in relief. Tigray also houses about 96,000 refugees from Eritrea in several camps. During the latest fighting, the killing of hundreds of civilians at Mai-Kadra on 9 November near the border between Tigray and Amhara regions of Ethiopia  illustrated the lack of civilian protection and raised fears of more violence and retaliation. Ethiopian authorities have now stated they would establish humanitarian corridors after Tigray was effectively cut off from humanitarian aid for a month and the UN repeatedly urged  humanitarian access.

The conflict is also deepening Ethiopia’s economic trouble from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. with a projected decline from 1.9% in 2020 to zero in 2021, according to the IMF.Young peoplein particular struggle to find employment and have been recruited into provincial militias or political party militant groups. Despite its political differences and the expansion of a transport corridors with Djibouti and from Berbera Port in Somaliland, Tigray has long dominated the Ethiopian import business and its entrepreneurial class is quite established in Addis Ababa.

Vulnerable Neighboring States And Proxy Wars

Stability in northern Ethiopia is paramount for the regional neighbors, including Sudan and Somalia. They are in the middle of their own transitions and vulnerable to external shocks and political destabilization. Eastern Sudan saw tribal clashes and unrest in Kassala and Port Sudan cities in early 2020; Sudan still has many armed factions that might benefit from turmoil in northern Ethiopia. Ethiopian troop withdrawals from Somalia as a result from conflict in Tigray could additionally imperil the electoral calendar for Somalia and embolden Al-Shabaab terrorists. Continued and escalating violence could provoke more massive refugee flows and lead to an “African world war” scenario in the Horn Region, according to analysts. Across the Horn of Africa, the conduct of proxy wars by supporting domestic rebel groups in rival countries had been a pattern in the 20th century after de-colonization.

Just across the Tigray border, the authoritarian regime of Eritrea remains highly militarized. It remains a mercurial player with possible regional power ambitions in the new conflict. In 2018, President Afewerki and PM Abiy managed to form an understanding but neuralgic points along the  border such as the disputed town of Badme persist in the absence of a demarcation line. Anecdotal information suggests that Eritrea allowed sophisticated weapons such as drones to be launched from its territory. It also sheltered Ethiopian military from TPLF forces while carrying out large sweeps for mobilization in Asmara which were reportedly extended to some refugee camps inside Ethiopia. 

Unpredictable military moves in an area fraught with a history of tension can create misunderstandings and easily spark wider conflagrations. As a small state that has so far been unaffected by the violence, Djibouti prides itself of stability but remains potentially also at risk. The country is still nominally at war with Eritrea. Just after the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war, Djibouti hosted tripartite military talks under UNMEE UN-Mission auspices in the form of a Military Coordination Commission. For transparency and arms control in northern Ethiopia and its border regions, similar confidence building efforts could take place. This could manage further escalation potentials and discuss sensitive reform steps in the military and security posture of Tigray.     

Geopolitics In The Red Sea Region And The Nile Basin

Although there is no evidence of any outside power interfering with the conflict in northern Ethiopia, extra-regional powers are by no means disinterested. These actors include Egypt which vigorously opposes the completion of Ethiopia’s new „Grand Renaissance Dam“ on the Blue Nile for fears of water security as well as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and China. Russia is considering building a new naval base on the Red Sea in Sudan. 

IGAD regional states have only recently started systematic information sharing and joint dialogue for the Red Sea Region among littoral states and some important neighbors. Consultative meetings were held with all IGAD members through an IGAD Task Force for the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, established in February 2019. It is in this complex geopolitical environment that Djibouti may have a role to play, as a realistic and trusted actor on the doorstep of the strategically important Babel-Mandeb Strait. Further up from Djibouti on the Red Sea along the Eritrean seacoast, the shipping lane is only about 150 km from Ethiopian territory and caries significant international traffic for Energy security in Europe. Interference or a surge in illegal migration across the Red Sea towards the Gulf States would have to be avoided at all costs. Nothing could illustrate better the sensitivity of Djibouti’s strategic location than the concentrated military presence. There are no less than five foreign military bases in Djibouti. The US keeps its largest base in Africa there and China its largest overseas base, along with France, Italy and Japan.   

