Israel began this year by announcing that African refugees (who are mostly from Sudan and Eritrea) faced imprisonment if they did not choose the controversial ‘voluntary departure package’ that the government was offering them before April. The package was part of an ultimatum to African migrants in Israel, allowing them two options: accept the $3 500 USD and leave to a ‘third country’ (said to be Rwanda or Uganda) or permanent incarceration in an Israeli jail. Rwanda and Uganda have denied agreeing to host African migrants deported from Israel, but evidence collected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suggests otherwise. The decision to kick out around 20 000 African migrants comes as Israel embarked on a new strategy to rally African diplomatic support in international bodies. The UN and certain states – such as Canada – have condemned the Israeli migrant plan, but the African Union (AU) and most African countries remain silent on it, creating the perception that there is no substantial opposition to it.
African migration to Israel
Since 1950, Israel’s Law of Return has allowed the immigration of Jews from around the world, including from Ethiopia. African refugee migration to Israel began in the mid-2000s, and the numbers increased rapidly in the late 2000s. By late 2010, Israel received its highest number of African migrants, with between 30 000 and 45 000 entering through the Israeli-Egyptian border. Currently, around 38 000 African migrants – mainly asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan – live in Israel. The first wave of Sudanese migrants (mostly from the conflict-ravaged Darfur region) started arriving in Israel in December 2005 through Egypt. Due to the circumstances that forced them to flee Sudan, asylum seekers in Israel have a right to have a sur place refugee claim, and should automatically be recognised as such under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of Refugees.
The sur place refugees claim is also applicable to Eritreans, who fled widespread human rights violations, including forced conscription, forced labour and torture. Eritreans who evaded being drafted into the military face persecution if they return. Additionally, according to the UNHCR, many Eritrean migrants seeking asylum in Israel since 2004 have been Christians who faced abuses in Eritrea since 2002, qualifying them for refugee status and asylum in Israel under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Despite this, Israeli officials and Israel’s prime minister have continuously labelled African migrants ‘infiltrators’ who arrived in Israel for economic reasons. Moreover, many of the migrants in Israel do not enjoy asylum status as the application process is notoriously slow and hardly produces favourable outcomes for the migrants.
Asylum application in Israel is so slow that by the end of 2017 only 10 persons had been granted refugee status in response to 15 000 asylum applications since 2010. The slow and unresponsive process seemed to be changing in 2007 when the then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, granted 500 temporary residence permits to migrants from Sudan under pressure from the UNHCR. This changed when Benyamin Netanyahu became prime minister. The current 38 000 African migrant number is after years of sporadic deportations of Africans to unnamed countries. They are concentrated in south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods, and are from among the refugees who arrived between 2006 and 2013. After Israel built a fence on its border with Egypt in 2013, the number of African migrants arriving through Egypt decreased drastically. Holot, a migrant detention centre in the Negev desert, currently houses 3 000 African migrants.
Holot was built in 2012, and has the capacity to house around 1 400 people at a time. It has been at the centre of Israel’s immigration policy towards African migrants. In November 2017, Israel announced plans to close the Holot centre and to deport the residents of the centre. It is over capacity with 3 000 African male migrants who do not possess residency or work permits. The Holot detainees are unable to work as they are required to report to the centre at specified times during the day. Migrants in other parts of Israel face similar challenges to those at Holot, and work illegally, facing exploitation and below minimum wage salaries. Israeli citizens who hire African migrants without permits face fines, and are required to deduct twenty per cent of their wages to put into a controversial ‘deposit fund’, thus making it near impossible for African migrants to survive.
Migrants regularly face abuse and ill-treatment from Israeli citizens, with many calling for their deportations. In August 2017, tensions came to a boil when south Tel Aviv residents protested the presence of African migrants. This was followed by a visit by Netanyahu, who promised to remove the ‘infiltrators’. The closure of Holot centre and the prior construction of a steel barrier fence at the Egypt-Israeli border form part of the various measures that Israel has taken to dramatically reduce the number of African migrants.
Africa’s (and South Africa’s) complicity
At the Egypt-Israel border stands a steel barrier that stretches for 242 kilometres, boasting five to seven metre high fences constructed of 35 000 tons of metal and steel. This gigantic barrier was to curb the influx of African migrants into Israel. The steel barrier intends to prevent African migrants from entering Israel through Egypt’s Sinai. The construction of the fence also saw contracts awarded to the Yehuda Fences Company, which is part of the Yehuda Group owned by the South African company Cape Gate. This is not Cape Gate’s first foray into illegal Israeli activities. In 2009 a report by the Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid wall campaign revealed that the company was complicit in maintaining and assisting with the construction of what Israel calls a ‘separation barrier’ and the organisation calls an ‘Apartheid Wall’.
The Israeli African migrants’ policy is being abetted by certain African countries that are said to be receiving deported migrants from Israel in exchange for financial compensation. The UNHCR reported that between December 2013 and June 2017, Israel deported 4 000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers under the ‘voluntary departure programme’ to Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries have denied claims that they had been complicit in Israel’s controversial plan. Although they deny having made deals with Israel to accept the migrants, the two countries have embraced Israel’s attempts to strengthen links with African states. In the wake of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by US president, Donald Trump, the UN passed a resolution rejecting the move; nine African states abstained, including Rwanda and Uganda, suggesting a solidification of links with Israel.
