By Ramzy Baroud

On 16 September, I visited South Africa, a country where many Palestinians have always felt welcomed, if not overwhelmed by the degree of genuine and meaningful solidarity. While having the honour to address many audiences in six major cities, I have also learned a great deal. An important and sobering lesson is that while apartheid laws can be dismissed in a day, economic apartheid and massive inequality can linger on for many years. Thanks to my interactions with many South African intellectuals, activists and ordinary folk, I learned not to romanticise the South African struggle, a crucial lesson for those of us fighting to end Israeli apartheid in Palestine. 

My hosts at the Afro-Middle East Centre ensured that I met with diverse audiences, including top members of the African National Congress, the leadership of the country’s two major trade union federations, anti-apartheid scholars and activists, and a large number of students and other people throughout the country.

The main, obvious, conclusion from all these meetings and interactions is that South Africans are serious about their solidarity with Palestine, and that they see themselves as partners in the Palestinian struggle for justice and peace. While South Africans are always ready to take their solidarity with Palestine to a whole new level, however, there is a general feeling that decisive political moves can prove costly for South Africa.

True, the South African government has taken several steps in the right direction. On 14 May 2018, Pretoria recalled its ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, to protest the killing of hundreds of unarmed protesters taking part in the Great March of Return in besieged Gaza. On 5 April 2019, it began to actively downgrade its ties with Israel, in response to a call made by the ANC conference in December 2017.

While these steps are significant, South Africa is yet to take the kind of action that, when combined with others measures of international solidarity, could finally force Israel to dismantle its system of Apartheid in Palestine. The problem is not the lack of willingness nor that of diplomatic doublespeak. There is a growing, and justifiable, sense that Arab governments no longer see the liberation of Palestine as a common objective. While the Arab peoples remain committed in their support of Palestinians, Arab governments have fallen into warring camps and political divisions. 

Yet, a top ANC leader told me that South Africa’s policy regarding Palestine is guided by the agendas of the Arab League and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Sadly, neither the Arab League nor the PLO are serving the roles they were entrusted with decades ago. The former is mired in divisions, and the latter has been effectively replaced by the provisional, factional Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Using ineffectual organizations as a legal and moral frame of reference is hurting South Africa’s chances of converting its solidarity with Palestine into tangible political assets. 

The other dilemma is that the African continent itself is no longer united regarding Palestine. Israel has successively driven a wedge between African countries, which, at one point, were united in their unconditional support of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli military occupation and Apartheid. 

Israel’s successes in Africa, especially through the penetration of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have made Tel Aviv a political player on the African continent. Boosted by the welcome he received from various African leaders, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped to hold the ‘Israel-Africa Summit’ in October 2017. Thanks to the efforts of African countries like South Africa and Algeria, the conference was postponed indefinitely. 

If Israel continues to score political victories while facing little resistance, however, it will eventually dominate the African continent. The absurdity of this goes beyond the struggle in Palestine. A continent that was ravaged by colonialism, racism and apartheid should not embrace the likes of Israel, the exemplification of the very ills that have cost Africa so dearly for hundreds of years. 

In fact, the issue of solidarity with Palestine and the pressing need to block Israel’s scourges in Africa are intrinsically linked. In this very link, South Africa can find a way to reclaim its natural role as a vanguard against racism and apartheid everywhere. 

My suggestion to the ANC was that South Africa should update its frame of reference, moving away from tired clichés of a defunct, two-state solution and such, to a whole new way of thinking. And it should not go about doing it alone; all of Africa and all Palestinians should be part of this effort. 

I strongly believe that South Africa is ready to counter Israel’s efforts on the continent by initiating an Africa-Palestine Conference, a major gathering that aims to harness all the solidarity for the Palestinian people throughout all African countries. Whether such a conference is held under the auspices of the African Union (AU) or independently by a single member state (or even a political party), the gathering of like-minded African and Palestinian leaders, parliamentarians, scholars and civil society leaders can develop a new frame of reference, which South Africa, the African continent, and, in fact, the rest of the world can use as a guiding principle of new thinking on Palestine. Based on the call made by Palestinian civil society in 2005 to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, the Palestinian people have been demanding and expecting this new thinking for at least fifteen years. 

Those who might find the idea that Africa can lead the way on forming a new, global understanding on Palestine far-fetched need to remember that it was the Organization of African Unity’s resolution 77 (XII) of August 1975 that recognised and condemned the ‘organic link’ between ‘the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regime in Zimbabwe and South Africa’. That very resolution served as a major frame of reference used in UN Resolution 3379 of November 1975, which determined that ‘Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination’.

Africa must reclaim its position as a global leader in the fight against racism and apartheid, and South Africa is very qualified to spearhead these efforts, because, after all, as iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela once said, ‘We all know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’

*Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His most recent book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, and his forthcoming book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. In September 2019, he spent ten days in South Africa on a book tour hosted by the Afro-Middle East Centre

Libya's Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeg has labelled Khalifa Haftar's troop invasion of Tripoli as a coup. Maiteeg says Haftar is trying to take power by force, to control the city and get back to a period of military rule in Libya. His comments come in the wake of Libya's U.N. backed Government of National Accord's call to end the fighting. For more on this story, we are joined on the line by Ebrahim Deen. He is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a research institute based in Johannesburg South Africa.

