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Terrorism: The Sahel-5 are turning to Russia

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With renewed interest to uproot French domination, Russia has ultimately began its inroads into the Sahel region, an elongated landlocked territory located between north Africa (Maghreb) and west Africa region, and also stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. While it remains largely underdeveloped and greater part of the population impoverished, terrorist organizations including Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are operating and have contributed to the frequent violence, extremism and instability in this vast region.

As usually referred to as the G5 Sahel, it consists of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Besides the instability, these countries are engulfed with various socio-economic problems primarily due to the system of governance and poor policies toward sustainable development. There are, in addition, rights abuse and cultural practices that affect development.

In July 2020, the United States raised concerns over growing number of allegations of human rights violations and abuses by state security forces in entire Sahel. The US response came after the released documents by Human Rights Watch regarding the same in early July. France, former colonial power, still attempt at dominating the region. France has announced the pulling out of the military force, abruptly ending its terrorism operations and thus creating a huge vacuum.

For fear and concerns about the new rise of terrorism, the Sahel-5 are turning to Russia. Last year after the political change on August 18 in Mali, a former French colony with the fractured economy and breeding field for armed Islamic jihadist groups, Russia offered a tremendous assistance. By showing support for the military government in Mali, Russia has utterly ignored or violated the protocols for implementing the “Silencing the Guns” agenda in West Africa, a flagship programme of the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063. Now Russia is capitalizing on this loophole opportunity, as a new conduit, to penetrate into the Sahel.

Russia has lined up Foreign Ministers of these countries in the Sahel, the latest was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Integration and Chadians Abroad of the Republic of Chad, Cherif Zene Mahamat, who paid a working visit on December 6‒8. Prior to that, Malian Foreign Minister went in November. Both meetings discussed most extensively consolidating military assistance to fight growing terrorism, and review efforts to strengthen the political dialogue and promote some kind of ties relating to trade and the economy in the region.

Earlier November, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, together with Sergey Lavrov agreed on terms of helping in the Sahel. Lavrov referred to this in opening remarks as “military and technical cooperation” with Faki Mahamat – “a worthy representative in this high position of pan-regional importance.”

On December 7, Lavrov held diplomatic meeting with Chadian Cherif Mahamat. “We discussed African affairs at length: the difficult situation in the Sahara-Sahel zone that was destabilized after NATO’s aggressive attack on Libya. This was followed by an inflow of terrorists, smugglers, and volumes of illegal weapons from the north to the south of Africa. These criminals were particularly attracted to this area and the Lake Chad region,” Lavrov told the media conference following the closed-door meeting.

In the process, it is necessary to mobilize all available resources of the Africans themselves and the international community for fighting terrorist groups. Nevertheless, it is also necessary for Russia’s efforts to maintain the joint forces of the Sahel Five, according Lavrov. He further assured “we will continue supporting it with supply of arms and hardware and personnel training, including peacekeepers, as it is very important to help put an end to this evil and other challenges and threats, including drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime.”

According to several narratives and reports, Russia has agreed to push the Wagner mercenaries into the entire Sahara-Sahel, including the G5 Sahel group of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, which focused on combating terrorism. Many experts say Russia has set out to battle against neo-colonial tendencies of France, and stepping also to join what is often phrased “the scramble for resources” in Africa. In his remarks, Lavrov explicitly points to creating favorable conditions for the implementation of Russian projects in Chad, including in the field of energy and the extraction of mineral resources.

Further to the narratives, Russia has now embarked on fighting “neo-colonialism” which it considers as stumbling stone on its way to regain a part of the Soviet-era multifaceted influence in Africa. Russia has sought to convince Africans over the past years of the likely dangers of neocolonial tendencies perpetrated by the former colonial countries and the scramble for resources on the continent. But all such warnings largely could fall on deaf ears as African leaders choose development partners with funds to invest in the economy.

That however, there are vivid indications that Russia is broadening its geography of diplomacy covering poor African countries and especially fragile States that need Russia’s military assistance. Chad, Mali and Niger, for example, have appeared on its radar, Russia sees some potential there – as a possible gateway into the Sahel in Africa.

Russian Foreign Ministry has explained in a statement posted on its website, that Russia’s military-technical cooperation with African countries is primarily directed at settling regional conflicts and preventing the spread of terrorist threats and to fight the growing terrorism in the continent. Worth noting here that Russia, in its strategy on Africa is reported to be also looking into building military bases in the continent.

