Published 08 Jan 09
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
African Hot Spots in 2009
As I noted in this column space at this same time last year, the end of one year and the beginning of another is an ideal time "both to take stock of where we have been and to look ahead at the paths we are likely to take and the battles which we will have to fight in the coming months." This is even truer when the specific area of interest under examination is the security situation in Africa, especially at a historic moment like the present one when, within the fortnight, Barack Obama will take the oath of office as the forty-fourth President of the United States of America, an event which, as I observed here two months ago, has been greeted with such enthusiasm by Africans that the new chief executive has "a rare opportunity to translate effusive sentiments of good will into a windfall of diplomatic capital which, if he husbands it prudently, can significantly advance America's values and interests on the continent while helping to achieve Africans' aspirations for peace, stability, and development."
What follows is a broad survey of five of the most significant conflicts or flashpoints which will require the attention of the incoming administration and its African and other international partners in the coming year.
The former Somalia. For the third year in a row, New Year's Day finds the greatest threat to African security to be the chaotic conditions prevailing in the territory of what was, until 1991, the Somali Democratic Republic. As difficult as it is to imagine, the internationally-recognized "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG), the fourteenth such attempt at a national framework for governance since the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fled from the presidential palace seventeen years ago this month, is even weaker now than it was just one month ago when I described its authority here as "largely notional," since its writ barely extended beyond a few blocks in Mogadishu and in the provincial town of Baidoa where the rump legislature has been holed up. On December 29, TFG "president" Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed resigned. Under the terms of the TFG charter, Adan Mohamad Nuur, a.k.a. "Madobe," the speaker of the parliament, became interim president of the transitional regime and the legislative assembly has thirty days to select a permanent head for the non-existent Somali state. Since, under the unrelenting pressure of the Islamist-led insurgency against it, most of the TFG's officials have dispersed, it is highly unlikely that they will gather for a presidential election, much less arrive at any consensus should they manage to assemble. In any event, Madobe, a former warlord who led a splinter faction of the Rahanweyn Resistance Army during the civil wars of the 1990s, is in no position to head up anything in broader Somali society: a member of the Hadame sub-clan of the Sagaal Mirifle branch of the Digil-Mirifle (Rahanweyn) clan-family, he cannot realistically expect acceptance as a legitimate leader by the members of the four "noble clans" of Somalia, the Darod, Dir, Hawiye, and ‘Isaq.
While the TFG politicians quarrel over the spoils of the interim "government" for under the watchful eye of international diplomats who seem to be the only people delusional enough to take it seriously, the Islamist forces led by al-Shabaab ("the youth"), an al-Qaeda-linked group that was formally designated a "foreign terrorist organization" last year by the U.S. Department of State, continue to advance across southern and central Somalia as the Ethiopian military units which have been propping up the transitional authorities the past two years continue to withdraw from most of the country. While the more than three thousand Ugandan and Burundian troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) valiantly try to assume the positions being left by the Ethiopians, the peacekeeping contingent is woefully undermanned and otherwise inadequate for the task assigned to it.
Meanwhile, despite the arrival in recent weeks of warships from the People's Republic of China and the European Union to join American, Russian, Indian, and other vessels already patrolling the waters off the Somali coastline, pirates operating from the semi-autonomous northeastern Somali region of Puntland continue to threaten international commerce in the large area from the Gulf of Aden across the western Indian Ocean as far south as the coast of Tanzania. Last year, it should be recalled, some 42 ships were successfully hijacked, fourteen of which—including the massive MV Sirius Star, a Liberian-flagged very large crude carrier (VLCC) owned by a United Arab Emirates-based subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned national oil company of Saudi Arabia—continue to held captive (see my November 20 update). In fact, the Somali pirates rung in the new year by seizing an Egyptian-owned, St. Kitts and Nevis-flagged MV Blue Star, and its twenty-eight-member crew on the very first day of 2009 as the cargo ship was sailing south in the Red Sea towards the Gulf of Aden, carrying 6,000 tons of fertilizer.
As for the only part of the former Somalia to enjoy relative stability, the northwestern Republic of Somaliland, it continues to be largely ignored by the international community even as its citizens prepare for multiparty elections this spring of the type that other Somalis can only dream of holding. I can only reiterate my call last month: "If it appears premature to move to de jure recognition of Somaliland's de facto sovereignty, perhaps some sort of ‘interim special status' might be concocted to throw the Somalilanders a lifeline of access to international political and economic institutions. Certainly if the United States and its allies lack the foresight and imagination to support the one stable and politically legitimate authority in the Somali lands, they will only have themselves to blame for the strategic repercussions—throughout the Horn and beyond—when the last piece standing is toppled over by the other falling dominoes."