The silence of many African countries about the ill treatment of African migrants in Israel demonstrates complicity. The AU, in which Israel seeks to gain observer status, has not condemned the Israeli deportation plan, nor pronounced on reports that two of its member states, Rwanda and Uganda, have assisted Israel in its deportation and ill-treatment of African migrants.
Voluntary departure package
Israel’s being a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees obligates it not to return refugees to a country where they face serious threats to their lives or freedom. Israel’s policy towards African migrants came into the spotlight around 2013 after the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that Israel was offering a ‘voluntary departure’ ultimatum. Israel attempted to redeem itself by stating that the plan did not include women and children, and targeted only males of working age. The UNHCR responded that the plan could not be considered ‘voluntary’ as both options given to the migrants threatened the life and freedom of the asylum seeker, and was thus in contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention. By deporting the migrants back to their home countries, Israel placed their lives in more danger than they had previously faced. This is especially significant in the case of Sudanese migrants who, according to the UNHCR, faced jail sentences under Sudan’s Criminal Act, which prohibits citizens from visiting an enemy state, which Sudan considers Israel to be.
Having faced increased pressure from local and international groups to halt the deportations of migrants to their home countries, Israel revised the policy and included a component to allow refugees to choose to be deported to a ‘third’ country, which the UNHCR said was either Rwanda or Uganda. If migrants choose this option, they are given $3 500 USD to help them settle in the new country, an Israeli travel document, and a letter from the ‘third country’ guaranteeing a tourist visa upon arrival. Various Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who took this option and were deported to Rwanda have reported to the UNHCR that although they received the promised $3 500 USD, their documents were confiscated upon arrival and they could not apply for asylum. Further, they claim, immigration officials in Rwanda extorted money from them and ultimately trafficked them to Uganda where they face imprisonment for entering the country illegally.
In a recent twist, in its efforts to accelerate these deportations, the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority has offered an incentive to Israeli civilians to serve as ‘inspectors’ and implementers by forcibly removing African migrants from Israeli neighbourhoods. Under this offer, civilians are recruited as ‘inspectors’ who will rout out migrants who do not take up the ‘voluntary departure’ deal. The main targets under this new plan are African migrants residing in the greater Tel Aviv area. Once the ‘inspectors’ have identified those willing to take the departure package, they will facilitate the paperwork for their departure as well as monitor their entry to the third country. These inspectors will receive an incentive of $8 700 USD per deported person for a two-month period – higher than the total sum of $3 500 offered to the Africans who accept the deal and the $5 000 USD reported to be given to Rwanda and Uganda for each migrant they receive.
Israel insists the majority of African migrants in Israel are not asylum seekers but economic migrants. The UNHCR claims most of them are from Eritrea and Sudan and fled war and persecution, which qualifies them as asylum seekers and refugees. The controversial ‘voluntary departure’ package, the barrier fence on the Egypt-Israeli border, and the plan to close the Holot refugee detention centre signals Israel’s commitment to rid the country of ‘infiltrator’ African migrants seeking refuge. The African migrants have been given until April this year to take up the ‘voluntary departure’ package or face permanent jail detention, prompting widespread protests from the migrants and local human rights groups. Israel has also been condemned by the UN and some western countries, but the silence and the complicity of African countries in this controversial African migrants’ policy leaves little hope for the migrants. With this plan to rid itself off African refugees, Israel adds to its list of human rights and international law violations.
At the establishment of the African Union (AU) in May 2001, discourses about human security and counter terrorism were ubiquitous both globally and on the continent. In Africa, the experience of the conflicts in Sierra Leone and the Great Lakes region weighed heavily on the continent’s people, and on the new body. The newly-formed AU thus sought to institute measures that would enhance peace and security and ensure human development, even allowing for the possibility of the organisation intervening in member states. Article Four of the AU’s Constitutive Act stated that intervention in a member country could be endorsed by the body in the event that the government of that country severely repressed its population; the prevention of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide were explicitly mentioned.
Within months of the creation of the AU, the September 2001 World Trade Centre bombings in New York took place, forcing an additional imperative onto the AU’s agenda. As a result, the AU has, for the past decade and a half, focused a great deal of effort on counter terrorism (in some instances to the detriment of member state populations). Coordination on counter terrorism has thus been enhanced between member states, and, worryingly, training, skills transfers, and direct deployment of troops from foreign powers – especially the US and France – had been sought to address that has been, to some extent, an exaggerated threat. This has unwittingly allowed, again, the mixing of foreign interests with those of the continent, often allowing foreign agendas to dominate.
In the past few years, a new form of foreign role on the continent has begun to become established, and it is this that we want to highlight as a challenge for the African Union, the continent as a whole, and relationships between African states. We refer here to the phenomenon of the creation of forward military deployment bases hosted by various African states, which, it might be argued, poses, for us, a challenge in terms of continental sovereignty.
The problem of bases
Often promoted by military strategists as reducing the ‘tyranny of distance’, forward deployment bases allow the forward deployment of both troops and equipment, allowing for quicker response times, and a shortening of distance, especially in terms of the need to refuel. This strategy had initially been the forte of the US military – especially after the European war of the mid-twentieth century, or the Second World War. As documented by Nick Turse, US military bases (including forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations) in Africa number around fifty, at least. The US base in Diego Garcia, for example, played a key role in the 2003 Iraqi invasion, with minimal flythrough/docking rights required from other countries.
