AfricaSource Strategic Insight on the New Africa

The recent statement from the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) that American forces had carried out an airstrike destroying an al-Shabaab truck bomb near Jana Cadalle in southern Somalia on April 11 was the third time this month that the US military is reported to have hit the terrorist group in the East African country. While AFRICOM stressed that the action—and the eight other airstrikes that it has acknowledged since the beginning of this year alone—was taken “in coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia” (FGS), the truth is that this heightened operational tempo in response to the ongoing threat from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab as well as a smaller ISIS-affiliated group only underscores the ongoing weakness of the internationally-recognized Somali regime.

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Last month, the leaders of forty-four African nations signed a framework agreement to form a continental free-trade zone that will encompass a billion people and up to $3 trillion of cumulative GDP. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) would be the largest free trade agreement since the founding of the World Trade Organization over twenty years ago, and seeks to create “a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments.” The agreement is an important stepping stone towards a continental customs union, pan-continental socioeconomic integration, and a more economically self-sufficient Africa.

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The April 2 anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011 passed largely unremarked amid the cascade of momentous news coming recently from Ethiopia, including several years of unrest, the sudden release of thousands of detainees in mid-February, the resignation of the prime minister one day later, the declaration of a state of emergency the day after that, as well as the ensuing intense deliberations within the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, culminating in the election of a new coalition chairman and his swearing-in this week as prime minister, the first such constitutional handover in the millennial history of the Ethiopian state. Yet it would not be an exaggeration to say that, as the GERD approaches completion, its strategic geopolitical and socioeconomic impact on Ethiopia and, indeed, the entire Northeast Africa region may prove greater than of any of the developments that have lately filled the news.

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Following Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s sudden resignation on Thursday, Ethiopian authorities announced a six-month country-wide state of emergency (SOE), effective yesterday. This order, the country’s second in two years, imposes draconian restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, while granting extended powers to the country’s already powerful security services.

This decision is counterproductive to the government’s stated goals of political reform and inclusive governance. It undercuts Ethiopia’s security by emboldening those who believe that violence is the only way to achieve fundamental political reform in Ethiopia, but it also negates the national and international goodwill generated by the country’s unprecedented recent release of hundreds of high-profile political prisoners.

A rapid pivot is the best hope for the ruling coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to preserve prospects for long-term peace in Ethiopia.  

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Ethiopia's declaration of a state of emergency (SOE) in the wake of widespread protests earlier this week suspends the few democratic rights that Ethiopian citizens enjoy and effectively empowers military decision-making above the civilian leadership of the country. As the ruling party has seesawed between peaceful and authoritarian gestures - first releasing dozens of important political opponents, and then establishing martial law - it has become clear that Ethiopia's political leadership is perilously divided and in the midst of its own internal crisis. Critics of the regime are describing the SOE as a military coup.

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After overseeing the release on February 13 and 14 of thousands of political challengers to the regime, Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn has resigned amid continuing protests that potentially threaten the survival of the government. (For detailed analysis of those events, read this: https://buff.ly/2GeB15y )

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Update: On February 15, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned following months of sustained protests and pressure from the country’s aggrieved and marginalized ethnic groups. The country’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), now faces a crisis of leadership as it determines Ethiopia’s next prime minister. This author predicted the imminent ouster of Hailemariam and offered speculation as to the next person to hold that post—including the momentous challenges any new prime minister will face. Above all, Ethiopia’s new leader faces an increasingly emboldened population who demands real political reforms—which will require a painful, and potentially fraught, distribution of economic resources and power away from the TPLF ruling elite.

The protest movement playing out in Ethiopia is one of the most consequential conflicts on the African continent – more than any other, it has the potential to upend US policy in the Horn of Africa. It could disrupt counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and reduce the number of peacekeeping troops in South Sudan. But alarmingly, it has barely registered in Washington policy discussions or in the American press.

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Since Jacob Zuma took office in May 2009, South Africa’s economy has been a story of low-to-no growth, flagrant corruption, and extreme inequality. Indeed, his erratic policies have twice spiraled the economy into recession (in 2009 and 2017), resulting in significant slashes to the country’s credit rating and an overall downgrade of the country’s brand. The recent victory of Cyril Ramaphosa at the African National Congress (ANC) conference in December injected a sense of hope into the political and economic environment.  In his proposed “new deal,” he outlined economic growth targets of 5 percent by 2023 and an initiative to create one million new jobs in an effort to reduce South Africa’s unemployment rate, which hovers stubbornly over a painfully high 26 percent. 

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Over Egypt’s vocal dissent, Ethiopia is forging ahead with final construction on its ambitious Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River, the lifeblood of nearly 500 million Africans. As the region’s population is expected to double to a whopping one billion people over the next three decades, the dam will become more of a flashpoint in an already volatile region, and the rising political tension bodes poorly for East Africa’s future stability.

In November, after months of disagreement over the release of an environmental impact study, Egypt withdrew from technical negotiations on the GERD’s construction. Cairo worries that the project gives its upstream neighbor Ethiopia too much control over the Nile, which is Egypt’s primary freshwater resource. Meanwhile, an escalating diplomatic crisis between Egypt and Sudan, ostensibly over water issues but exacerbated by fallout from the Gulf crisis, has hardened the divisions between Egypt and an emerging Ethiopia-Sudan alliance.

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On Tuesday, January 23rd, Africa Center Senior Fellow Aubrey Hruby testified on US-Africa trade and investment before the US International Trade Commission hearing on US Trade and Investment with Sub-Saharan Africa: Recent Developments, #332-564.

Distinguished members of the committee, Ambassadors, and fellow witnesses:

I would like to begin by thanking you, not only for the opportunity to testify before you today, but also the attention that the United States International Trade Commission (USITC) has given to the topic of trade and investment with our partners across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

My name is Aubrey Hruby. I’m a Senior Fellow with the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council and I’ve spent the better part of my career advising Fortune 500 companies to design and implement successful investment and market entry strategies for over twenty African markets. I will devote my testimony to the following themes: 1) an assessment of US trade with SSA; 2) Africa’s increasing diversity of trading partners; 3) the role of the WTO’s TFA in stimulating economic growth and development on the continent; and 4) recommendations for the future.

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