The Way Forward In Conflict Resolution And Mediation

PM Abiy has so far refused outside mediation or negotiation with the TPLF faction, labelling the intervention a “law enforcement action” and an internal matter of Ethiopia. The designated panel of African Union mediators (three former heads of state from Liberia, Mozambique and South Africa) has not been allowed to engage after they arrived in Addis Ababa last week. Commentators have criticized the AU of being inconsistent and bowing to Ethiopian pressure, since the AU is headquartered in Addis Ababa. The EU has nominated Finland’s Foreign Minister as an Envoy for the conflict, and both the EU and the UN  already keep envoys for the Horn of Africa in Nairobi and in Addis Ababa. High-level coordination and cooperation are therefore well resourced. Once sufficient trust has been built for an Ethiopian-led process to bring the protagonists to the table, flanking support can be provided to an African Union mediation effort.

Despite the current challenges, an Ethiopian-led genuine dialogue and comprehensive normalization process can still gain traction. This would require a tailored set of confidence building measures (CBMs) to reassure the parties that a return to the battlefield is firmly excluded and a modicum of oversight internationally guaranteed. Incentives can be created  for quick recovery, restoring trust in stability among neighboring states, and in justice and the rule of law as harbingers of reform which is a shared interest of all protagonists. Along the vectors of conflict risks outlines above, these initiatives can help open the door to national reconciliation and more comprehensive mediation processes around the time of the next Ethiopian general election in 2021.

Some analysts are proposing a basic3-Step Planto launch negotiations (including ceasefire, humanitarian access, mutual acceptance and national dialogue for a new dispensation of power in state and federal level relations as well as constitutional reform). In the Horn of Africa region, many leaders are cautious about formal ‘power sharing’ arrangements which showed their limits in situations such as South Sudan. Therefore, smaller discreet steps and targeted incentives run in parallel might be advisable in the short run to create a more conducive environment for broader mediated talks:

  1. Provide expertise for an inventory of heavy and crew-served weapons and cantonment under mixed supervision, e.g. with International Observers.
  • Establish common principles for Security Sector Reform steps in affected areas, with focus on the regime and command and control over provincial militias / paramilitary units and police forces as well as training in Protection of Civilians; monitoring of military tribunals to ensure the conflict parties are seeing fair trials against worst offenders.
  • Launch rapid projects for connecting infrastructure and self-help reconstruction for returnees with the goal of normalizing conditions in Tigray province and on the borders;devise labor-intensive programs to benefit transport and trade corridors as  outlined by the World Bank and African Development Bank in order to boost the region’s economic potentials, create jobs and foster entrepreneurship.

Matthias E Leitner, Senior Adviser/ International Coordinator with ICSVE Center Washington, DC (USA), Berlin-based Matthias Ernst LEITNER has over 20 years’ experience in international peace and security, mainly in UN and regional peace operations across Africa and in the Middle East. His professional focus is on governance/ accountability, national dialogues and coalition building as well as on project development for preventing violent extremism and radicalization. Mr. Leitner has held senior management positions with UN Special Envoy Offices. His ongoing interest is in UN reforms, peacebuilding and innovative approaches for resilience to the COVID-19 Pandemic. His academic background from Bonn and Oxford Universities is in languages and history.

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The new role of formal and informal academic diplomacy for the China-Africa Forum

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Chinese think tanks and research centers play an important role in political decision-making by developing general visions for formulating important political and development decisions in the Chinese and western states. In the recent time, there are seven Chinese study centers entered the global ranking of the best Chinese think tanks around the world, and occupied the first global ranks, most notably:

  (China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China Institute of International Studies, Development Research Center of the State Council, Institute of International and Strategic Studies of Peking University, Center for China and Globalization, Shanghai Institute of International Studies)

 The (Union of Cooperation of Research Countries for the “Belt and Road” initiative) was established on April 8, 2015, which cooperates with most research centers in China to study the “Belt and Road” initiative and its projects. The Chinese side has officially announced the inauguration and opening of (a committee for the cooperation of international research centers for the “Belt and Road” countries) in the capital, Beijing, under the joint sponsorship of 15 Chinese, foreign and African research centers.  Here, the strength of the research centers working on studies of the “Belt and Road” initiative projects in achieving Chinese development around the world and facilitating academic, research and knowledge communication between China and the world increases. There is no doubt that these research centers are now playing a greater role in deepening political communication and popular communication in building the “belt  and the Chinese Road” in the future.