US bases, compounds, port facilities and fuel bunkers are in thirty-four African countries, including in regional hegemons Kenya, Ethiopia and Algeria. Under the guise of countering terrorism, and through joint partnerships, Washington has infiltrated continental security organisations and has touted the idea of establishing on-the ground liaison offices. American military officials and policy makers view the continent as a full-scale battlefield in the competition against China, and through promoting regionalism, US officials are successfully circumventing continental institutions including the AU. To date, this has not yet been a major factor in interstate conflicts on the continent, but US cooperation has sort to mould partner countries to share its stance on foreign issues. Further, the US uses these bases to carry out activities on other continents; drones operating from Chadelley base in Djibouti have been deployed in Yemen and Syria, for example. This then inserts African states into conflicts unrelated to them, their regions or the continent.
Many other states followed the US strategy – albeit on a smaller scale, especially as international rivalry among global powers (or aspirant global powers) intensified. This lily pad strategy is now utilised by the US, Russia, China, France, and even smaller countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. This is likely to intensify, especially since advances in technology have increased the efficiencies and efficacy of submarines, thus making it more difficult to deploy carrier vessels as a means of power projection. Further, the advancements in missile defence, and the decreasing costs of obtaining such technology has meant that long-haul flights, as a means of strategic lift, have become riskier; the offense-defence balance in some ways favours the defensive power.
These bases, especially those maintained by global powers, have impaired the AU from implementing indigenous continental solutions, especially those requiring inclusiveness and mediation. Mali is significant in this regard, especially since the presence of French troops stationed there for Operation Barkhane had stymied efforts by Malian civil society to include the Islamist Ansar Dine (now Group for the Protection of Islam and Muslims) in the political process, thus prolonging the insurgency in the north. Similarly, UAE bases in Somaliland incentivise and formalise the fragmentation of Somalia, with negative regional consequences. In the coming decades, problems such as these will be exacerbated, as countries such as India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia construct military bases in African countries, and because the sub-regional coordination mechanisms such as the Multi-National Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad Basin, which have had successes, are more proficient at dealing with cross-border insurgency. It is noteworthy that these initiatives are often continental efforts undertaken by sub-regional states, frequently in opposition to the intentions and programmes of global powers.
There is a great need for Africans to be concerned about these developments and this focus on the creation of bases, because of their impact on the populations of various countries, and implications for state as well as continental sovereignty. Diego Garcia, the base that set the trend for this phenomenon in Africa, illustrates the rather drastic potential impacts of these. The island’s population has been reduced to one lacking rights and freedoms, with many of its members forcibly removed from their homes and deported – most to Mauritius and Seychelles, not allowed the right to return. Further, the presence of the base has ensured that the African Union has little influence over the island; it is still de facto ruled as a British territory.
Similarly, the ‘global war on terror’, coupled with the rise of China, has seen global powers seeking to re-enter or strengthen their presence on the continent, with negative consequences. Both the US and France have constructed new bases in Africa, with China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia following suit. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, they often have other interests, such as France’s bases in Niger, which are more an attempt to protect French interests around Niger’s vast uranium resources.
Last year (2017), China completed the construction of a base in Djibouti, with Saudi Arabia (2017), France, and even Japan (whose base was constructed in 2011, and for which there are plans for extension) maintaining bases in the small country. Eritrea’s Assab port is being used by both Iran and the UAE (2015) to operate bases from, while Turkey (2017) is upgrading the Suakin Island in Sudan under the guise of preserving ancient Turkish relics. Significantly, the Horn of Africa is adjacent to the Bab Al-Mandab and Hormuz straits, through which over twenty per cent of world trade traverses, and it is militarily strategic as it allows control over much of the Indian Ocean. Further, it is noteworthy that almost all the bases not operated by the US and France were constructed after 2010, illustrating that the intentions behind these have everything to do with power projection and little around counter terrorism. The UAE base in Assab, too, is significant in this regard; Abu Dhabi has used it to dispatch armaments and troops from both the UAE and other Saudi coalition countries, for their military campaign in Yemen, leading to dire humanitarian consequences and the likely fragmentation of that country.
Bases and sovereignty
The construction of these military bases has undermined both domestic and continental sovereignty. The UAE base in Somaliland’s Berbera port (2016), for example, heralds the end of the project to ensure a unified Somalia. Already, Somaliland possesses a relatively strong security force; the base construction and consequent support by the UAE will ensure that Mogadishu will not be able to extend control over Hargeisa. This will likely lead to more conflict, especially as Puntland begins to reassert its autonomy, and as al-Shabab exploits these differences to increase its influence.
Moreover, the UAE’s Assab base, coupled with the current Qatari blockade, has threatened to reignite the Eritrean-Djibouti border conflict, since Djibouti’s decision to sever ties with Qatar in light of its close relationship with Riyadh saw Doha withdrawing its peacekeepers (2017); while Emirati support for Eritrea emboldened Asmara to redeploy its troops to the contested Doumeira islands, which the UN designates as belonging to Djibouti.
