In North Africa the Winds are Changing Too Often
Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
The approaching end to the Syrian civil war, the Iraqi Kurdish loss of Kirkuk after the referendum on independence, the crisis in the GCC over Qatar and the approaching change of leadership in Algeria and Saudi Arabia, tied up in the Yemeni war, occupy much of the world’s media focus. The events in the Sahel, Sudan and Eastern Africa in general are in the shadows of the “news of the first order”. Meanwhile in the region there is an acute rivalry between external players.
The present article, describing the situation in the Sahel, Sudan and Eastern Africa is based on materials from the Middle East Institute expert A.A. Bystrov.
Timely Beating of the Special Forces
The government of Niger appealed to the United States with the request to use attack drones to fight militants operating on the border of this African state with Mali. According to NBC, even before the attack on the U.S. Special Forces in Niger on October 10, the United States began to explore the possibility of using in the area strike drones. The attack occurred 200 kilometres north of Niamey, the capital of the country. Four soldiers of the American Special Forces died and two were wounded.
For a long time Washington looked at the Sahel as a secondary track of the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, considering that this zone is the responsibility of Paris. True, the migration and drug trafficking are targeting Europe, and to a very small extent the U.S.
President Donald Trump at the beginning of his administration spelled out priority areas for action: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. After the incident in Niger, the Secretary of Defence of the U.S. J. Mattis made a statement in relation to the Sahel. Experts attribute this to the fact that in October, 10 years of training were completed of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), whose efforts were focused on the fight against the Islamists Al-Shabab in Somalia.
The White House cut the budgets of direct military assistance to foreign states and does not intend to revise this policy. Thus Trump passed an executive order on the escalating military component of the United States abroad, without deliberation by the Congress. The balance between reducing the cost of “secondary tracks” and the desire of the Pentagon to increase there their presence enters the realm of contradiction, which is characteristic of America. The incident with the U.S. Special Forces in Niger was timely. At stake is the funding for AFRICOM and the possible refusal of Congress to the Pentagon’s request to build forces in the Sahel.
The AFRICOM command structure is stationed in Germany at the request of Paris, due to the discontent of African leaders of the prospect of placing on its territories U.S. bases. However, the Franco-American “Cold War” has ended. Paris cannot hold off the Islamic threat in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Sahel. It is willing to break the taboo of the presence of the U.S. security forces in its sphere of interests in Africa. The Minister of Defence of France during his visit to Washington asked to increase the support for the forming of a joint military contingent of the region’s countries (Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania). So far, Trump has agreed to allocate 60 million dollars. Most likely, the number of drones will slightly increase in the region, because the French are experiencing a shortage of equipment.
The change of position by the leadership of Niger with respect to drones is peculiar: previously Niamey denied the use on its territory of strike drones, allowing their use only for surveillance. The selection of Niger by the Americans is due to the presence of a large quantity of uranium deposits, which until now were under the exclusive control of French companies. Moreover, the United States agreed to the deployment of strike drones in Niger only on the condition that their base was to be located not in Naimey, but in Agadez, 1130 kilometres north of the capital. They are trying to solve two problems: strengthen their presence in Niger and at the same time take under control a significant part of Libya.
All this indicates that Washington failed to negotiate with Algeria on the deployment of its territory drone bases and the use its air space for the flight of its drones in the Sahel and further south. Negotiations lasted two years, the U.S. encouraging Algeria for a positive decision to this question by activating the military-technical cooperation, but to no avail. The “Algerian Corridor” operates in the northern and central regions of Libya. The south of this country will presently be monitored through the cover of drones from Agadez, the range of which covers its entire territory. The latter means that the Pentagon is beginning to participate more actively in the Libyan conflict.
The drone base in Agadez will become functional in the middle or end of 2018. So far the construction is estimated in excess of 100 million dollars, but according to experts, will increase significantly. Paris has no choice. The first baptism of fire of the military contingent of the “Five” African countries, which happened in the triangle of the Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso borders under the French military command, failed. The success of the modest level of coordination, according to the French, is horrifying. The propaganda results of the operation, timed to coincide with President E. Macron’s visit to the region, was minimal.
Sudan Not According to Clinton
The Permanent Representative of the USA to the UN Nikki Haley was evacuated from the migrant camp in the capital of South Sudan, Juba, where unrest started during her visit. The television channel MSNBC reported this. The diplomat fled the camp but continued the visit. The events that took place there were a camouflaged responds from Juba to Washington’s warning. Haley’s South Sudan visit had a “last warning” characteristic, expressed in a stringent form. Washington took a course on forcing South Sudan’s President Salwa Kiir to incorporate the opposition into the power structures and the formation of a united government to prepare the general elections.