Sudan. If the complex conflicts in the former Somalia represent the most immediate security challenge as 2009 opens, those of Sudan will most certainly become the most geopolitically significant. Six months ago, I suggested in this column that the application by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo, for an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Umar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for his role in the conflict in Darfur "may well mark a watershed in the progressive isolation of the Khartoum regime as well as the continuing break-up of the artificial Sudanese state as rigged elections and other tensions lead to the collapse of the [Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA] and South Sudan then declaring its sovereign independence without waiting for the scheduled 2011 referendum foreseen by the accord."
Throughout the fall, officials of the Khartoum regime, with support from Arab governments as well as a number of African countries, unsuccessfully lobbied the members of the United Nations Security Council for a resolution suspending the judicial proceedings at the ICC. And now, with the Israeli action against the terrorist group Hamas in Gaza and other crises to deal with, it is highly unlikely that the Security Council will be taking up a relief measure for the embattled Sudanese tyrant any time soon. Indications are that judges at The Hague, who just returned from a month-long recess, may just be days away from approving the prosecutor's request. An indictment might well embolden both opponents of Khartoum and its supporters—setting in motion a chain of events with repercussions for both Darfur and South Sudan.
According to the CPA, national elections are supposed to take place in barely six months. Few analysts expect that to happen. And even if, by some miracle, a poll were held on schedule, how legitimate would its results be deemed when last year's census, which was supposed to serve as the basis for districting and voter registration purposes was widely seen as a sham? And if the deadline for elections this year is missed, why would the long-suffering Southern Sudanese have any expectation that they will ever be accorded the opportunity, guaranteed by the CPA, to determine by a referendum in two years' time whether or not to stay within Sudan? Under those circumstances, the far likelier scenario would be that whatever force emerges at the head of South Sudan proceeds to take advantage of the disarray that would ensue in Khartoum following Bashir's indictment and simply proceed with declaration of independence which would, after all, be a reflection of the will of the overwhelming majority, not just of those in South Sudan proper, but, as a National Democratic Institute for International Affairs study two years ago found, residents of the border regions of Abyei, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile as well.
In short, whether or not the United States, African states, or the international community is prepared for it, 2009 may well be remembered as the beginning of the end not just of the Islamist-dominated, military dictatorship in Khartoum, but of Sudan itself as a unitary state. The only question that really remains is how this process can best be managed.
The Democratic Republic of Congo. As I noted here two months ago, long-simmering tensions in Africa's third largest country make it "a veritable tinderbox threaten[ing] to reignite with a vengeance." While things have been relatively quiet in recent weeks, troops belonging to the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP, "National Congress for the Defense of the People"), a largely Tutsi group led by General Laurent Nkunda, remain active in the eastern part of the ill-named Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where they defend ethnic Tutsi communities which have been attacked by both Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC, "Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo") troops and their irregulars, including some of the same Hutu killers of the Forces Démocratiques de la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR, "Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda") responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, whose continuing presence on Congolese territory is an irritant to regional relations. In fact, far from being the uncompromising warlord he is often depicted in media accounts, General Nkunda recently had to overcome a small uprising within the CNDP by commanders who thought he was being too soft in his treatment of those threatening his people.
In the meantime, more than one thousand miles to the west as the crow flies, President Joseph Kabila has made little progress on any of the promises he made when he was elected two years to the office he inherited when his warlord father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated in 2001. No pun intended, but about the only concrete accomplishment the regime of Kabila fils has to show for itself is the construction of a monstrous memorial to Kabila père which was ranked as number two in Esquire magazine's list of the "Seven Wonders of the Totalitarian World" last year. Thus, not surprisingly, while armed conflict in the DRC may be temporarily suspended these, but the country's crisis has certainly not been resolved. As I argue in an essay in the current issue of the journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, "given both the magnitude of the Congo's challenges and the failure of even relatively robust international intervention to arrest the country's relapse to instability and conflict – to say nothing about facilitating sustainable economic and social development – Congo and its international partners must summon the political courage and intellectual imagination to go beyond merely prescribing the conventional remedies for the malaises of post-conflict states," and completely reconsider their approach to this conflict zone.
The Maghreb. While al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has kept a lower profile since a surge of its activity in the early fall provoked a strong response on the part of security officials, especially in Algeria (see my September 4 report), it has not been entirely inactive. In some twenty-one separate attacks, the group has killed at least thirty members of Algeria's security forces over the course of the last three months. Nonetheless, the overall death toll in Algeria fell by one-third in 2008, with 338 people killed in terrorist attacks last year, compared to 491 in the preceding year.