Further, this race to create bases (along with other geopolitical agendas) has seen foreign countries often support African strongmen (not surprising, considering that some of these foreign states themselves are dictatorships), thus enabling the abuse of human rights and stunting continental efforts at finding solutions. The current Libyan imbroglio, for example, has seen countries such as Egypt and Russia support General Khalifa Haftar, who has promised basing rights in the event of his victory. This should be of great concern as it undermines both the AU and the neighbourhood initiatives that are attempting to resolve the conflict.
The AU and bases
This trend threatens to, in future, undermine the African Union’s already-tenuous sovereignty, especially since the direct influence of foreign powers, in the form of these lily pad bases, threatens to inspire more interstate conflicts. Tension has already risen in Ethiopia in response to Eritrea’s hosting of numerous bases, while both countries expressed their opposition to the Berbera base in Somaliland. The consequent upgrade in arms in these states will ensure that interstate conflicts, such as those between Ethiopia and Eritrea, become more precarious, and dilute the AU’s ability to persuade states to negotiate with each other. Worryingly, basing rights are often coupled with multibillion-dollar arms deal packages. These will not only ensure that cross-border interstate conflicts, such as those between Ethiopia and Eritrea, follow a more violent and destructive path, but also that regimes are once again able to violently suppress dissent within their populations. This ‘authoritarian upgrading’ was a major factor engendering the militancy problem that the AU had been dealing with since its inception.
In addition, as can be observed with the UAE’s use of the Assab base to deploy troops to Yemen, Africa is increasingly being used as a staging ground from which to deploy troops to other conflict arenas. Notably, the UAE, in 2015, sought to strong arm Djibouti to allow Emirati and coalition aircraft the use of its territory as a base for the Yemeni operation. Djibouti and Abu Dhabi subsequently severed diplomatic ties, but the UAE found a willing substitute in Eritrea.
The AU will need to increase its capacity (a challenge in a general sense) to have a stronger focus on preventing foreign exploitation and interstate conflicts – more critical threats than terrorism. The institution has had many successes in the fight against the militancy of non-state actors, especially in the area of promoting sub-regional state coordination. The joint multinational task force amongst Lake Chad basin states and the G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad) are welcome steps in ensuring neighbourhood solutions to cross-border militancy, although though these still need to be coupled with more focus on inclusivity. Even with the G5 Sahel, which has engendered coordination between the five respective Sahelian states, France’s maintenance of forward deployment bases in these countries has ensured that Paris has greatly influenced the formation, structure and objectives of the force. This is having, and will have, dire consequences for, especially, Mali because the GSIM has been excluded from negotiations, ensuring that instability in the North remains persistent. The Liptako-Gourma corridor partnership between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso will see better results as the French are not formally involved in it, and because it relates more to border security than to domestic state politics.
However, partnerships such as these will be difficult to initiate in future conflicts influenced by outside powers, and which involve sub-regional hegemons. This is especially since, unlike the case of these joint forces, regional organisations will be paralysed if the belligerents are sub-regional powers. The AU will need to improve its mediation and coercive capacity or risk being side-lined as is the case in Libya. Even in Burundi, where the major continental powers advised against a third term for Pierre Nkurunziza, his regime is still operating, despite AU threats and sanctions.
By Ramzy Baroud
There is a real - but largely concealed - war which is taking place throughout the African continent. It involves the United States, an invigorated Russia and a rising China. The outcome of the war is likely to define the future of the continent and its global outlook.
It is easy to pin the blame on US President Donald Trump, his erratic agenda and impulsive statements. But the truth is, the current US military expansion in Africa is just another step in the wrong direction. It is part of a strategy that had been implemented a decade ago, during the administration of President George W. Bush, and actively pursued by President Barack Obama.
In 2007, under the pretext of the 'war on terror', the US consolidated its various military operations in Africa to establish the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). With a starting budget of half a billion dollars, AFRICOM was supposedly launched to engage with African countries in terms of diplomacy and aid. But, over the course of the last 10 years, AFRICOM has been transformed into a central command for military incursions and interventions.
However, that violent role has rapidly worsened during the first year of Trump's term in office. Indeed, there is a hidden US war in Africa, and it is fought in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’.
According to a VICE News special investigation, US troops are now conducting 3,500 exercises and military engagements throughout Africa per year, an average of 10 per day. US mainstream media rarely discusses this ongoing war, thus giving the military ample space to destabilize any of the continent’s 54 countries as it pleases.
"Today’s figure of 3,500 marks an astounding 1,900 percent increase since the command was activated less than a decade ago, and suggests a major expansion of US military activities on the African continent," VICE reported.
Following the death of four US Special Forces soldiers in Niger on October 4, US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, made an ominous declaration to a Senate committee: these numbers are likely to increase as the US is expanding its military activities in Africa.
Mattis, like other defense officials in the previous two administrations, justifies the US military transgressions as part of ongoing 'counter-terrorism' efforts. But such coded reference has served as a pretense for the US to intervene in, and exploit, a massive region with a great economic potential.
The old colonial 'Scramble for Africa' is being reinvented by global powers that fully fathom the extent of the untapped economic largesse of the continent. While China, India and Russia are each developing a unique approach to wooing Africa, the US is invested mostly in the military option, which promises to inflict untold harm and destabilize many nations.
The 2012 coup in Mali, carried out by a US-trained army captain, Amadou Haya Sanogo, is only one example.