Over the past years, strengthening military-technical cooperation has been part of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. Russia has signed bilateral military-technical cooperation agreement nearly with many African countries. Researchers say it plans to build military bases as this article explicitly reported, among others.

Research Professor Irina Filatova at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow explains in an emailed discussions that “Russia’s influence in the Sahel has been growing just as French influence and assistance has been dwindling, particularly in the military sphere. It is for the African countries to choose their friends, but it would be better to deal directly with the government, than with (mercenaries of the Russian) Wagner group, whose connection with the government was barely recognized.”

In very particular cases, she unreservedly suggested: “If they wanted the Russians to come and fight Islamist groups, it would be much better to ask the government to send regular troops. Wagner’s vigilantes are not responsible to anybody, and the Russian government may refuse to take any responsibility for whatever they do in case something goes wrong.”

According to many experts and researchers, the arrival of Russian mercenaries – thousands are estimated – would jeopardize other external commitment to fighting terrorism, and limit development assistance from international organizations.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has oftentimes spoken against such collaboration, the use of Russian mercenaries in Africa. Instead, he has suggested pursuing the creation and deployment of the G5 Sahel Joint-Force and the United Nations Integrated Strategy (UNIS) for the Sahel could bring tangible progress. The countries in the region are particularly encouraged to adopt, with support from international partners, the necessary measures to fully implement the support plan in developing the region.

The Sahel-Sahara, the vast semi-arid region of Africa separating the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south, is as much a land of opportunities as it is of challenges. Although it has abundant human and natural resources, offering tremendous potential for rapid growth, there are deep-rooted challenges – environmental, political and security – that may affect the prosperity and peace of the Sahel.

For this reason, the United Nations has come up with a unique support plan targeting 10 countries to scale up efforts to accelerate prosperity and sustainable peace in the region. Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. The creation and deployment of the G5 Sahel Joint-Force and the United Nations Integrated Strategy (UNIS) for the Sahel could bring tangible progress.

The best is to consider national and regional institutions, bilateral and multilateral organizations, the private sector and civil society organizations to work towards operationalizing and implementing the United Nations Security Council resolutions on the Sahel aim at attaining regional peace, and further to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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West Africa: Extreme poverty rises nearly 3 per cent due to COVID-19

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Food insecurity is affecting millions of people in Burkina Faso. © UNICEF/Vincent Treameau

Extreme poverty in West Africa rose by nearly three per cent in 2020, another fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, a UN-backed report launched on Thursday that looks at the socio-impact of the crisis has revealed. 

The proportion of people living on less than $1.90 a day jumped from 2.3 per cent last year to 2.9 per cent in 2021, while the debt burden of countries increased amid slow economic recovery, shrinking fiscal space and weak resource mobilization. 

More than 25 million across the region are struggling to meet their basic food needs. 

Gains annihilated 

The study was published by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in partnership with the West Africa Sub-Regional Office for the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the World Food Programme (WFP). 

Sekou Sangare, the ECOWAS Commissioner for Agriculture, Environment and Water resources, said the pandemic has, in particular, annihilated benefits gained in fighting food insecurity and malnutrition. 

“Even if we are happy with the governments’ response through the mitigation actions they have taken, we have to worry about the residual effects of the health and economic crisis as they are likely to continue disturbing our food systems for a long time while compromising populations access to food, due to multiple factors,” he said

The report highlights the effects of measures aimed at preventing coronavirus spread, such as border closures, movement restrictions and disruption of supply chains. 

Forced to sell 

These measures had an impact on income-generating activities, and on food prices in markets, with small traders, street vendors and casual workers most affected. 

The deteriorating economic situation has adversely affected food security and nutrition in West Africa.  

More than 25 million people are unable to meet their basic food needs, a nearly 35 per cent increase compared to 2020. People have been forced to sell their assets and livelihoods in order to get enough to eat. 

The situation is most severe in those areas affected by conflict, such as the Lake Chad Basin region, the Sahel, and the Liptako-Gourma region, which borders Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. 

Strengthen social protection 

The partners hope the report will encourage public and private response to address the pandemic’s negative impacts on the people of West Africa. 

Chris Nikoi, WFP’s Regional Director for West Africa, underscored the need for immediate and concerted action. 