 At present, Chinese think tanks and research centers play a new and influential role, especially after the announcement of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, through its new practice of what is known as “academic diplomacy”, which is entrusted with sending Chinese experts and academics working in think tanks.  Chinese scholars with different disciplines, by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs or others, either to find out the prospects for a settlement or to participate in mediation or negotiations about certain political crises, and this is formally or informally, in an announced way or in a parallel track, and sometimes these Chinese researchers and academics are assigned to participate in international conferences to learn about the latest political information and theses to serve the goals of the political decision-maker in Beijing.

  The most applicable example of this is what was announced by the ruling Communist Party in Beijing in 2015, to develop between 50 to 100 Chinese research institutions by the year 2020, in addition to the Chinese Communist Party’s call in particular for the development of think tanks specialized in strategic issues and policies related to studies of the Belt and Road. China is also currently working on a large scale to open think tanks outside the geographical scope of the Chinese state in order to enhance international cooperation within the framework of its huge Belt and Road initiative.

  Chinese think tanks and research centers are now playing a new role, known as the revolving door policy between diplomats, officials, or senior positions in the Chinese state and its ruling Communist Party, and between experts and workers in those think tanks for research and studies, in terms of alternating various positions in order to assume senior leadership positions within the party. The ruling communist and its various grassroots and party branches in all Chinese provinces and cities. In addition to its most important role in political and partisan education of the masses.

 In this context, we note that Chinese think tanks have now become one of the most important actors influencing the decision-making process, and we see this through the arrival of many researchers of these centers to work in various sectors related to the Chinese Communist Party, in addition to their most important role in looking forward to the future by completing future studies, or forward-looking, especially with the emergence of the science of futurism in the world, the results of which have become one of the basic requirements for strategic planning and for making the most correct decisions in the Chinese state.

  In analogy to this, the Secretariat of the Chinese Follow-up Committee of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum through a number of researchers and academics associated with Chinese think tanks and research centers, led by: (The Chinese African Institute, the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University, the Peking University Center for African Studies) that have been played a major role  On advancing the spirit of friendship and cooperation between China and Africa and working together to implement global development initiatives and achieve the following three goals, as follows:

  • First: Enhancing the level of comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Africa
  • Second: Accelerating the implementation of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
  • Third: Enhancing coordination between the vision of Chinese-African cooperation 2035, China’s vision 2035, the United Nations Plan for Sustainable Development for the year 2030, and Africa’s Agenda 2063.

  The China-Africa Forum for Think Tanks has played a major and important role in the new Chinese academic diplomacy, whether formally or informally.  Majors, the most prominent points of convergence between China and the African continent and activating this through the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, in light of this delicate and sensitive time, in which peace in the world is threatened, and development faces great challenges, especially after the Coronavirus pandemic caused waves of shocks that swept the global economy, and caused the largest global economic crisis, and led to a sharp increase in inequality within and between countries.

 Therefore, the role of Chinese experts and academics associated with the Chinese Belt and Road think tanks came to discuss China’s role and its effects through a round table with their African counterparts after the formation of what is known as the China-Africa Think Tank Forum, which is a major quantum leap in the field of academic and research cooperation between Chinese think tanks and their African counterpart in the new era, according to the vision of Chinese President “Xi Jinping”. This was evident as well, through China’s hosting of the meetings of the eleventh session of the China-Africa Forum for Think Tanks, which was hosted by the Chinese capital, Beijing, under the title of:

 “Strengthening the spirit of friendship and cooperation between China and Africa through joint action on the Chinese global development initiative”

 Through my analytical vision as an expert in Chinese political affairs, I found that the role of Chinese think tanks and research in African affairs has become significant in advancing cooperation and coordination between the two sides, through the China-Africa Forum for Think Tanks, which was officially launched and publicized to activate research and academic cooperation between the two countries.  China and Africa.  What stopped me most, on a personal, analytical, and academic level, was the fruitful and extensive meetings and discussions that took place in November 2021 between the experts of the China-Africa Forum for think tanks, both Chinese and their African counterparts, which was discussed at length over two full days of dialogues and discussions between the two parties, in the presence of  More than 200 participants of African and Chinese officials and specialists, in addition to the participation of about fifty experts, academics and specialized researchers representing all Chinese and African think tanks and research related to the topics of discussion, from about 19 African countries and regions via the Internet.  Several important issues were discussed between Chinese and African experts in the context of the comprehensive strategic cooperation relations between China and Africans, and the results of the eighth ministerial conference of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum, which was held in the Senegalese capital “Dakar” in November, discussed the important results, and what Beijing put forward, with new programs and initiatives for the future development of the world.