In a 2013 speech, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned against a "new colonialism in Africa (in which it is) easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave." While Clinton is, of course, correct, she was disingenuously referring to China, not her own country.
China's increasing influence in Africa is obvious, and Beijing’s practices can be unfair. However, China's policy towards Africa is far more civil and trade-focused than the military-centered US approach.
The growth in the China-Africa trade figures are, as per a UN News report in 2013, happening at a truly "breathtaking pace", as they jumped from around $10.5 billion per year in 2000 to $166 billion in 2011. Since then, it has continued at the same impressive pace.
But that growth was coupled with many initiatives, entailing many billions of dollars in Chinese credit to African countries to develop badly needed infrastructure. More went to finance the 'African Talents Program', which is designed to train 30,000 African professionals in various sectors.
It should come as no surprise, then, that China surpassed the US as Africa's largest trading partner in 2009.
The real colonialism, which Clinton referred to in her speech, is, however, under way in the US's own perception and behavior towards Africa. This is not a hyperbole, but in fact a statement that echoes the words of US President Trump himself.
During a lunch with nine African leaders last September at the UN, Trump spoke with the kind of mindset that inspired western leaders’ colonial approach to Africa for centuries.
Soon after he invented the none-existent country of 'Nambia', Trump boasted of his "many friends (who are) going to your (African) countries trying to get rich." "I congratulate you," he said, "they are spending a lot of money."
The following month, Trump added Chad, his country's devoted 'counter-terrorism' partner to the list of countries whose citizens are banned from entering the US.
Keeping in mind that Africa has 22 Muslim majority countries, the US government is divesting from any long-term diplomatic vision in Africa, and is, instead increasingly thrusting further into the military path.
The US military push does not seem to be part of a comprehensive policy approach, either. It is as alarming as it is erratic, reflecting the US constant over-reliance on military solutions to all sorts of problems, including trade and political rivalries.
Compare this to Russia's strategic approach to Africa. Reigniting old camaraderie with the continent, Russia is following China's strategy of engagement (or in this case, re-engagement) through development and favorable trade terms.
But, unlike China, Russia has a wide-ranging agenda that includes arms exports, which are replacing US weaponry in various parts of the continent. For Moscow, Africa also has untapped and tremendous potential as a political partner that can bolster Russia’s standing at the UN.
Aware of the evident global competition, some African leaders are now laboring to find new allies outside the traditional western framework, which has controlled much of Africa since the end of traditional colonialism decades ago.
A stark example was the late November visit by Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to Russia and his high-level meeting with President Vladimir Putin. "We have been dreaming about this visit for a long time," al-Bashir told Putin, and "we are in need of protection from the aggressive acts of the United States."
The coveted 'protection' includes Russia's promised involvement in modernizing the Sudanese army.
Wary of Russia’s Africa outreach, the US is fighting back with a military stratagem and little diplomacy. The ongoing US mini war on the continent will push the continent further into the abyss of violence and corruption, which may suit Washington well, but will bring about untold misery to millions of people.
There is no question that Africa is no longer an exclusive western 'turf', to be exploited at will. But it will be many years before Africa and its 54 nations are truly free from the stubborn neocolonial mindset, which is grounded in racism, economic exploitation and military interventions.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
With the Islamic State group (IS) losing territory in Syria and Iraq, many believe that the group will use the territory it controls in Africa as a fallback and shift its focus to the continent. This has seen international, and specifically western, powers grow increasingly weary of existing African conflicts, especially in Libya and Egypt, and we are beginning to see a convergence between Russia and the USA on supporting military strongmen. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Libyan General Khalifa Haftar have thus been empowered in their attempts to crackdown on dissent in the name of countering ‘terrorism’, further militarising politics in those countries and impeding efforts to negotiate political compromises. African states have subsequently been compelled to admit Morocco into the African Union and reinstate Egypt, partially as a result of western pressure and the belief that the two countries could form a bulwark against the Islamic State group’s expansion.
Although IS controls territory and possesses operational capacity in Libya and Nigeria, significantly this is more the result of the group appealing to existing cleavages and state fragmentation rather than inspiring the creation of new anti-state formations. The group has thus spent minimal efforts in establishing structures in southern and central Africa, rather promoting immigration to areas it already controls. IS has lost ground in Nigeria and Libya, two of its three strongest African ‘provinces’; however, failure to fill the vacuum left by its territorial losses and an inadequate focus on the economic reasons behind the group’s rise is paving the way for a resurgence of similar groups. With IS on the wane, a contextualised response emphasising governance in areas recaptured from the group needs to be promoted, especially since the group’s emergence has galvanised the international community.
Background: The declaration of provinces
Following the declaration of a caliphate in July 2014, IS initially had great success. It consolidated control of much of Iraq’s Anbar province, parts of Deir ez-Zor in Syria and Qamishli in Turkey, in addition to areas it originally controlled in Syria. This enabled it to traverse the Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish borders, giving it the flexibility to direct the flow of arms and generate revenue through taxes and trade in oil. However, the group has increasingly faced setbacks, especially following the surge in the intensity of the international and regional effort to displace it from Syria and Iraq. It has been forced to alter its strategies and tactics. Initially advocating immigration to its ‘state’, the group has begun declaring non-contiguous provinces, as a result of a few major changes: First, heightened awareness and tighter border controls meant that by September 2014 the ability of IS recruits to travel to Syria, especially from western countries, had severely diminished.
Second, because IS was conceived in a system that was already experiencing local conflict, the group sought to subsume this conflict and capitalise on it in order to increase its influence. The group also began prospecting for areas with resources, both human and natural, that could strengthen its operational capacity and scope. The group’s mantra evolved to encompass ‘remaining and expanding’, with an increased focus on enticing militant groups to pledge allegiance to it, allowing it to increase its appeal and reach, and a shift away from a sole focus on territorial consolidation in Syria and Iraq. The group increasingly saw its success as expansion into other hotspots and the ability to incorporate these into its territorial project. This had succeeded, and by November 2014 it had received pledges of allegiance from around twenty existing militant groups, including former al-Qa'ida franchises in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya.
In recent times, especially since early 2016, the reversals suffered in its main area of focus, Syria and Iraq, have forced the group to begin contemplating the option of retreat in order to survive and remain relevant.
However, in assessing the group’s influence in Africa over the past year, a holistic contextualisation is required. First, distinctions between groups directly controlled by IS in Syria, those in Libya and those, such as Boko Haram, who exercise more control over strategy and tactics need to be made. Second, we need to identify areas that are strategically significant to IS, such as Libya and Egypt, and those, which the group sees more as a means of gaining increased publicity. Last, we need to remain vigilant and account for the nuances between the different threats posed by groups that have declared allegiance to IS and citizens emigrating to IS-controlled areas.
In the past, IS viewed Libya as critically important, because of its oil resources and large Mediterranean coastline. This, the group believed, would allow it to increase its operational capacity, and threaten Europe, especially because Libya is located close to European states such as Malta and Italy. The group thus declared three Libyan provinces (Fezzan, Barqa and Tripolitania) in 2014, and dispatched senior leaders to the country to convince militia to pledge allegiance. Further, unlike in other provinces, IS in Libya was led by an Iraqi, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, directly appointed by the group’s Syrian leadership. IS initially had some successes, capturing the jihadist stronghold of Derna in October 2014 and Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte in May 2015. However, following its capture of Sirte and the group’s attempts to move westward towards Misrata, a concerted campaign commenced to combat the group comprised of local militia groupings and western powers including the USA, the UK and France. The December 2015 Government of National Accord (GNA) was forced through for this purpose, and since August 2016 the USA has launched over 300 airstrikes in the country.
This has been somewhat successful. Since June 2016, the group has largely been pushed out of Sirte, and leaders such as Abu Nabil have been killed. However, Libya is an exemplar of the paranoia around IS that currently marks the international community’s response to it. First, IS’s strength in Libya was already questionable following its inception. Although possessing between 3 000 and 6 000 combatants, IS in Libya appears outnumbered and outgunned when noting that the country is home to around 200 000 people belonging to different militias. By August 2015 it had already been pushed out of the hotbed of Derna by the relatively small, al-Qa'ida-linked Derna Mujahideen Shura Council. Significantly both the rival administrations in Tripoli (the General National Congress [GNC]) and Tobruk (the House of Representatives [HoR]) have used the paranoia over the threat of IS in Libya to gain international support and weapons.
Second, the international community has favoured international intervention at the expense of local political processes. The Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat in December 2015 and forming the GNA, was forced through, ignoring initial successes in obtaining local backing and in spite of the fact that a week prior to its conclusion the rival administrations had expressed their willingness to conclude a local unification agreement. Even though the agreement was likely disingenuous, international actors needed to hold the two parties to it instead of the flat rejection that had been evident from the UN’s response.
The result has been a lack of support for the GNA, which is likely to never receive ratification from the Tobruk-based HoR, and which in recent times has experienced opposition from the GNC. The country remains divided, and may be headed towards partition as the divisive General Khalifa Haftar strengthens his control over the eastern oilfields.
IS’s partnership with Nigeria’s Boko Haram was more a marriage of convenience than an ideological and strategic union. IS saw the group as important in terms of gaining appeal and publicity, while Boko Haram viewed the merger as a means of unlocking financial resources and benefiting from IS’s media arm. There was thus very little tactical and operational coordination between IS in Syria and its then-declared West Africa province (Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyyah). As a result Boko Haram’s military losses, which began during the last few months of the Goodluck Jonathan administration in Nigeria, have continued. The group has largely been forced out of the territory it previously controlled in Borno and Adamawa, preferring to undertake operations in northern Cameroon. Attacks in Niger have declined to less than half a dozen from a peak of twenty-four in February 2015, and since July, these have also decreased to around eight per month in Cameroon. Boko Haram is no longer able to maintain and hold territory; the group is now mostly involved in smaller operations against weaker targets and isolated military bases.
Further, in August 2016 IS in Syria released a message recognising Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new leader of the wilayat, supposedly because of indiscriminate attacks against Muslims by its former leader, Abubakar Shekau. Shekau’s inability to enact and implement governance structures in areas the group controlled had also influenced the move. Shekau has since disputed this, threatening to further fragment the group, which had already been reeling since Ansaru’s formal condemnation of the group in February 2015. Ansaru previously coordinated activities with Boko Haram, and prior to 2015 many analysts viewed it as the more sophisticated faction within the group, which was tasked with kidnappings and attacks on foreigners.