However, as its predecessor groups did in the past, AQIM has responded to pressure in one quarter by availing itself of the vast spaces and porous frontiers of the Sahel region to move to another area. In fact, just last month Moroccan security services broke up a plot by AQIM terrorists to set up a training camp in the kingdom and fund it through bank robberies. As I warned several months ago: "While the Moroccan government and its international partners have responded relatively well overall to the challenge which Islamist extremists have posed, there is no denying that the threat continues mount as North African fighters forced out of Iraq by the success of the surge return home while the al-Qaeda's ‘franchise operations' in Africa ratchet up the level and scope of their activities. Moreover, the geographical proximity of the Sharifian Kingdom to both Europe, where there are large Maghrebi diaspora communities, and West Africa, where Morocco has not inconsiderable political, economic, and cultural contact, means that the risk cannot be easily contained. In short, Morocco's fight against jihadist ideology and violence will likely be an ongoing struggle in which the strategic stakes will be increasingly global."
The reality of the threat of the conflict in the Maghreb spreading to Europe—and, possibly, beyond—was driven home during the recent holiday shopping season when the Printemps department store on Boulevard Haussman in Paris had to be evacuated the week before Christmas when a bomb was discovered in a toilet there. Responsibility for the attempted attack was claimed by an Islamist group. As the success of U.S. and other Coalition operations in Iraq continues to drive foreign fighters out of Mesopotamia, an uptick in terrorist activities among Maghrebi communities, both in North Africa and elsewhere in 2009 should not be entirely unexpected.
Zimbabwe. As if he were not content with stealing an election, unleashing a campaign of brutal violence against political opponents and ordinary citizens alike, and then crowning himself in a farcical "reelection," Zimbabwe's octogenarian despot Robert Mugabe ended 2008 by presiding over a cholera outbreak which, according to a World Health Organization epidemiological bulletin released last Saturday, has thus far claimed some 1,640 lives out of 33,212 cases which international health officials have been able to document. And, as if to literally thumb his nose at the country he has led to ruin, Mugabe is expected to leave this week for a month-long holiday with his family at a Malaysian resort. While one can only hope that some higher power hears the prayers publically offered during the recent Christmas season by African Anglican divines like Nobel Peace Prize-winning retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town, Bishop Jo Seoko of Pretoria, and the Ugandan-born Archbishop John Sentamu of York, among others, for Zimbabwe to be delivered from its tyrant—the Primate of England also added the pious wish that, barring heavenly intervention, that some earthly powers act to oust Mugabe—the chances are that the standoff will continue after the vacation since a power-sharing deal struck by the ruling Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is essentially dead. Just this week, a magistrate loyal to ZANU-PF refused to release a prominent human rights advocate, Jestina Mukoko, and eight other activists, many of whom are MDC members, who had been seized and tortured by police.
As I noted last summer, "the international community needs to prepare for the eventual political transition in Harare by developing a contingency plan to quickly and generously help the long-suffering Zimbabweans back on their feet, not only for humanitarian reasons, but also to ensure the stability of the government that inherits the disaster that will be the legacy of Mugabe's megalomaniacal thirst for power." However, given the current global economic climate and the fiscal constraints felt by governments in even the most developed countries, there is every reason to be concerned that such assistance that might be forthcoming to post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, whether it is led by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai or some other figure, will be inadequate to the challenge and that regime change will signal a wholesale collapse that might well swamp the entire subregion, engendering greater insecurity across an even wider area.
In addition to the five major theaters discussed above where insecurity will present significant challenges in 2009, there will, of course, be other conflicts which will require attention in the coming months. The low-intensity war being fought in the Niger Delta (see my July 10 report), for example, may not present the world with a major crisis at the moment—in part because the price of oil is only one-third of what it was just six months ago—but it continues nonetheless, as underscored by the seizure earlier this week by gunmen in speedboats of the MV Bourbon Leda, a vessel belonging to the French oil services firm Bourbon, as it sailed passed the Bonny Island crude export terminal en route to Royal Dutch Shell's Bonga offshore field. The recent spate of military takeovers in Africa, including those in Mauritania and Guinea, are also cause of concern, especially for their potentially destabilizing effects beyond the countries immediately impacted (although, to be fair, these two events and the all-too-many extra-constitutional shenanigans which took place across Africa during 2008 have to be balanced against the extraordinarily tight, but nonetheless peaceful, presidential election in Ghana which concluded just last week and which this Wednesday, with the inauguration of John Atta-Mills, resulted in the first case of any African state having two successive peaceful transitions between democratically elected leaders of opposing parties in a row).
The new year is already shaping up to be a challenging one for Africa. While President-elect Obama's election undoubtedly brought hope to millions of African continent, what the continent really needs from the incoming administration and what America's own interests demand is renewed commitment to and actual implementation of the principles laid out in the most recent edition of the National Security Strategy of the United States: "Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance ... The United States recognizes that our security depends upon partnering with Africans to strengthen fragile and failing states and bring ungoverned areas under the control of effective democracies. We are committed to working with African nations to strengthen their domestic capabilities and the regional capacity of the [African Union] to support post-conflict transformations, consolidate democratic transitions, and improve peacekeeping and disaster responses."
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2009 J. Peter Pham
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