 This has been confirmed by Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister “Ding Li”, that the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, the China Global Development Initiative and the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (FOCAC) are a Chinese response to contribute to global development, as well as the development of the African continent, and this was discussed at length through  China and Africa experts through several meetings, meetings and round tables between the two parties, and convey what was agreed upon to the decision makers of the two parties.

  Hence, we will find that Chinese thought and research centers linked to Africa have a major role in making and influencing the political decision of Beijing and the leaders of the ruling Communist Party with regard to the development component of the African continent, as Africa is for the Chinese an important model for promoting cooperation between the countries of the South, as well as being a model for global development cooperation promoted by China in Africa and the world.

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Sergey Lavrov to Choose between Illusions and Reality for Africa

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Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, Jan 26, 2023

Late January, four African countries – South Africa, Eswatini, Angola and Eritrea – officially hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He went visiting these African countries, as part of laying the groundwork and testing the pulse, ahead of  the forthcoming second Russia-Africa summit set for late July in St. Petersburg. The first such summit was held in Sochi from October 2019 under the motto “For Peace, Security and Development” which attracted a large number of African representatives.

As Russia prepares to strengthen its overall corporate economic profile during the next African leaders summit, many Russian policy experts are questioning bilateral agreements that were signed, many of them largely remained unimplemented, with various African countries.

At the prestigious Moscow-based Institute for African Studies, well-experienced policy researchers such as Professors Vladimir Shubin and Alexandra Arkhangelskaya have argued that Russia needs to be more strategic in aligning its interests and be more proactive with instruments and mechanisms in promoting economic cooperation in order to reap the benefits of a fully-fledged bilateral partnership.

“The most significant positive sign is that Russia has moved away from its low-key strategy to vigorous relations, and authorities are seriously showing readiness to compete with other foreign players. But, Russia needs to find a strategy that really reflects the practical interests of Russian business and African development needs,” said Arkhangelskaya, who is also a Senior Lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics.

Currently, the signs for Russia-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, important bilateral agreements signed – now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements entered into these years will be implemented in practice, she pointed out in an interview.

The revival of Russia-African relations have to be enhanced in all fields. Obstacles to the broadening of Russia-African relations have to be addressed more vigorously. These include, in particular, the lack of knowledge or information in Russia about the situation in Africa, and vice versa, suggested Arkhangelskaya.

While answering questions from the “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin” television programme, December 25, 2022, Lavrov explained that Russia’s motto is the balance of interests. “This balance is the core of our foreign policy. It is the only approach that has prospects in international affairs,” he reiterated, so Russia should balance its interest (not to describe them as enemies) with other external players in Africa.

Lavrov has been in the ministerial seat these several years and, of course, seems to be up to the existing challenges and the comprehensive policy tasks in continental Africa. In Pretoria, Lavrov held discussions with South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor. While talking later about Russia-Ukraine crisis at the media briefing, Lavrov said Moscow appreciated “the independent, well-balanced and considerate approach” taken by Pretoria. South Africa has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia has been hit by unprecedented stringent sanctions, suffers from isolation.

South Africa has now assumed the chairmanship of the BRICS, a grouping that includes Brazil, Russia, India and China. It will, however, host joint maritime drills with Russia and China in February 17 to 27, off the port city of Durban and Richards Bay. Some experts say BRICS grouping, especially in the emerging new geopolitical world, throws many challenges to United States and European-led global governance structures.

In August 2023, South Africa will host the BRICS summit. In this context, the sides expressed confidence that Pretoria’s upcoming chairmanship of this group opened up new opportunities for its future development, including in the context of expanding the partnerships between the five BRICS countries and African states.  

Currently, South Africa has little trade with Russia but champions a world view – favoured by China and Russia – that seeks to undo perceived U.S.-hegemony in favour of a “multipolar” world in which geopolitical power is more diffuse. 

Nevertheless, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor called for greater economic cooperation between South Africa and Russia at the start of her meeting with Lavrov. “Our countries share growing economic bilateral relations both in terms of trade and investments,” she said. “It is my view that both countries can and must do more to develop and capitalize on opportunities to increase our cooperation in the economic sphere.”

Besides that as indicated above however, Lavrov mentioned peaceful space, high technology, smart cities, and nuclear energy as promising areas of collaboration with South Africa. Pretoria expresses readiness to collaborate, but the question is how to build a supply chain and financial services for collaborative projects in the face of Western sanctions imposed on Russia.

The two are members of BRICS, a grouping of major emerging economies, although they remain relatively insignificant markets for each other: Russia ranked as South Africa’s 33rd-largest trading partner in 2021, with two-way flows amounting to just $1.46 billion. In comparision, South Africa trade with the United States were $10.2 billion in 2021.

Reports have also pointed to the negative effects of Russia’s opaque transactions with South Africa under Zuma administration. “There is a split in the South African establishment between the ruling ANC party and the opposition, which is fiercely against Russian-South African collaboration. There are fears that the country’s frenetic anti-Russian media campaign may gradually tip the scales against Moscow. Nonetheless, for the time being, South Africa is interested in broadening its foreign relations, particularly through the BRICS,” Researcher at the Institute for International Studies at MGIMO, Maya Nikolskaya, told local Russian daily Kommersant.

Maya Nikolskaya underlined the fact that 2022 was generally not an easy year for Russian-African relations. Majority of African countries found themselves under tremendous pressure from the West. However, Moscow still has great potential in Africa: Russia is a major grain exporter and in turn, “Moscow is interested in new sales markets, so building alternative value chains is in the interests of both parties,” the expert explained about Russia’s relations with South Africa.

On his second stopover in the Kingdom of Eswatini, Lavrov expressed deep worriness about the Western dominance, and situations guided mostly by the orders of the former colonial powers. “We understand the painful feelings of the US and Europe, as the structure of international relations is changing, becoming multipolar, polycentric. We cannot change our Western friends and make them polite, behave democratically,” Lavrov said at a news conference following talks with the Kingdom of Eswatini’s top diplomat, Thulisile Dladla.

Reports indicated that King of Eswatini Mswati III has been invited to the Russia-Africa summit to be held this year in St. Petersburg. And Moscow plans to deepen its interaction with Eswatini in the area of Russian grain supplies, the construction of irrigation systems, energy and mineral resources mining. “We stated that efforts should be focused now on the economic sphere, which by its indicators so far lags far behind other areas of our cooperation, above all the excellent level of political dialogue,” the Russian top diplomat said. 

About 50 Swazi nationals are receiving military education at Russian Defence Ministry colleges, further agreed to step up cooperation in the field of security. Tongue-twisting Lavrov repackaged a long list of projects, nearly all the sectors including industry, agriculture, information communications technology, digital, education, culture and many others. With a small population of 1.2 million, Eswatini is a the tiny landlocked country in Southern Africa.

During the media conference, he made references to his previous tour in Africa (Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia) and also to the Arab League headquarters. He also discussed BRICS at length, particularly proposals for its expansion, as well as its role in the global economy, globalization and global finance. “BRICS is not planning to shut the door to the rest of the world. On the contrary, we would like to cooperate with all countries as much as possible, equally and based on the balance of interests. The BRICS countries’ approach to global affairs is winning the sympathy of more and more countries across the world, including in Asia, Africa and Latin America,” he asserted.

Wrapping his “business-as-usual” meetings in Eswatini, Lavrov referred to countries as China, India, Turkey et cetera that are emerging together as new multipolar world. But these countries have good economic footprints in Africa. For Russia to recognizably play dominating role similar to China, India and Turkey, it has to make a complete departure from frequent rhetorics and work seriously on its economic policy dimensions in Africa.

The Kingdom of Eswatini, officially renamed from Swaziland in 2018, is a constitutional monarchy with the current constitution in force since February 8, 2006. The country is a member of the British-led Commonwealth. Eswatini, with an approximate population of 1,2 million (2021), is bordered by South Africa and Mozambique. It has had diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation since November 19, 1999.

Upon his arrival on January 24, Lavrov and his delegation were welcomed by his Angolan counterpart, Tete Antonio. On the next day, he held an in-depth discussion with President João Lourenço. According to the transcript, the focus was on the preparations for the next meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission on Economic, and Scientific-Technical Cooperation and Trade in Luanda in late April. Both, however, outlined steps to advance strategic partnership across all areas.

With Minister of External Relations Tete Antonio, there were questions relating to the launch of Angola’s AngoSat-2 satellite and that allows to continue cooperating in the peaceful exploration of outer space and other high-tech areas. Lavrov and Antonio have ultimately agreed to expedite the coordination of several new intergovernmental agreements, including those on the opening of cultural centres and on the nuclear power industry, humanitarian missions and merchant shipping.