“This report clearly shows the urgent need for Governments and partners to deliberately increase investments to strengthen and increase social protection programs, social safety-nets such as school meals, and other livelihoods-enhancing programs with particular emphasis on women and youth,” he said. 

The Director of the ECA’s Sub-Regional Office, Ngone Diop, pointed to one of the strengths of the partnership, namely the ability to carry out an online survey which mobilized nearly 8,000 respondents. 

Moreover, she said “basing our analyses on primary, first-hand data from households directly impacted by the health crisis makes it possible to offer decision-makers at the regional and national levels with relevant and better-targeted policy options.” 

Responding to needs 

Since the outbreak of the pandemic nearly three years ago, ECOWAS and its partners have implemented several economic and financial measures to respond to the increasing needs in the region.  

ECOWAS Member States, with support from WFP and other technical partners, have also expanded social protection programmes, as well as food distributions, for the most vulnerable communities.  

For example, In Mali and Niger, they are supporting some 1.4 million people and helping to strengthen national social protection systems. 

“WFP is committed to engage more with ECOWAS in enhancing coordination and facilitating experience sharing among countries, with the aim to ensure social protection systems in the region support food security and nutrition and provide resilience to shocks,” said Mr. Nikoi. 

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Pragmatic Proposals to Optimize Russia’s Pledged Rehabilitation of Ethiopia

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A girl stands outside her home in the Tigray Region, Ethiopia. © UNICEF/Tanya Bindra

Russian Ambassador to Ethiopia Evgeny Terekhin pledged that his homeland will help rehabilitate his hosts after getting a clearer understanding of the full extent of the damage that the terrorist-designated Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) inflicted on the northern part of the country throughout the course of its approximately half-year-long occupation of the Afar and Amhara Regions. China’s Xinhua recently cited official Ethiopian government statistics about this which claim that the Amhara Region suffered damages upwards of approximately $5.7 billion.

According to their data, the TPLF partially or fully damaged 1,466 health facilities and vandalized water, electricity, and transport infrastructure. 1.9 million children are out of school in that region after more than 4,000 schools were damaged by the group. Over 1.8 million people were displaced from the Afar and Amhara Regions while 8.3 million there are suffering from food insecurity. The scale of this humanitarian crisis is massive and the direct result of the US-led West’s Hybrid War on Ethiopia that was waged to punish the country for its balanced foreign policy between the US and China.

It’s here where Russia can rely on its recent experiences in helping to rehabilitate Syria and the Central African Republic (CAR) in order to optimize its pledged rehabilitation of Ethiopian. Those two countries are much more war-torn than Ethiopia is, the latter of which only saw fighting in its northern regions instead of the entirety of its territory like the prior two did. The most urgent task is to ensure security in the liberated areas, which can be advanced by summer 2021’s military cooperation agreement between Russia and Ethiopia.

This pact could potentially see Russia sharing more details of its earlier mentioned experiences in order to enhance the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s (ENDF) security and stabilization operations in the northern part of the country. Syria and the CAR survived very intense Hybrid Wars that utilized cutting-edge military tactics and strategies against them similar to those that were subsequently directed against Ethiopia by the TPLF. It would help the ENDF to learn more about the challenges connected to ensuring security in areas that have been liberated from such contemporary Hybrid War forces.

The next order of business is to help the many victims of that country’s humanitarian crisis. Russia’s experience with assisting Syria in this respect, which suffered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in decades, can be of use to Ethiopia. This is especially the case when it comes to aiding its internally displaced people. Their immediate needs must be met and maintained, which might require urgent support from that country’s trusted partners such as Russia. Provisioning such in an effective and timely manner can also improve Russia’s international reputation too, especially among Africans.

Northern Ethiopia’s post-war rehabilitation must be comprehensive and sustainable. The country’s Medemer philosophy — which has been translated as “coming together” – will form the basis of these efforts. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed touched upon this in his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize speech and his book of the same name that was released earlier that year. Its English translation hasn’t yet been published but Medemer was explained at length by high-level Ethiopian officials during an early 2020 US Institute of Peace panel talk and in Ethiopian writer Linda Yohannes’ insightful book review.