The crisis in relations between the US and South Sudan began after the election of the American President Donald Trump. On September 6 the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the USA issued an order concerning the freezing of funds of functionaries of the pro-presidential party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), including President Kiir, which sparked a fierce response from the Foreign Ministry. Before that, in May, Kiir refused to accept the US Special Envoy at the Sudanese settlement. The President’s obstinacy is explained simply because he is not willing to share power with the opposition because it consists of representatives of the tribal union of Nuers. This is supported by the President of Uganda Y. Museveni, who is not concerned by the Nuers, but the strengthening of his main regional competitors, Ethiopia and Kenya.
The main reason for the American-South Sudan crisis lies in the fact that Kiir is a personal project of the ex-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her African-American entourage at the U.S. State Department. There was a lot of racism and little foresight in the United States’ requirements to Khartoum on guarantees of South Sudan’s independence. The Americans did their best to isolate “black” South Sudan and contrast it with the “Arab” Sudan. In response, the leadership of the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement split with its curators at the State Department the available means at its disposal. The figurehead of Clinton as the main rival to Trump became the main reason for stripping the African lobby in the US State Department and the transformation of the US policy on the continent. Clinton did not like Khartoum, and now the sanctions are removed. She supported Kiir, and Trump is against him.
Iran and the Horn of Africa
Iran has intensified its efforts to spread its influence in the Horn of Africa and East Africa, competing against Egypt, the UAE and the KSA. This is not the first attempt by Tehran to gain a foothold in the region. Above all it was in the process of establishing strategic relations with Khartoum during the blockade by the KSA in the context of American economic sanctions. The strengthening of relations was in the military sphere; the Islamic Republic has supplied Sudan with bombs, established there an assembly line, Iranian warships have regularly visited with technical and “friendly” visits of Port Sudan. Tehran’s economic expansion is not enough.
It is not excluded that the Iranian secret services warned about the risks of this, knowing that Khartoum plays a combination of preparing the ground for rapprochement with Riyadh. After the break-up of Sudan, Iran was left without a foothold in East Africa against the backdrop of the struggle between the UAE-Egypt and Qatar-Turkey blocks. And, the KSA playing its part. In this regard, the Iranians made their bid with Ethiopia. Its leaders are wary of Riyadh after the events of two years ago when the government deported dozens of Saudi preachers accused of inciting religious hatred.
This was pushing Ethiopia to strengthen contacts with all anti-Saudi players to create a regional counterweight. After the 29th summit of the African Union (AU) of July 4, the head of the Department of Middle East and Africa, the Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir-Abdollahian was to build and maintain working contacts with Ethiopian partners, the Foreign Affairs Minister Workneh Gebeyehu, Minister of Agriculture Decadon Abraha and Minister of Trade Bekele Bolado. Iran took in 1984 the first steps to reinforce cooperation with Ethiopia, but this drive became more obvious after the visit to Addis Ababa of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Salehi in 2012, the results of which laid the foundations of the bilateral rapprochement.
One of the results was the support from Addis Ababa on Tehran’s position on key issues of foreign policy, including the deal on the Iranian Nuclear Programme (INP) and the right of Tehran to develop a “peaceful atom”. Representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran became regular guests at the annual summits of the AU in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is counting on the support of Iran in a dispute with Egypt over the construction of the Great Dam on the Blue Nile. And it was so declared, which triggered negative reactions from Egypt and the UAE. In return, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn announced the creation at the state university a Department of Farsi and Iranian Studies with the involvement of Iranian teachers.
Tehran is trying to weaken Egypt’s position and its president A.F. al-Sisi in the region by increasing its influence. It is trying to create unfavourable conditions for Egypt and the UAE in Eritrea, where they established a military base, forcing the Iranians out. It is through Eritrea that the flow of weapons went through the Sinai to the Gaza Strip. In this, the Iranians are working very closely with Qatar, which is an antagonist of Egypt and the UAE, and with Oman having strong positions in Tanzania.
Special Forces Under Sanctions
In Khartoum, on 27 and 28 September, the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa (CISSA) AU took place. It was attended by the heads of security services of certain countries of Africa as well a representatives of the CIA, the French DGSE, the Department of State Security of the UAE and the head of the super secret services of the Bureau of State Security of the KSA General Khaled Ali al-Humaidan. It was chaired by the head of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS) Mohammed Atta, close to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Atta is considered the main architect of secret consultations with the US regarding the removal of sanctions on Sudan and cooperation with the CIA to counter Islamist terrorism.
The Director of the CIA M. Pompeo supports his counterpart, the head of the Sudanese intelligence agencies, in these consultations. He is the main lobbyist for the final removal of sanctions on Sudan and its removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism because the CIA receives from Khartoum operational and intelligence information. The mere fact of gathering the CISSA AU in the country, which is under legal prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), is unprecedented, as is the presence of representatives of the American and French secret services. Earlier, the US and the Europeans refused to participate in international conferences in Sudan, not to mention direct contacts with President al-Bashir and the head of its intelligence services. The special representatives of the EU and the United States to Sudan would only meet with ministers that were not included in the ICC lists. The AU also tried not to hold events in the country, limiting the participation of members of the Sudanese delegation, which had to undergo a preliminary approval by the headquarters of the AU. This means that the process has gone in the direction of easing the position of the US and the EU in the “Arabic segment” of Africa. We will note that representatives of Turkey and Qatar were not present as observers during the session. The meeting was held under the auspices of Riyadh as a possible financial sponsor of joint operations in Somalia.