Eritrea was Lavrov’s final working station. With an estimated population of 5.8 million, it is located on the Red Sea, in the Horn of Africa region of Eastern Africa. Russia and Eritrea have had diplomatic relations since May 1993. President Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea with an iron fist since independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Eritrea was one of the countries that voted against a UN resolution condemning Russia over the situation in Ukraine in March 2022.

In April 2022, Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed made a visit to Moscow. Both Lavrov and Mohammed reaffirmed Russia’s strategic interest to make coordinated efforts aim at building logistics hub along the coastline. During their meeting, Lavrov promised Moscow’s contribution towards stronger stability and security in the Horn of Africa.

As far back 2018, Lavrov spoke extensively about economic cooperation. According to him, Russia’s truck maker KAMAZ was already working in Eritrea, supplying its products to that country, as was Gazprombank Global Resources, which was building cooperation in the banking sector. The same year 2018, concrete talks were held to build a logistics centre at the port of Eritrea, that makes world’s class logistics and services hub for maritime transportation through the Suez Canal and definitely set to promote bilateral trade.

According to the transcript posted on the website, Lavrov said: “we cooperate in many diverse areas: natural resources, all types of energy engineering, including nuclear and hydroelectric energy, and new sources of energy, infrastructure in all its aspects, medicine, the social sphere, transport and many more.” 

Still that same year, Eritrea was interested in opening a Russian language department at one of the universities in the capital of the country, Asmara. Lavrov further indicated: “We agreed to take extra measures to promote promising projects in the sphere of mining and infrastructure development and to supply specialized transport and agricultural equipment to Eritrea.”

As always, Lavrov’s discussions with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki focused on “strengthening bilateral relations as well as regional developments of interest to the two countries.” He, however, reaffirmed Russia’s unconditional commitment to fulfilling all of its obligations under export contracts to send critical food supplies to African countries in need, including under the package agreements reached with the participation of the United Nations.

Isaias Afwerki further listened carefully as Lavrov listed mountains of proposals including those relating to the economy, mining, information and communication technologies, agriculture, infrastructure projects, the possibilities of the sea and air ports of Massawa, as well as Russian proposals for the development of industry in Eritrea. “All these are topics for the upcoming consultations between our ministries of economy. We agreed to start them soon and give them a regular character,” he convincingly assured.

In summary, Lavrov’s trip to Africa, which has become a renewed diplomatic battleground since the Ukraine war began, has taken him to Angola, Eswatini and South Africa. As previously, not a single development project was commissioned in any of the those African countries he visited. It was the usual diplomatic niceties, “dating and promising” but, at least, with a bouquet for the bride.

During his four-African country visit, Lavrov did not hold meetings with any youth and women groups neither did he address a gathering African entrepreneurs. He did not visit any Russian-funded project facility sites to first-hand assess developments and progress there, not any educational establishment especially those dealing with international relations. His meetings were state-centric and mostly office-centered. Throughout his speeches, not a single reference to the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). While exploring more opportunities, there was absolutely nothing on Covid-19 and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines or offer practical proposals to develop vaccines for other deadly diseases across Africa.

Lavrov left Moscow the next day after his three-hour media conference, summing up foreign policy achievements and the way forward on 18 January.  During that conference, Africa only appeared at the bottom of the discussions. And yet Africa is considered as “a priority” in Russia’s policy. Lavrov made a sketchy response about Africa, and then reminded the gathering of the forthcoming summit planned for late July 2023. He, however, mentioned that there were drafted documents to reset cooperation mechanisms in this environment of sanctions and threats, and in the context of geopolitical changes.

“There will be new trade and investment cooperation tools, logistics chains and payment arrangements. The change to transactions in national currencies is under way. This process is not a rapid one, but it is in progress and gaining momentum,” he told the gathering in quick remarks, then swiftly closed the media conference that day.

Nevertheless, African leaders are consistently asked to support Russia against Ukraine. Since the symbolic October 2019 gathering in Sochi, extremely little has happened. With high optimism and a high desire to strengthen its geopolitical influence, Russia has engaged in trading slogans, and many of its signed bilateral agreements have not been implemented, including all those from the first Russia-Africa summit. The summit fact-files show that 92 agreements and contracts worth a total of $12.5 billion were signed, and before that several pledges and promises still undelivered.

Since his appointment in 2004 as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov has succeeded in building high-level political dialogues in Africa. But, his geopolitical lectures have largely overshadowed Russia’s achievements in Africa. Throughout these several years of his official working visits to Africa, unlike his Chinese counterparts, Lavrov hardly cuts ribbons marking the completion of development projects in Africa.

That however, he needs simultaneously to understand how to approach ideas from inside Africa. These ideas could offer Russia hopes for raising its economic cooperation to a qualitatively new level and ultimately contribute to the building of sustainable relations with Africa. The new scramble for Africa is gaining momentum, therefore Russians have to face the new geopolitical realities and its practical existing challenges. But in the nutshell, Russians seem to close their eyes on the fact that Africa’s roadmap is the African Union Agenda 2063.

For more information, look for the latest Geopolitical Handbook titled “Putin’s African Dream and The New Dawn” (Part 2) devoted to the second Russia-Africa Summit 2023.

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Janet Yellen: U.S. Focuses on Business Investment and Infrastructure Development in Africa

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United States officials, at least, are strategically moving to reset multi-dimensional relations with Africa after the last African leaders summit held in Washington. President Joseph Bidden and Vice President Kamala Harris, in well-coordinated working agenda, with the White House, the Department of African Affairs and the U.S. Treasury are up to the task. This challenging task is backed with $55 billion budget publicly announced during the African leaders gathering.

It all began with series of working visit to Africa late December and early 2023, which underscored the message delivered by Biden at last summit: “The United States is all in on Africa, and all in with Africa.” The $55 billion budget and along with private sector investment for Africa, well-built institutionalized structures and the African-American diaspora are distinctively linking together the United States and Africa. 

On January 20, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen went for a 10-day trip to three African countries that aims to revitalize and expand U.S.-African ties and address challenges such as climate change, food security and debt in Africa. After decades in which China has dominated investment on the continent, the U.S. is pitching itself as a more sustainable alternative. In the sub-Sahara, Yellen visited Senegal, Zambia and South Africa.

That will be followed by the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who travelled to three Republics of Ghana, Mozambique and Kenya starting Jan. 25  and another round trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken official visits to Eastern Western and Southern Africa.

In Dakar, Yellen had an extensive and fruitful discussions with Senegalese President Macky Sall, who is also the rotating Chair of the African Union. The African Union is a 55-member continental organization with headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. With President Macky Sall, she highlighted United States efforts to boost economic ties with the region “by expanding trade and investment flows,” according to official reports.

Later, she also interacted with Senegal’s Minister of Economy, International Planning, and Cooperation Oulimata Sarr, who, like Yellen, is also the first woman to serve in her current role. In a meeting with Finance Minister Mamadou Moustapha Ba, Yellen said the two officials had “much to discuss on how best to meet the challenges both of our countries face, including in the context of global financial tightening and an increasingly uncertain global economic environment. The U.S. is committed to working with Africa to realize that promise, because we know that a stronger African economy is good for the world, and good for the United States.”

In a speech delivered at a business event in Senegal’s capital Dakar, Yellen mapped out the United States vision for strengthening African relations, eyeing the massive economic opportunities created by its demographic boom.

Currently, Senegal is participating in a G-20 programme that helps finance a shift from fossil fuels to clean power generation, it’s also on the verge of becoming a significant fossil-fuel producer. A new offshore project straddling its border with Mauritania is projected to bring Senegal $1.4 billion of oil and gas revenue from 2023 to 2025. The project may also provide Europe with energy relief as it turns away from Russian gas and oil.

Reports indicated that Treasury Yellen gave the concrete go-ahead on rural electrification project in Senegal. The new rural electrification project estimated to bring reliable power to 350,000 people while supporting some 500 jobs in 14 American States.

Our monitoring shows that Yellen traveled to the site of the project, headed by Illinois-based engineering firm Weldy Lamont. The new project received technical assistance from the U.S. Power Africa initiative, capacity building through the U.S. Agency for Trade and Development, and a $102.5 million loan guarantee from the Export-Import Bank.

“Our goal is to further deepen our economic relationship and to invest in expanding energy access in a way that uses renewable resources spread across the continent,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen underlined in her remarks. Senegal has among the highest rates of electrification across Sub-Saharan Africa – between 70% and 80% – but access to electricity remains far more limited in rural areas.

Such disparities can hinder opportunity for households and businesses in areas otherwise ripe for economic development, Yellen said. The project includes an important renewable energy element with a solar grid to power 70 villages. “This groundbreaking will create a higher quality of life in many communities, and it will help Senegal’s economy grow and prosper. It will also help Senegal get one step closer to its goal of universal electricity access by 2025,” she said.

