AfricaSource Strategic Insight on the New Africa

When a Tuareg rebellion started in northern Mali in early 2012, the fate of the entire Sahel region hung in the balance. In March of that year, army mutineers, unhappy with the Malian government’s response to the uprising, ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré in a coup. Then Islamist groups slowly coopted the tribal rebellion, imposing Sharia in rebel-held cities in the northern half of the country. By the end of the year, Islamist territorial gains were approaching Mali’s capital, prompting interim President Dioncounda Traoré to call for a French military intervention. But the security situation across the Sahel continued to deteriorate, with local terrorist groups such as Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) – both more or less loosely connected with the Saharan branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – seeking refuge in the large desert swaths and planning future attacks.

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This article appeared originally in French in the current print edition of the magazine Pouvoirs d’Afrique.

This past summer, one could not help but wonder as the leaders of Europe and Africa, in separate meetings, seemed to talk past one another as they sought to deal with what has become one of the most significant—if not the single most important—challenge in the relations between those countries north of the Mediterranean Sea and those located along the southern shore of the old Mare Nostrum and their neighbors farther down on the continent.

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Next week in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping will open the seventh Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the triennial summit gathering of the People’s Republic of China’s top leadership and their counterparts from all the African states except eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), Taiwan’s sole remaining diplomatic partner on the continent. Numerous African leaders, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, the United Nations Secretary-General, and the heads of twenty-seven international and African regional organizations are expected to attend this year’s summit. 

As underscored by the upcoming pageant, there is no denying that a great deal has changed in Sino-African relations since the first FOCAC summit in 2000. During the intervening years, China has gone from being a rather new and relatively marginal actor in Africa with a volume of trade worth only a little more than $10 billion in 2000 to the continent’s biggest economic partner with the total value of exports to the continent and imports from it amounting to more than $170 billion in 2017, a figure that represents an increase of 14 percent from the year before during a period when the commodity price index rose only a modest 7 percent (after having slumped in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis). 

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Amid strong pressure from the Trump Administration, the United Nations (UN) voted at the end of June to cut over $600 million from its peacekeeping budget. The majority of these cuts are set to come from key operations in Sub-Saharan Africa, including the UN’s mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), known by its French acronym MINUSCA, which was originally authorized in April 2014.

While CAR’s military, the Forces Armées Centrafricains, or FACA, is retrained by a European Union (EU) force known as EUTM RCA, MINUSCA acts as CAR’s primary guarantor of security in a country overrun by competing rebel groups.  Unfortunately, these cuts could not come at a worse time. Faced with increasing religious violence, the mission has come under critical strain in recent months according to UN Special Representative Parfait Onanga-Anyanga. 

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Protected by some 36,000 troops especially deployed to counter attacks by jihadist terrorists and other militants that had disrupted voting at 644 polling places (out of 23,041) during the first round just two weeks ago, millions of Malians went to the polls Sunday to vote in the presidential runoff between the incumbent head of state, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, commonly known by his initials “IBK,” and Soumaïla Cissé, a former finance minister.

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It has been twenty years since that morning of August 7, 1998, when suicide bombers detonated, almost simultaneously, trucks laden with explosives outside the United States embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks, the first claimed by al-Qaeda against US targets, left 224 people dead, including a dozen Americans, and around 5,000 wounded. While the bombings took place eight years to the day after US troops arrived in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait—Osama bin Laden took offense at the presence of American forces in the land of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina—they also opened in Africa what would become a major front in what only came to be recognized in the years after 9/11 as the “long war” against jihadist militancy.

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While the July 30, 2018, general election in Zimbabwe—the first in almost four decades where longtime ruler Robert Mugabe won’t be on the ballot—has been attracting a great deal more attention, the presidential election in Mali one day earlier matters just as much and, arguably, is even more important to the security and geopolitical interests of the United States and its European allies.

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“Shikata,” or “remain seated” in Swahili, claim the posters on Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s effigy in the streets of Lubumbashi. But while everyone’s attention is focused on the regime’s contortions to stay in power, despite constitutional impediments to doing so and deep domestic discontent, the 2015 break-up of Congo’s existing provinces has upended politics below the surface with far-reaching consequences for the current regime and potentially destabilizing effects for whomever inherits the state come the end of this year (assuming that elections that have been repeatedly postponed actually take place on schedule this coming December 23).

One of the reasons for the increase from eleven to twenty-six provinces was to break up Katanga and deprive its governor, key Kabila opponent Moïse Katumbi, of his provincial base. Beyond such political expediency, however, this policy’s main effect has been to create ethnically homogeneous provinces. As Alma Bezares Calderon, Lisa Jené, and I write in a recent report for the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, up to eleven of Congo’s provinces are made up primarily of a single ethnic group. This is an increase from three provinces with a single ethnic group prior to this policy.

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Ethiopians and Eritreans alike are celebrating the breakneck speed of a rapprochement between Addis Ababa and Asmara, two longtime enemies. Closer ties between the two, while not necessarily a done deal, could usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for the Horn of Africa, resuming a thriving trade relationship and granting landlocked Ethiopia access to a new port. Unfortunately, nearby Djibouti—which has successfully exploited its prime territory on the Red Sea to offer both port access and military bases to foreign countries—stands to lose. At the least, this tectonic shift will reduce the revenues available to President Ismail Omar Guelleh, in power since 1999, and undermine his ironclad grip on the country. At worst, Djibouti could prove a spoiler, which would threaten prospects for regional peace as well as longstanding US strategic interests in the Horn of Africa.

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In October 2017, a little-known Islamist insurgency by the name of “Ahlu Sunna wa-Jama” or “Swahili Sunnah,” attacked the town of Mocimboa da Praia in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. The attack began a campaign of terror that has paralyzed Mozambique’s northern coast and threatened $30 billion in offshore natural gas projects, a key lifeline for Mozambique’s future development. As casualties rise and civilian displacement continues, the government’s heavy security response has not effectively countered the Islamist group, which has already been compared to the early stages of the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria. However, it should be cautioned that information on the group is difficult to find and separating fact from speculation is harder still. The below timeline, compiled from open sources, seeks to catalogue and differentiate confirmed and unconfirmed reports on the Islamist group’s emergence, ideology, and development in northern Mozambique.

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