On the sidelines of the event contacts were made between the American and the Sudanese intelligence services and al-Humeidan and Atta. It is worth to highlight the meeting of the head of the Ugandan foreign intelligence George Asveta with a delegation of South Sudanese. These consultations continued on September 29 in Kampala, where it was agreed to send to Juba the second batch of 30 officers of the Ugandan intelligence with the aim of organising the work against South Sudan opposition from R. Mashara’s party in the Bentiu and Torit states. Al-Humaidan discussed with Atta the issues of bilateral cooperation on Yemen, particularly the increasing funding of the Sudanese military, members of the forces of the Arabian coalition. At the negotiations with representatives of the American, Saudi and Emirati special services joint operations and exchanges of intelligence information were discussed with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood movement. For the CIA, this issue is a priority after instructions from Trump on the revitalisation in this area.
The Sudanese regime ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood was present at different levels in different formats of their activities around the world, and there is much relevant information available to Atta. The KSA and the UAE are planning to use the Sudanese partners for the collection of compromising information on Qatar of facts to support the Salafi extremist groups. There is talk of publishing them in a White Paper, the decision about its publication was taken in the September meeting of the heads of special services of Egypt, the KSA, Bahrain and the UAE.
Enter the “Sahara Eagles” Into the Game
Most acutely, Italy and France currently are competing in Libya and their struggle takes bizarre forms. So, the Libyan brigade “Sahara Eagles” of Barka Shedemi sent a letter to the coordinator of foreign policy activities of the EU Federica Mogherini, demanding to begin consultations on the size of financial compensation in connection with functions carried out by the brigade in the protection of the Libyan-Niger border to combat illegal migrants. The brigade is involved in patrolling operations on the Libyan border pursuant to the Rome Pact, concluded under the aegis of Italy in April and formalised in July as a project to create a single border force, which consists of the tribal militias of Toubous, Tuaregs and Awlad Suleimanis. In exchange, the tribes demanded over and above the regular salary compensation for the blood feud between them, free training and treatment to tribal members in Italian hospitals.
In addition to border security and the fight against illegal immigration Rome thus is trying to bring the region under control and to strengthen the position of the national consensus government of Prime Minister F. Saraga, as well as to guarantee the security of oil fields, operated by the Italian firm Eni. The pretext being the fight against migration. Rome has repeatedly appealed to Brussels with a request to take on the partial funding and technical supplying of the operation, and receiving a refusal from Brussels under pressure from Paris. The French carry out their game to strengthen their influence in Fezzan, a historical region in the north-west of the country, and in Libya in general the position of Field Marshal H. Haftar.
The Italians through MEPs initiated proceedings on the spending of EU funds to combat illegal migration in the Sahel and the Maghreb, including the investigation of bribes by Euro-officials to commanders of the jihadists in the Libyan Sabratha, which according to the Italians, are the main organisers of illegal migration from Africa through Libya to Europe, and the Sudanese Janjaweed, which are prosecuted by the ICC. This appeal has caused a sharp reaction from the President of Niger, Mr. Yssouf, believing himself the main recipient of support from Brussels in the fight against migration and smuggling. He will not stand the competition. But nothing is so simple.
On September 11, Ahmed Barka, the Minister of Internal Affairs in the Tobruk government, a supporter of Haftar, announced that it has agreed with Shedemi “on cooperation”. The “Sahara Eagles” swore allegiance to Haftar. They are not the most numerous tribe of the Toubou, but they had successful operations to intercept migrants and caravans smuggling on the border with Niger and Chad. This brigade is controlled by one of the spiritual fathers of Toubous, Sheikh Mich Salah Zalam. Through Shedemi, Haftar tried to secure his loyalty. So Shemedi’s appeal initiated by the French, who decided to finance through Brussels a part of the tribal militia loyal to them by creating an alternative to the Italian project. Paris tries to embarrass Federica Mogherini, which is suspected of lobbying the interests of Rome in Libya.
In case of a refusal by Brussels, Shemedi’s smuggling and migrants will pour across the Niger-Libyan border, which will put the Italians in a difficult situation and will devaluate the Rome Pact. To satisfy the “Sahara Eagles” may lead to new financial demands by the pro-Italian part of the Toubous to increase their salaries. So Paris responded to the competitor on the Libyan route at the parliamentary inquiries in regard to the “correctness” of the spending of EU funds to combat illegal migration…
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute