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Will Southern Africa be the next Sahel?

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the shift in the geopolitical world order that followed is undoubtedly at the epicenter of the global focus at the moment and with a reason. Nonetheless, there are copious other issues of political instability that have been causing civil unrest, with the majority of them happening in Sub-Saharan Africa. The most prevalent example is the insurgency wave in the Sahel, which started with the coup in Mali on 2020 that quickly created spillover effects in Guinea and Chad. Burkina Faso has been the latest victim of the military takeovers trend, where Lieutenant Colonel Paul Henri Damiba took and his military junta ousted President Roch Kabore. These disruptive events stem from the broader distress that exists in the local communities to the point that there is no opposition to the violent transition of power within their own country. Similar patterns within the society are expanding across the continent, nonetheless, with Southern Africa in particular facing several destabilization efforts within the last years. Hence, questions ought to be answered. What are the reasons behind this instability wave in the Sahel? Can they be found elsewhere in the continent? Will Southern Africa be the next Sahel?

Reasons for the instability

Understanding the magnitude of the strain the society in the Sahel is facing is paramount to be able to anticipate a potential replication in this insurgency in the rest of Africa. A factor of uttermost importance is the  surge in extreme hunger and poverty, the biggest one in the world, at a regional level. Only in 2021 the Sahel saw a spike of 67%, while Burkina Faso alone was the champion in this category, with a staggering 200% rise in extreme hunger. And while hunger has been deemed a key driver of hunger, it is not the only one. Climate change also has a strong reinforcing effect on that regard. It has been gauged that the region faces a 50% more severe stress from climate change than the global average. Lake Chad alone has seen a 90% decline of its surface, which has been the main source of fresh water for nearly 40 million people around the region.

To add to that, over the past 5 years the Sahel has become a place for action for several jihadist groups. Boko Haram has been expanding its hits to Chad after Nigeria, whereas in 2017 JNIM emerged as a serious jihadist threat to the region. Only in the first half of 2021, 420 civilians lost their lives during massacres and raids from violent extremist groups, most of which in motorbikes.

The three foregoing factors resulted in a perfect storm in this part of Africa, that was devilishly challenging to tackle from the regional leaders. The common theme of these three issues was insecurity, on one hand in the traditional manner of lack of safety and security, and on the other hand on the insecurity in the food-water-energy nexus. This was, thus, seen as a vacuum of power that ought to be filled by military leaders and resulted in a reverse trend to the previous one of democratization that existed in the region.

One of the same in Southern Africa?

The economic state of affairs presents numerous similarities in the southern tip of the continent, as a side effect of the pandemic. During the previous two years, Zimbabwe saw a 23.9% of the poorest people losing their jobs and increased the tally of the people who lived in extreme poverty by 1.3 million. This formulated a migration crisis, as many Zimbabweans attempted to find better conditions in neighboring South Africa, that increased tensions and took them from a national to an international level.

A similar situation is observed in the two small landlocked states of Lesotho and Eswatini as well. Endeavors to reduce poverty have blatantly failed and this has resulted in desperation among the masses. Here the civil unrest was expressed rather internally, where clashes in both countries with the local authorities throughout 2021 were audibly violent and resulted in many deaths in addition to the existing clashes between the different political entities. The energy stemming from the clear dissatisfaction of the population over the political status quo can easily be harvested by the military elites who, especially in Maseru, have portrayed their appetite before.

Complementary to the struggle with poverty, the region is recently facing terrorism from jihadist groups. More precisely, Mozambique has been dealing with insurgencies in Cabo Delgado, caused by Islamist militants, since 2017. The increasing violent attacks by the local Al-Shabab militia, which is deemed to be connected to the Islamist State(IS) peaked in 2020, when almost 1800 people lost their lives. Connecting these disruptive actions with the expansion of terrorism from the North to the South of the continent, it would be safe to infer that such groups would be eager to spread to South Africa on the long-term.

Climate change is also present as one of the myriad issues that have been a burden on the local communities. Temperatures are rising at double the global rate in the region and this is having a detrimental effect on food security, as droughts are becoming substantially more severe effect, devastating crops and livestock. Out of the few “survivors” in this category, the majority is then damaged by the intensified insect infections.