A new cold war in Africa

By Mehari Taddele Maru

Last month, the twelfth US-Africa Business Summit, a high-level event attended by eleven African heads of state and government and some 1 000 business leaders, was held in Maputo, Mozambique. During the three-day event, US officials unveiled a $60bn investment agency that will seek to invest in low and middle-income countries, with a focus on Africa.

The announcement came six months after US president Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, presentedthe Trump administration’s ‘New Africa Strategy’. He asserts: ‘Great power competitors, namely China and Russia, are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa. They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.’

Although both China and Russia are mentioned, the US has demonstrated over the past few months that it is mainly concerned about the former. In fact, it already appears that Africa is set to become yet another battleground for the escalating trade war between Beijing and Washington. With increasing foreign military presence and growing diplomatic tensions, the continent is already witnessing the first signs of an emerging new cold war. And just as the previous one devastated Africa, fuelling wars and forcing African governments to make economic choices not in their best interests, this one will also be detrimental to African development and peace.

Economic war

China’s approach to Africa has always been trade oriented. The continent became one of the top destinations for Chinese investment after Beijing introduced its ‘Go Out’ policy in 1999, which encouraged private and state-owned business to seek economic opportunities abroad. As a result, Chinese trade with Africa has increased forty-fold over the past two decades; in 2017, it stood at $140bn. Between 2003 and 2017, Chinese foreign directed investment (FDI) flows have jumped close to sixty-fold to $4bn a year; FDI stocks stand at $43bn – a significant part of which has gone to infrastructure and energy projects.

China has significantly expanded African railways, investing in various projects in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Angola and Nigeria; it is currently building a massive hydropower plant in Angola, and has built Africa’s longest railway connecting Ethiopia and Djibouti. It also built the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, and that of the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, in Abuja.

By contrast, the USA has long viewed Africa as a battlefield where it can confront its enemies: the Soviets during the Cold War, ‘terrorists’ after 9/11, and now the Chinese. Washington has never really made a concerted effort to develop its economic relations with the continent. As a result, trade between the USA and Africa has decreased from $120bn in 2012 to just over $50bn today. US FDI flows have also slumped from $9.4bn in 2009 to around $330m in 2017. The new $60bn investment fund announced last month is a welcome initiative, but it will not be able to challenge Chinese economic presence on the continent. Just last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged $60bn dedicated solely to investment in Africa.

The US has repeatedly accused Chinaof using ‘debt to hold states in Africa captive to [its] wishes and demands’, and has warned African states to avoid Chinese ‘debt diplomacy’ that is supposedly incompatible with the independence of African nations and civil society, and poses ‘a significant threat to US national security interests’. Yet Africa is only the fourth-biggest recipient of Chinese FDI after Europe (mainly Germany, UK and Netherlands), the Americas (mainly the USA and Canada) and Asia. The USA has also borrowed heavily from China; its current debt to its rival stands at $1.12 trillion. By contrast, Africa owes China around $83bn.

Africans are fully aware of and concerned about high indebtedness, trade imbalances, the relatively poor quality of Chinese goods and services and Beijing’s application of lower standards of labour and environmental practices. But many do not share the American perspective that their economic relationship with China is detrimental to them, and rather see it as an opportunity that provides much-needed unconditional funding and that takes local priorities into account. As Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh argued, ‘The reality is that no one but the Chinese offers a long-term partnership.’

The pressure the USA is currently exerting on African countries to move away from partnerships with China could hurt African economies. It could force African countries into making choices that are not in their best economic interests, and could cause them to miss out on important development projects or funding. Meanwhile, the USA-China trade war is already affecting the continent. According to the African Development Bank, it could cause as much as a 2.5 per cent decrease in GDP for resource-intensive African economies, and a 1.9 per cent dip for oil-exporting countries.

Militarisation

The escalating tensions between the USA and China could also threaten the security of the continent since both countries are militarily involved in Africa. Over the past fifteen years, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has been engaged in a number of security missions across the continent, making modest auxiliary troop contributions to peacekeeping operations in Sudan, South Sudan, Liberia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has also contributed millions of dollars of peacekeeping equipment to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and provided significant funding to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) for its mediation efforts in South Sudan.

In 2017, the first Chinese overseas military base was opened in Djibouti. The facility, which hosts some 400 staff and troops, and has the capacity to accommodate 10 000, is officially supposed to provide support for the ongoing anti-piracy operations of the Chinese navy, but it also plays a role in securing maritime routes, part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. There has been speculation that this is the first of a number of planned bases meant to secure Chinese interests in Africa.