IS in Syria’s repudiation of Shekau is also influenced by the group’s recent recognition of a Saharan province based in Mali, which in June 2016 reportedly carried out an attack on a military post in Bosso (Niger) killing thirty-two soldiers, and in recent months has carried out two smaller attacks in Burkina Faso. Shekau’s repudiation is also significant since it is one of the first instances wherein IS’s Syrian leadership has acted to alter provincial leadership structures, and because it illustrates that the group has limitations on what it will tolerate from provincial leaders. Further, Barnawi’s appointment may be a sign that IS’s Syrian leadership is beginning to view West Africa as important since it continues to suffer setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Libya. However, the appointment has changed little thus far especially in terms of operational command and coordination. Shekau’s continued influence over factions within the group also points to the beginnings of a debilitating power struggle. The group’s infighting and the coordinated response by Lake Chad Basin countries has meant that by December 2016 it had been pushed out of its Sambisa Forest stronghold; in January 2017, a UN report went as far as claiming that it now lacks the resources to compensate fighters.
Notably, the success of the multinational Joint Task Force, consisting of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, has been constrained owing to concerns over sovereignty and different command and control protocols. The effort has transitioned more into a coalition of the willing, wherein states share interests and undertake individual actions, rather than an actual coordinated effort to contain the group. Moreover, failure to establish governance structures in areas where Boko Haram has been driven out from has led to the group being able to return intermittently; incidentally this is one of the key reasons the group initially arose.
Previously recognised as Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, the group, now referred to as ‘IS Sinai Province’, declared allegiance to IS in November 2014, and currently remains one of IS’s most operationally and tactically capable fighting forces. Following the 2015 Sheikh Zuweid attacks, which saw around a hundred combatants mount a coordinated attack on Egyptian security installations, the group has continued to remain active, and in 2016 is alleged to have undertaken over 700 operations in the Sinai region alone. The most infamous of these was the blowing up of a Russian civilian aircraft in October 2015, killing over 200. The decades-long, 1 600-strong Multinational Forces and Observers mission stationed in the Sinai, which is tasked with monitoring the area following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, has also been affected and countries such as Fiji have pulled out troops. The USA has even proposed that an electronic monitoring system be used instead, to allow it to also decrease its troop contribution to the mission.
IS’s resurgence continues despite the third phase of Egypt’s Operation Martyr’s Right, which according to Egyptian security reports has killed around 2 300 militants and arrested a further 2 500 – even though most analysts estimated the group’s strength at between 1 000 and 2 000 fighters at its peak in 2015. The numbers of dead and arrested indicate the conflicting results of Egypt’s scorched earth policy, which has actually led to increased militancy, especially by other groups. Violence is also spreading to the mainland; in the past year, IS’s mainland Egypt province formed, and the younger, less ideological Popular Resistance Committees became hardened.
This is likely to continue, especially as the primary democratic alternative, the Muslim Brotherhood, remains stifled, and because the Sisi regime is facing increased economic pressure, and has thus curbed its state-led redistributive policies and widened its repression to include leftists and youth groupings.
Observations and returning combatants
It is clearly observable that in most instances IS uses already existent cleavages and groupings to further its influence and reach in areas outside of Syria and Iraq. In Nigeria and Sinai, it thus successfully rebranded existing organisations instead of establishing new ones from scratch. The presence of al-Qa'ida on parts of the continent has been significant in this regard, as IS has sought to entice militants belonging to it to declare their allegiance to it. For the most part, in Africa this has failed. Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb has largely remained intact, and thus far Shabab has withstood attempts to declare allegiance to Baghdadi, despite the fact that splinter groups within these organisations have broken off to join IS.
Further, it is observable that IS-linked groups for the most part were already involved in conflict with the state and other powers prior to the declaration of the caliphate. Boko Haram had been militarily confronting the Nigerian state since at least 2010, while Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis had turned inward following Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013. Even in Libya, where the Derna Youth Shoura Council and the Battar Brigade were newly formed groupings that had previously been involved in fighting in Syria, IS’s ability to consolidate control of Sirte came as a result of aggrieved former Gaddafites joining the group, and because the Ansar Al-Sharia members present in Sirte rebranded and joined IS. This illustrates two key points: First, lack of governance and social services are a major factor accounting for the growth of IS on the continent, and ideology plays a supplementary role. Consequently, a military-only response, which does not improve governance, will lead to the group enduring, even though it may change its name and modus operandi. Second, as can be observed with the minimal coordination between IS and its West Africa and Sinai provinces, groups have had some form of agency. They have used IS headquarters to gain financial and operational support, and do not always follow its precepts entirely. Shekau, for instance, failed to install governance structures, and continued indiscriminate attacks on Nigerian Muslims while being allied to IS.
Apart from unsuccessful attempts to entice Shabab in East Africa, IS has refrained from attempting to establish wilayat further south. This results from various factors including the lack of a majority Muslim population as a base, the fact that many countries further south are more responsive to their citizens, and because most sub-Saharan countries are not directly involved in attempts to combat the group in Syria and Iraq. The group has however advocated emigration to areas it controls, and it is feared that returning combatants pose a threat to their home states. While justifiable in the cases of Tunisia and Morocco, which have seen thousands join the fight in Syria, for the most part this has been exaggerated. Most combatants have preferred to remain in IS-held territory, and most returnees cite disillusionment with the group as a reason for their return.