The landscape looks alarmingly similar to the one is Sahel, as several common patterns can be identified. However, there are also some points of incongruity. A main difference exists in the structure of the regional blocs, as ECOWAS in West Africa comprises of two zones , which is not the case for SADC in Southern Africa. Furthermore, the leading country in ECOWAS, due to its GDP share and power, is Nigeria, which is already dealing with extremist insurgencies and hence it becomes increasingly challenging to aid other member states, either diplomatically or militarily. This does not apply to South Africa, which, despite its struggles in various aspect of its society, is managing to maintain relative stability internally and has a strong military presence which allows the country to also aid peacekeeping processes in the neighborhood. In addition, DRC, lying at the north end of the SADC, has had some successful efforts of deterrence against extremist violence and this can function as a roadmap, provided there is enough regional collaboration on security.

One final pattern  that has been observed in one region and is not yet that evident on the other, despite signs that we should worry, is the presence of Russian PMC’s. Wagner Group, being the prevalent example, has had major impact in the North of the continent, in particular in the Sahel, Sudan and throughout the Central African Republic. However, this should not be grounds for relief in Southern Africa, since CSIS has reported that the Russian private military has been deployed in Botswana, Zimbabwe and DRC, among others. The isolation of Moscow following the invasion of Ukraine is only going to make its approach to foreign affairs more aggressive and militarized, so it is paramount to monitor the Russian PMC’s movements in Southern Africa

In a nutshell

The African continent is facing severe hits to its societal cohesion, security and democratization efforts, with Sahel being the region that faces mayhem, which caused a wave of coups. The patterns that cause this major upheaval are being replicated at a worryingly accelerating pace and are gradually reaching the southern tip of the continent. There lies one of the continent’s two largest economies, namely South Africa, but also resource-rich countries of uttermost importance for the global energy landscape, such as DRC and Mozambique. Comparing to the situation in Western Africa, there might be some common points, but there are also some points of divergence that might prove to be critical for the successful deterrence of the extremist threat and the avoidance of a series of military takeovers. It is paramount that the following recommendations are taken into consideration for that to happen:

-The SADC sets up a special security task force mainly responsible organized by the respective Organ on Politics, Defense and Security (OPDS). An increase on funding to this organ ought to be allocated, but at the same time it should be ensured that these expenditures do not create unwanted imbalances within the respective militaries.

-Special attention ought to be paid towards Russian PMC’s. Amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the isolation of Moscow, aggression efforts from the Kremlin are only projected to rise and actors like the Wagner Group are expected to geographically broaden their sphere of action.

-Hitherto, it would be helpful that other international security institutions are involved. NATO reaching out to Mauritania to assist the Sahel in fighting extremism was a good step forward and a similar approach could be taken with South Africa as an example, with the objective of signing an agreement on collaboration. Another institution that could be involved, in a diplomatic manner, could be the EU, predominantly for intraregional conflicts, such as the looming one between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

-In terms of food security and climate change, the SADC needs to reach out to the global community and the international institutions for further financial support packages after raising the issue in the UN World Food Program.

Dimitris Symeonidis is an energy policy & geopolitical risk analyst based in The Hague.His field of specialization is geopolitical risks in the energy transition and his areas of focus include Central Asia, South Caucasus and Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Africa

Russia Renews its Support to Mark Africa Day

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Russia has renewed its unique confidence that “it will be able to ensure the development and implementation of many useful and innovative projects and initiatives in various fields for the benefit of both countries and peoples, in the interests of strengthening security and stability in Africa and around the world.”

In a speech, on behalf of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, read by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on May 25 when the continent marks Africa Day, further noted the change marked the emergence of a multilateral pan-African platform on a qualitatively higher level of interaction in the political, socioeconomic and other spheres.

Putin, in addition, acknowledged that “African states have achieved a great deal together over the past two decades. They have developed mechanisms for a collective response to local conflicts and crises, and are consistently promoting regional integration processes in various formats. Africa enjoys growing prestige on the global stage and plays an increasingly important role in resolving important issues on the international agenda.”

Later talking about Russia-Africa relations, Lavrvo told the gathering that Russia would continue to provide comprehensive support and to expand mutually beneficial cooperation. Russian-African relations are traditionally friendly and are making good progress.

Russia has always been and will remain a reliable partner and friend to the countries of Africa. Today, we are confronted with certain Western countries’ unscrupulous attempts to constrain our engagement with Africa. 

Russia has played a leading role in decolonisation and in consolidating decolonisation processes, as well as drafting UN resolutions. Unfortunately, some of them have been sabotaged by former metropolises to this day. We stand in solidarity with your demands for the complete liberation of Africa from the last vestiges of colonial legacy.

This year marks 20 years since the Organisation of African Unity was transformed into the African Union. That change marked the emergence of a multilateral pan-African platform on a qualitatively higher level of interaction in the political, socioeconomic and other spheres.

“Russia has always been and will remain a reliable partner and friend to the countries of Africa. Today, we are confronted with certain Western countries’ unscrupulous attempts to constrain our engagement with Africa. I’m referring to the all-out hybrid war against Russia declared by Washington and its European satellites in connection with the special military operation in Ukraine,” he added.

According to him, it is not so much about Ukraine, which is used as a bargaining chip in the global anti-Russian game. The main problem is that a small group of US-led Western countries keeps trying to impose the concept of a rules-based world order on the international community.

Lavrov suggested that Africa must not succumb to Washington’s discriminatory pressure. There are attempts to reverse history and subjugate the peoples of the continent again grossly violate the sovereignty and independence of the states of the region, and jeopardize the entire system of international relations, which is based on the principle of respect for the sovereign equality of states in the Unted Nations’ Charter.

He called on the African Union (AU) to persistently demand that the West lift illegal unilateral sanctions that undermine the transport and logistics infrastructure necessary for world trade, which creates risks for vulnerable segments of the population. 

Russia and Africa will work together to maintain and expand mutually beneficial bilateral ties in the new conditions without external interference. It is important to facilitate the mutual access of Russian and African economic operators to each other’s markets, to encourage their participation in large-scale infrastructure projects. All these tasks are at the center of attention in the preparations for the forthcoming second Russia-Africa summit. 

Reports show that the Russia-Ukraine crisis has twisted the global economy and many African countries are among the most vulnerable in terms of ensuring food security. Some states of the continent are critically dependent on the import of agricultural products from Russia, therefore will make some deliveries, including food, fertilizers, energy carriers and other goods, of great importance for maintaining social stability and achieving the milestones stipulated by the Sustainable Development Goals approved by the United Nations.

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South Africa on the right side of history or captured by Cold War allies?

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Authors: Professor Gerrit Olivier and Michèle Olivier* 

A seemingly non-negotiable principle of SA’s foreign policy, is to be on the side of autocrats and dictators and habitually anti-West, irrespective of the issues. Cosy relations with the likes of Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, Sudan‘s Omar al Bashir Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, characterised our foreign policy under all presidents since Nelson Mandela. With the present government being enamoured with a rabid war criminal like Vladimir Putin, we see a continuation of this policy.

Obsessed with a myopic partisan ideology and habitual hop-nobbing with dictators, of course, come at a high price, particularly degrading SA’S erstwhile high international prestige, role and status as well as stunting our all-important economic development. In short, this means that SA’s prevailing foreign policy is totally out of zinc with its intrinsic national interests. 

According to ANC declarations, SA would ’stick to its principles‘ and not take sides in this war in spite of blatantly illegal and murderous Russian war crimes. Hence, it abstained from voting against Russia together with a motley minority of 34 other UN members in the 2 March General Assembly resolution (only 5 states voted against whilst 141 voted in favour). 

The minister of the department of international relations and development (DIRCO), Naledi Pandor, issued a statement demanding Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. This clearly upset the Marxist, anti-West faction in the ANC policy establishment who subsequently prevailed upon president Ramaphosa, to denounce the statement, no doubt to assuage Russian and local communist’s displeasure. 

For many, both inside and outside the country, this was a controversial decision resulting in a rare local public debate about our wayward foreign policy. What emerged was a conflict of opinion between the ideologues and realists in the foreign policy establishment. A hopeful sign, but unfortunately of little consequence in our fossilised ANC foreign policy establishment. 

All along, the ideologues accepted that being in cahoots with war criminal Russia was in SA’s best interests notwithstanding the normative constitutional dictates and founding moral principles concerning respect for human rights, sovereignty, democracy, and territorial integrity. 

What followed was indeed a case study of expedient, if not downright ’Walter Mitty’ diplomacy.  First, president Ramaphosa rushed to telephone Putin, obviously to bask the reflected glory and honour of speaking to the ‘great man’. Afterwards, he subserviently thanked ‘’his excellency president Vladimir Putin‘’ for taking his call.  At the same time, our ’great negotiator’ refused official engagement with the local Ukrainian ambassador as well as with ambassadors of the European Union, our biggest trading partners.

In the latest General Assembly meeting on Ukraine, SA persisted with its pro-Russian pseudo-neutrality but got a humiliating bloody nose after presenting a draft resolution, excluding the country of all blame. No wonder as this resolution was strictly in line with Kremlin propaganda lies casting doubt as to where exactly SA’s UN diplomats got their instructions from. 

Ramaphosa’s aim, it seems, is to push himself forward as facilitator in the conflict, recalling at length in parliament his past experiences a negotiator.

‘Illusions of grandeur’, it may be called, as SA ’s international status and role during about 3 decades of uninterrupted misrule has declined close to being almost insignificant. While most of the world reached out to end the horrible and unthinkable human and material misery inflicted upon Ukrainian people, he offered them naught for their comfort, except portending to be a great negotiator reporting for service.  

Belatedly, after strong criticism he rejected war as an instrument of policy, and signalled his wish to also speak to Ukrainian pres Volodimyr Zelinskiy, impressed perhaps by the latter‘s sterling performances addressing the American senate and the British, Canadian, Israeli, Italian and Japanese parliaments and the  German Bundestag. The pièce de résistance of his kindergarten diplomacy, was to blame NATO for being deaf to earlier warnings against eastward expansion, ignoring the Russian brutal invasions, of inter alia, Finland, Latvia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, in the previous century not realising that NATO membership was their safeguard against future Ukrainian-type of invasions. Theirs was a wise decision.  Indeed, Mr President, ignorance is bliss….!    

Of course, good relations with countries like Russia are important provided they are based on pragmatism and national interest rather than sentimental ideological predilections. However, the ANC still acts as being a captive of the Cold War and, as if it still owes permanent a feudal fealty to Russia at a time when Soviet Union is passe and with communism on the ash heap of history. 

While the world must perforce deal with a totally different and dangerous Putinist Russia, the ANC obstinately refuse to accept that its subservient posture vis-a- vis that country is not in SA’s best interest. Lamentably, the global moral imperatives that saw them to power no longer guide its foreign policy. Like the apartheid regime, Putinist Russia today commits a crime against humanity in Ukraine with the support of the ANC government. 

The war in Ukraine may yet lead to unthinkable consequences for the world at large. What happens there is really a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Putin does not want a democratic Ukraine at his doorstep exposing his bland authoritarianism and precipitating a ’colour revolution’.  Given the solidarity in the democratic West and the sluggish performance of the Russian forces in Ukraine, he will probably end up losing. SA policy makers are demonstrably  myopic not realising the consequences for being on the side of a war autocratic war criminal war criminal. Like apartheid SA it would probably end up as an isolated global pariah.

An independent SA foreign policy is called for rather than one subservient to the preferences and dictates of Moscow and Beijing. This is the best way in which SA can regain international respect. The way in which it has handled the Ukraine crisis once again laid bare its diplomatic deficiencies, particularly lack of clear headed leadership. This will not change unless foreign policy making is democratised and professionalised rather than being monopolised by a small clique of badly trained  and inexperienced ideologues with the help of a few advocating stand-patters. 

* Michèle Olivier is a consultant of international law

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Reviewing Russia-Mali Strategic Partnership

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After withdrawing from the Joint Military Force of the G5-Sahel group which the United Nations described as “unfortunate” and “regrettable” middle of May, Malian Foreign Minister, Abdoulaye Diop, made a snapshot visit, for the second time under the new military administration to Moscow, intended to review various aspects of strategic partnership deals with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“We paid special attention to the practical aspects of organizing deliveries from Russia of wheat, mineral fertilizers and petroleum products that are so much needed by the people of Mali today in conditions of illegitimate Western sanctions,” Lavrov said at a press conference after talks with Diop in Moscow.

The sound pace of military and military-technical contacts between the two countries was noted during the talks, according to Lavrov, and thanked his Malian counterpart for support for Russia’s resolutions at the latest session of the UN General Assembly. Lavrov made to explicit reference to the meeting of the UN Security Council the Western countries that consistently tried to “put their blame at Russia’s door” and to shirk responsibility for the food crisis. 

“It goes without saying that we discussed the situation in Ukraine and around it, including the meeting of the UN Security Council devoted to world food security issues, where the Western countries tried to put their own blame at somebody else’s door. They argued that the crisis, which by and large is a result of their own efforts, allegedly stems from the crisis in Ukraine. Of course, they blamed it entirely on Russia,” Lavrov said.

Russia reaffirms its readiness to render Mali support in raising the fighting efficiency of its armed forces. “We reaffirmed Russia’s readiness as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to further contribute to normalizing the situation in Mali, render Bamako comprehensive support on a bilateral basis, in particular, in the sphere of raising the combat efficiency of the Malian armed forces, training troops and law-enforcement personnel,” Russia’s top diplomat said.

France’s decision together with Western allies to end the anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane and the European special forces mission Takuba does not contribute to restoring security in Mali and the entire Sahel region. Reports say France has approximately 5,100 troops in the region under Operation Barkhane, which spans five countries in the Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

With the final exit and the vacuum created by France, Russia now sees Mali as an excellent conduit to penetrate into the Sahel by pushing the much-criticized Wagner Group that organizes private military for countries in conflict. It is aggressively targeting 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.

“There is an obvious danger of the emergence of enclaves of power vacuum where militants of various outlawed armed gangs will feel free at hand and they have already prepared for such acts. This threatens the country’s territorial integrity and we repeatedly told our French counterparts about that,” Russia’s top diplomat said.

On March 2 at the United Nations General Assembly, African representatives and their votes were considered very interesting, and have geopolitical implications for study and analysis. Some 17 African countries abstained from the vote at the UN General Assembly to deplore the Russian invasion of Ukraine while some other 28 countries in the continent voted in favour. Mali was among those that abstained from vote. Eritrea was the only African country that voted against the resolution. It opposes all forms of unilateral sanction as illegal and counterproductive.

“All our initiatives were supported by Mali. We agreed to enhance coordination on the UN platform and in other international organizations. We are determined to work for this in earnest, including in the recently created Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations,” Lavrov assured.

During his first official visit in November 2021 to Moscow, Abdoulaye Diop and Sergei Lavrov, in fact, focused on increasing bilateral cooperation in economic sectors. But particularly significant was Russia’s military assistance to strengthen the position of the new military government and to fight rising terrorism in the Sahel region.

As developments explicitly show, Mali already stands in isolation there as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the United Nations, and the bilateral and multilateral partners endorse and support the implementation of sanctions and other strict measures to ensure a peaceful return to constitutional and democratic government in Mali.

Mali, a landlocked West African state with an impoverished population, faces increasing isolation from the international community over the political power grab. Even as the African Union (AU), the continental organization, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional bloc, both suspended the membership of Mali following military coups in August 2020 and May 2021, the ruling military officials are still holding onto political power by delaying the proposed elections in February 2022.

The African Union, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and foreign organizations such as the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) have requested a quick transition to a civilian government. They further urged that efforts are taken to resolve outstanding issues relating to sustainable development and observing strictly principles of democracy in the Republic of Mali in West Africa.

Moscow is still planning to hold the second Russia-African summit. The “special military operation” approved by both the Federation Council and the State Duma (legislative chambers) to “demilitarize and denazify” the former Soviet republic of Ukraine has pushed the United States and Canada, European Union members and many other external countries to impose sanctions against Russia.

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