An oversimplification of it in the economic context is that Medemer preaches the need for comprehensive, inclusive, and sustainable growth through public-private and other partnerships that bring prosperity to all of its people, which in turn strengthens socio-political relations between them. It seeks to apply positive aspects of foreign models while avoiding the bad ones. The Medemer mentality aspires to balance cooperation with competition, constantly improving itself as needed, in order to synchronize and synergize Ethiopia’s natural economic advantages in people, location, and resources.

In practice, this could see Russian public and private companies partnering with Ethiopia’s primarily public ones to rehabilitate the northern regions’ damaged infrastructure. Since sustainable growth is one of Medemer’s key concepts, the country’s Russian partners could also train more laborers, social workers, teachers, and doctors throughout the course of these projects while offering scholarships to some internally displaced youth for example. In that way, Russia and Ethiopia could truly embody the Medemer spirit by literally bringing their people closer together as a result of these noble efforts.

All the while, Russia’s international media flagships of RT and Sputnik should be active on the ground documenting the entire experience. The immense influence that Moscow has in shaping global perceptions can be put to positive use in exposing the foreign-backed TPLF’s countless crimes against humanity in northern Ethiopia. This can powerfully counteract the US-led West’s information warfare campaign against its government, which misportrays the TPLF as innocent victims of the “genocidal” ENDF, exactly as similar Russian media efforts have done in debunking Western lies against Syria.

The world wouldn’t only benefit by learning more about the US-led West’s lies against Ethiopia, but also in seeing how effectively Russia is working to reverse the damage that their TPLF proxies inflicted in the northern part of that country. Russia is also a victim of their information warfare campaign, which misportrays the Kremlin as a dangerous and irresponsible international actor. The truth, however, is that Russia is a peaceful and responsible international actor that has a documented track record of cleaning up the West’s Hybrid War messes in Syria, the CAR, and prospectively soon even Ethiopia too.

Upon taking the lead in rehabilitating northern Ethiopia, Russia should diversify the stakeholders in that country’s prosperity in coordination with its hosts. It’s in Ethiopia’s interests as well to receive assistance from as many responsible and trusted partners as possible. Russia can help by requesting that relevant aid and multilateral rehabilitation efforts be placed on the agenda of the proposed heads of state meeting between the Russian, Indian, and Chinese (RIC) leaders that presidential aide Yury Ushakov said was discussed for early 2022 during President Putin’s latest video call with President Xi in December.

The RIC countries stood with in solidarity with Ethiopia at the United Nations in the face of the US-led West’s subversive attempts to weaponize international law against it. They’re strong economies in their own right, not to mention through their cooperation via BRICS and the SCO, the latter organization of which also has anti-terrorist and other security dimensions. These two multipolar platforms could potentially be used to extend economic, financial, humanitarian, and security cooperation to their Ethiopian partner to complement bilateral and trilateral efforts in this respect.

Russia’s increasingly strategic ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could also lead to Moscow working more closely with Abu Dhabi on related rehabilitation matters with their shared partners in Addis Ababa. Observers shouldn’t forget that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ) played a crucial role in brokering peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018. He even awarded their leaders his country’s highest civil honor when they both visited the UAE that summer. Furthermore, Al Jazeera alleges that the UAE has maintained a humanitarian (and possibly even military) air bridge to Ethiopia.

Regardless of whether or not the military aspect of this reported bridge is true or not, there’s no denying that the UAE has emerged as a major stakeholder in Ethiopia’s success. It deposited $1 billion in Ethiopia’s central bank in summer 2018 as part of its $3 billion aid and investment pledge at the time. The UAE also plans to build an Eritrean-Ethiopian oil pipeline in order to help the latter export its newly tapped reserves in the southeast. Additionally, DP World signed a memorandum with Ethiopia in May 2021 to build a $1 billion trade and logistics corridor to separatist Somaliland’s Berbera port.

Considering the closeness of Emirati-Ethiopian relations, it would therefore be fitting for RIC to incorporate the UAE as an equal partner into any potential multilateral plan that those countries might come up with during their proposed heads of state summit sometime in early 2022. It enjoys excellent relations with all three of them so it’s a perfect fit for complementing their shared efforts. Plus, the UAE has the available capital needed to invest in high-quality, long-term, but sometimes very expensive infrastructure projects, which can ensure northern Ethiopia’s sustainable rehabilitation.