The current military-first approach to combatting IS, which has had some success, will only be long lasting if paired with a simultaneous focus on governance and restorative justice in recaptured areas. This will also help to stem the problem of IS recruitment, which, although partially curbed as a result of increased interstate coordination, may surge if former combatants and possible recruits feel aggrieved over perceptions around judicial unfairness and the lack of resource equitability.
Failure to create institutions to assist with this, as is the case in Libya, Egypt and to an extent Nigeria, risks engendering the conditions for the emergence of similar groups in future. African states thus need to ensure that the focus on IS extends from a military approach to one dealing with the root causes of militancy. This is especially pertinent as the group continues to lose territorial control in Libya and Nigeria, and its capacity wanes. Further, the reintegration of former IS combatants, and those belonging to other militant groups, is a necessity, especially as the majority of low-level combatants joined the group for economic reasons, and because the factors are an important weapon in disrupting IS’s claims of legitimacy.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The recent African Union decision adding a more ‘robust’ peace enforcement component to the current 12 000 strong UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) risks further militarising an ostensibly political conflict over resources and patronage. Further, even if implemented, the proposed force will be difficult to sustain in light of the complex and overlapping nature of the conflict and the differing agendas of outside actors. The ‘temporary’ replacement of now former vice president Riek Machar with Taban Deng through an internal coup in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLMIO) underscores the complexity and fluidity of South Sudanese politics and alliances.
The decision, at the just-concluded AU heads of state summit in Rwanda, follows a proposal by the East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) for the AU to request that the UN expands its mission in South Sudan to include peace enforcement modelled on the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in eastern Congo. The proposal came in the wake of a collapsing power-sharing agreement between the two main protagonists in South Sudan, President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, in early July when conflict erupted between their security details in Juba.
Since its establishment in 2011, South Sudan has experienced continual conflict; first was the clash imposed on it by its northern neighbour, Sudan, over oil revenue and borders in 2012; more recently – between December 2013 and August 2015 – militia allied to Machar and Kiir clashed. That conflict was halted through a power-sharing agreement reached in August 2015, in terms of which the rivals would retain their prior positions as president and vice president, and would integrate parts of their militia. The deal only came into force in April this year when Machar was restored as vice president and entered Juba with 1 400 troops as part of the pact. The agreement was fraught from inception. It assumed that there were only two belligerents, Kiir and Machar, and failed to integrate other groups such as the Shilluk clan (South Sudan’s third largest tribe after the Dinka and Nuer), and address more localised concerns between tribes over land and revenue distribution. Further, it failed to adequately consider the roles played by outside forces such as Uganda in propping up Kiir, skewing the balance of forces and disincentivising compliance. Moreover, it failed to adequately consider South Sudan’s fractious history and lack of institutional capacity as engendering a situation wherein securitisation is prioritised and instrumentalised by political actors. Thus, even before the agreement was concluded, Kiir expressed dissatisfaction, arguing that it was a foreign imposition, and because militia loyal to him held the balance of power. Further, no effort was made toward reversing his decision to redraw South Sudan’s provincial borders, increasing the number of provinces from ten to twenty-eight in order to benefit tribes and militias loyal to him. Deng’s power play – possibly engineered by Kiir – changes little because South Sudanese politics is still governed by force, and Deng’s support and influence in this area is less than Machar’s.
The proposed intervention force will be hamstrung by a number of factors. First, distinguishing the main belligerent in an arena wherein there is a multiplicity of groups – often with local grievances – will complicate and stall armed intervention measures. This is especially true in light of Machar’s ‘temporary’ replacement. Will UNMISS distinguish between Machar’s well-armed support and that of Deng, who is even distrusted by Kiir?
Moreover, the brigade is to comprise forces from Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan, all with differing interests in the conflict, which currently support different actors, maintain antagonisms toward each other in the quest for sub-regional hegemony, and – in the case of Uganda – has already deployed thousands of troops to support Kiir.
Further, South Sudan’s lack of central institutional governing capacity and fractious nature will complicate territorial handovers and administration efforts. The neutrality of the force will also be questioned, impeding its legitimacy. This is mainly because UNMISS has often coordinated activities with Kiir’s forces, even when these had been accused of being partly responsible for intensifying the most recent conflict. Notably, UNMISS’s mandate included working with Kiir’s government in the pursuit of state building following South Sudan’s independence, and, at the conflict’s inception, the force was outnumbered and outgunned, and forced to rely on the government for its survival.
Last, the global economic slowdown will mean that funding the expansion will be challenging. Already, some EU members have reduced their contributions to peacekeeping missions by over twenty per cent. This is significant, as the brigade will not only comprise a few thousand troops, but will require advanced weaponry and airpower to confront government forces. Even in the DRC, where the FIB has been viewed as a template for the South Sudan mission, problems are currently plaguing the mission.
The AU resolution thus will escalate the militarisation of a complex political matter. A properly enforced arms embargo could contain the situation better, and allow time to conceptualise and implement a more inclusive power-sharing agreement through IGAD, especially since South Sudan is landlocked and reliant on its neighbours, and because the USA and China can pressure the Ugandan and Sudanese governments to comply. Moreover, this would require less funding and be easier to implement. In the meanwhile, conflicts continue in Jonglei, Equatoria and other states, while the international community is fixated on the capital Juba, and on the notion that there are two clearly distinguishable belligerents.