Yellen, who met women and youth entrepreneurs in Dakar, said the electrification project would allow Senegal to rely on energy sources that are within its borders, cost effective and not prone to the kind of volatility in energy prices sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. Power Africa project has helped connect 165 million people to reliable electricity across Africa. Its goal is to add at least 30,000 megawatts (MW) of cleaner and more reliable electricity generation capacity and 60 million new home and business connections by 2030.

Yellen, then, travelled to Zambia to meet President Hakainde Hichilema as well as other finance officials. President Hichilema, who took office in 2021, has promised to restore the copper-rich nation’s credibility and creditworthiness after inheriting a cash-strapped economy. Here, she spoke on efforts to improve global health and prepare for future pandemics, as well as on food production.

Yellen cited $11 billion in commitments by the U.S. Development Finance Corp and $3 billion in programmes by the Millennium Challenge Corp in 14 African countries, with more in the pipeline. On a wider scale, the G7 group of wealthy Western nations also planned to mobilise some $600 billion for global infrastructure investments over the next five years.

“We are saying that African countries firmly belong at the table. Their communities are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of global challenges. And any serious solution requires African leadership and African voices,” she said.

In South Africa, which recently assumed the chairmanship of the BRICS emerging economies group, Yellen held talks with Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana and South Africa Reserve Bank Governor Lesetja Kganyago. She also visited the Ford assembly plant to showcase successful examples of U.S.-Africa economic relations.

Washington provided about $13 billion in emergency aid and food assistance last year, and was now setting up a U.S.-Africa strategic partnership to address the short-term food needs of more than 300 million Africans, Yellen said. It is also helping to build more resilient and sustainable systems for the future.

In practical terms, Yellen focused on building relationships and understanding the barriers to investment and business in Africa. Our monitoring shows that Chinese trade with Africa is about four times that of the United States, and Beijing rapidly expanded its lending by offering cheaper loans, although the opaque terms and collateral requirements are now being questioned by some African countries.

United States is currently looking to broaden investment in South Africa, which is developing new legislation to speed up energy projects. There are a number of external players showing interest in the energy sector, these include Russia, China, United Arab Emirates and others in the Arab world.

Former US ambassador Susan Page told AFP that despite positive developments like the major summit in Washington last year, “the proof is in the pudding” when it comes to pledges of support for African countries. “Are they really going to come up with the serious money… Or is it going to be a trade-off?” asked Page, now a professor at the University of Michigan. She added that while US moves have been largely framed as countering China’s advances, it “is a shame because African countries want to be treated as Africa, and not as a wedge between great power competition.”

Joseph Siegle, who leads the Africa Center for Strategic Studies research programme, said the scope of Yellen’s visit was far broader than the matter of China’s influence. “From an emerging market standpoint there is a lot going on there – with its resources and growth and a large African diaspora in the U.S. Arguably the U.S. has not paid enough attention to Africa with the rigor that’s warranted,” he said. “I think the significance of this trip is trying to rectify there hasn’t been enough high-level engagement on the part of the U.S. in Africa.”

In fact, despite criticisms especially over neo-colonialism and unipolarism, the United States and Africa are culturally, and by biological blood, are inseparable. According to the latest World Bank report, remittances from the African diaspora to the continental was $49 billion in 2021. 

With rivals China and Russia competing for influence and opportunity in Africa, the United States has been working to stave off an erosion of its once-powerful position in the region. But as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly noted the histories of the United States and Africa were “intimately connected” by the “tragedy” of slavery, as Washington seeks to strengthen relations with the continent. Speaking at Goree Island off the Senegalese capital of Dakar, the largest slave trading centre on the African coast. 

For their part, many African countries say they are keen for increased investment and financial support for infrastructure development across Africa. And that Africa is only ready for potential credible investors, and not for active sloganeers and ideological choristers. Africa is not a field for confrontation, but for cooperating on transforming the economy and operate the single continental market.

In the emerging multipolar world, the United States still shares cultural values and democratic principles with Africa. The trans-Atlantic slave trade is an integral  part of both American and African history. United States is their second home, nowhere else. United States and Africa are ‘intimately connected’ by slavery, have culturally indivisible bondage, and currently with the growing African-American diaspora it is completely absurd and awkward for external geopolitical rival countries asking African leaders and Africans to abandon their history and the United States.

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