It’s pivotal for Russia to prioritize its pledged rehabilitation of Ethiopia ahead of the second triennial Russia-Africa Summit that’s expected to take place in October or November after fall 2019’s first-ever summit saw Russia return to Africa following a nearly three-decade-long hiatus. Coincidentally, Ethiopia requested last April to hold the next event in Addis Ababa. That would be a sensible choice since its capital city hosts the African Union headquarters, has sufficient infrastructure, and can serve most of the continent through its Ethiopian Airlines, which regularly wins awards as Africa’s best airline.

The interest that Ethiopian Ambassador to Russia Alemayehu Tegunu recently expressed in courting more Russian investment ahead of the next summit goes perfectly well with Russian Ambassador to Ethiopia Terekhin’s vow to heighten cooperation between those countries’ ruling parties. This in turn raises the chances that the present piece’s proposals could hopefully serve as the blueprint for beginning relevant discussions as soon as possible on Russia’s pledged rehabilitation of Ethiopia with a view towards achieving tangible successes ahead of the next Russia-Africa Summit.

That timing is so important since Russia mustn’t miss the opportunity to showcase its bespoke “Democratic Security” model in Ethiopia. This emerging concept refers to the comprehensive thwarting of Hybrid War threats through economic, informational, military, and other tactics and strategies such as the action plan that was proposed in the present piece. “Democratic Security” approaches vary by country as evidenced from the differing ones that Russia’s practicing in Syria and the CAR, but the concept could attract many more African partners if it’s successful in Ethiopia by next fall’s summit.

Russia must therefore do everything in its power to bring this best-case scenario about. Rehabilitating Ethiopia won’t just improve millions of lives, expose the war crimes committed by the US-led West’s TPLF proxies, and enable Russia to showcase its “Democratic Security” model to other African countries, but ensure that the continent’s historical fountainhead of anti-imperialism and pan-Africanism survives its existential struggle. Upon that happening, Ethiopia can then serve to inspire a revival of these ideas all across Africa through its complementary Medemer concept and thus strengthen multipolarity.

From our partner RIAC

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Decade of Sahel conflict leaves 2.5 million people displaced

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Two displaced women sit at a camp in Awaradi, Niger. © UNOCHA/Eve Sabbagh

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called on Friday for concerted international action to end armed conflict in Africa’s central Sahel region, which has forced more than 2.5 million people to flee their homes in the last decade.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva, the agency’s spokesperson, Boris Cheshirkov, informed that internal displacement has increased tenfold since 2013, going from 217,000 to a staggering 2.1 million by late last year.

The number of refugees in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger now stands at 410,000, and the majority comes from Mali, where major civil conflict erupted in 2012, leading to a failed coup and an on-going extremist insurgency.

Increase in one year

Just last year, a surge in violent attacks across the region displaced nearly 500,000 people (figures for December still pending).

According to estimates from UN partners, armed groups carried out more than 800 deadly attacks in 2021. 

This violence uprooted some 450,000 people within their countries and forced a further 36,000 to flee into a neighbouring country.

In Burkina Faso alone, the total number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) rose to more than 1.5 million by the end of the year. Six in ten of the Sahel’s displaced are now from this country.

In Niger, the number of IDPs in the regions of Tillabéri and Tahoua has increased by 53 per cent in the last 12 months. In Mali, more than 400,000 people are displaced internally, representing a 30 per cent increase from the previous year.

Climate, humanitarian crisis

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating with crises on multiple fronts.

Insecurity is the main driver, made worse by extreme poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of the climate crisis are also felt more strongly in the region, with temperatures rising 1.5 times faster than the global average.

Women and children are often the worst affected and disproportionately exposed to extreme vulnerability and the threat of gender-based violence.

According to the UNHCR spokesperson, “host communities have continued to show resilience and solidarity in welcoming displaced families, despite their own scant resources.”

He also said that Government authorities have demonstrated “unwavering commitment” to assisting the displaced, but they are now “buckling under increasing pressure.”

Bold response

UNHCR and humanitarian partners face mounting challenges to deliver assistance, and continue to be the target of road attacks, ambushes, and carjacking.

In this context, the agency is calling on the international community to take “bold action and spare no effort” in supporting these countries.

UNHCR is also leading the joint efforts of UN agencies and NGOs to provide emergency shelter, manage displacement sites and deliver vital protection services, including combating gender-based violence and improving access to civil documentation.

In 2021, more than a third of the agency’s Central Sahel funding needs were unmet.

This year, to mount an effective response in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, the agency needs $307 million.

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