China’s military presence in Africa, however, pales in comparison to that of the USA. Over the past few years, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has run some thirty-six different military operations in thirteen African countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan and Tunisia. It has more than 7 000 troops deployed on the continent. It maintains a massive military base in Djibouti – the biggest and only permanent US military base in Africa, but also runs at least thirty-four other military outposts scattered across the west, east and north of the continent where US troops are deployed and military operations (including drone attacks) are launched from. The US also directly supports the armies of Egypt, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger and others, as well as the G5 Sahel force tasked with counterterrorism.

While a direct confrontation between US and Chinese forces in Africa is unlikely, their growing presence is becoming increasingly destabilising. Already, Washington’s strategy to contain Chinese influence over Africa is playing out at different conflict and social upheaval hotspots across the continent. The fallout of the US-Chinese competition is particularly apparent in the strategic Red Sea region, through which passes one of the most important maritime routes. Countries in the region are not only feeling growing US and Chinese pressure to take one side or the other, but are also increasingly exposed to outside interference by various regional powers. 

Growing regional tensions

Djibouti recently found itself at the centre of US-Chinese diplomatic confrontation. Being host to military bases of both superpowers, the small country has had to play a difficult balancing act. In 2018, Djibouti seized control of its Doraleh Container Terminal from the Emirati company DP World, claiming the company’s operation of the facility was threatening Djibouti’s sovereignty. The authorities had feared that the UAE’s investment in the nearby Port of Berbera in the autonomous Somali region of Somaliland could challenge its position as the main maritime hub for Ethiopia’s large economy. The decision to terminate the contract with DP World, however, triggered a sharp reaction from Washington, a close Emirati ally. The Trump administration fears that Djibouti could hand control of the terminal over to China. 

Bolton warned: ‘Should this occur, the balance of power in the Horn of Africa – astride major arteries of maritime trade between Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia – would shift in favor of China. And, our U.S. military personnel at Camp Lemonnier could face even further challenges in their efforts to protect the American people.’

Djibouti was forced to publicly declare that it would not allow China to take control of the terminal, but that did not assuage US fears. Ever since, the USA has sought to secure a possible alternative location for its African military base: neighbouring Eritrea. It encouraged regional actors, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to pull Eritrea out of its decades-long isolation. In a matter of months, long-time enemies Ethiopia and Eritrea concluded a peace agreement to end their twenty-year-old cold conflict, while the UN lifted sanctions on Asmara. As a result, Eritrea was able to emerge as a strategic rival to Djibouti, offering its coast for foreign military and economic facilities. The UAE has already set up a military base near the Eritrean port of Assab.

Sudan, to the north, has also been a battleground of the ongoing superpower turf war. China had long been a supporter of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir. Under his rule, Beijing came to dominate its oil industry, buying some eighty per cent of Sudanese oil, and thus providing Khartoum with much-needed cash to wage war against various rebel groups. It was also one of the few countries, along with Russia, that broke the UN arms embargo and sold weapons to Bashir’s regime. After South Sudan gained independence in 2011, China continued to be a close partner of the Sudanese regime, remaining its main trading partner. Sudan, in fact, became the biggest beneficiary of the $60bn Africa investment package that China had pledged in 2018, having some $10bn in Chinese debt written off. The Chinese government also made plans to develop facilities in Port Sudan, where it already operates an oil terminal. Qatar and Turkey also signed deals with Bashir for various facilities in the port city. When mass protests erupted on the streets of Sudan in December 2018, Beijing stood by Bashir, who it saw as the main guarantor of stability in the country, which lies on strategic routes, inlcudes China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

Meanwhile, the USA had repeatedly demonstrated that it did not want Bashir running for another term. His removal was approved in Washington, which has since appeared to back the interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Sudan. The two Gulf states hope to install another strongman sympathetic to their regional politics, who would maintain Sudan’s participation in the war in Yemen and curb Turkish and Qatari influence. At this point, it seems China is at risk of being sidelined by the significant sway the UAE and Saudi Arabia have with Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC).

Apart from Djibouti and Sudan, various other countries in the region have also felt the consequences of the US bid to contain China. This political confrontation has added to the already-rising tensions between other players in the region, including Egypt, the Gulf countries, Iran and Turkey. The Trump administration has particularly favoured Emirati, Saudi and Egyptian interests, which have emboldened these three countries in their efforts to shape regional dynamics to their advantage.

Thus, in the long-term, given the pre-existing faultlines and conflicts in the region, the US-China cold war could have a detrimental effect, not only on its economy but also on its security. At this stage, to preserve its interests and its peace, Africa has only one option: to reject pressures for it to swear allegiance to either of the two powers. African countries should uphold their sovereignty in policy and decision making, and pursue the course that is in the best interests of their nations.

If the USA wants to compete with China on the continent, it should do so in good faith. It can gain a competitive advantage by offering African countries better, more credible and principled alternatives to those put forward by China. But that can only happen if the USA develops a strategy that focuses on Africa itself, not on containing and undermining the business of a third party.

• Mehari Taddele Maru is an independent consultant on matters of peace and security in Africa

• This article was first published by AlJazeera

 

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.

Conclusion

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.

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