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Africa’s $700 Billion Problem Waiting to Happen

The Horn of Africa region is central to the world’s maritime trade. It’s also beginning to fall apart.

By Alex De Waal

March 17, 2016 (SSNA) -- Back in 2002, Meles Zenawi, then prime minister of Ethiopia, drafted a foreign policy and national security white paper for his country. Before finalizing it, he confided to me a “nightmare scenario” — not included in the published version — that could upend the balance of power in the Horn of Africa region.

The scenario went like this: Sudan is partitioned into a volatile south and an embittered north. The south becomes a sinkhole of instability, while the north is drawn into the Arab orbit. Meanwhile, Egypt awakens from its decades-long torpor on African issues and resumes its historical stance of attempting to undermine Ethiopia, with which it has a long-standing dispute over control of the Nile River. It does so by trying to bring Eritrea and Somalia into its sphere of influence, thereby isolating the government in Addis Ababa from its direct neighbors. Finally, Saudi Arabia begins directing its vast financial resources to support Ethiopia’s rivals and sponsor Wahhabi groups that challenge the traditionally dominant Sufis in the region, generating conflict and breeding militancy within the Muslim communities.

Fourteen years later, reality has exceeded Zenawi’s nightmare scenario; not only has every one of his fears come to pass, but Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Saud are working hand-in-glove on regional security issues — notably in Yemen and Libya — which has raised the stakes of the long-running Egypt-Ethiopia rivalry. If the worsening tensions in the Horn of Africa erupt into military conflict, as seems increasingly possible, it wouldn’t just be a disaster for the region — it could also be a catastrophe for the global economy. Almost all of the maritime trade between Europe and Asia, about $700 billion each year, passes through the Bab al-Mandab, the narrow straits on the southern entrance to the Red Sea, en route to the Suez Canal. An endless procession of cargo ships and oil tankers passes within sight — and artillery range — of both the Yemeni and African shores of the straits.

Zenawi’s nightmare scenario, in other words, may soon become the world’s — and no one has a white paper to prepare for it. 

A crisis in the Horn of Africa has been a long time in the making. The regional rivalries of today date back to 1869, when the Suez Canal was opened to shipping, instantly making the Red Sea one of the British Empire’s most important strategic arteries, since almost all of its trade with India passed that way. Then as now, the security of Egypt depended on control of the Nile headwaters, 80 percent of which originate in Ethiopia. Fearful that Ethiopia would dam the river and stop the flow, Egypt and its colonial masters attempted to keep Ethiopia weak and encircled. They did this in part by divvying up rights to the Nile’s waters without consulting Addis Ababa. For example, the British-drafted Nile Waters Agreements, signed in 1929 and 1959, excluded Ethiopia from any share of the waters. As a result, Egypt and Ethiopia became regional rivals, intensely suspicious of each other. 

The Nile remains a high-profile source of tension between the two countries to this day; Sisi’s state visit last year to Ethiopia failed to achieve much, in large part because of Egypt’s unease over a huge Ethiopian hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile. But another important source of friction between the two countries has centered for some time on two of Ethiopia’s volatile neighbors — Eritrea and Somalia — which Cairo has long viewed as useful partners to secure its interests along the Red Sea littoral. Ethiopia has shown it will resist what it views as Egyptian encroachment near its borders. From 2001 to 2004, for instance, Ethiopia and Egypt backed rival factions in Somalia, which prolonged that country’s destructive civil war.

These fractures in the Horn of Africa have been deepened by Saudi Arabia’s reassessment of its security strategy. Worried that the United States was withdrawing from its role as security guarantor for the wider region, it resolved to build up its armed forces and project its power into strategic hinterlands and sea lanes to the north and south. In practice, that has meant winning over less powerful countries along the African coast of the Red Sea — Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia — a region that Ethiopia has sought to place within its sphere of influence.

The Saudi presence along the African Red Sea coast has grown more sharply pronounced since its March 2015 military intervention in Yemen, which drew in Egypt as part of a coalition of Sunni Arab states battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The coalition obtained combat units from Sudan and Eritrea, and scrambled to secure the entire African shore of the Red Sea. Then in January of this year — under pressure from Saudi Arabia — Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan all cut diplomatic ties with Iran. By far the most significant of these was Sudan, which has had long-standing political and military ties with Tehran. For years, Iranian warships called at Port Sudan, and Iranian clandestine supplies to the Palestinian militant group Hamas passed freely along Sudan’s Red Sea coast (occasionally intercepted by Israeli jet fighters). Now Sudan is part of the Saudi-led coalition pummeling the Iran-backed Houthis.

But the most important geopolitical outcome of the Saudi-lead Yemen intervention has been the rehabilitation of Eritrea, which capitalized on the war to escape severe political and economic isolation. After it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea fought wars with each of its three land neighbors — Djibouti, Sudan, and Ethiopia. It also fought a brief war with Yemen over the disputed Hanish Islands in the Red Sea in 1995, after which it declined to reestablish diplomatic relations with Sana’a and instead backed the Houthi rebels against the government.

After the Ethio-Eritrean border war of 1998-2000, Eritrea became a garrison state — with an army of 320,000, it has one the highest soldier-to-population ratios in the world — and Ethiopia led an international campaign to isolate it at the African Union, United Nations, and other international bodies. This was made easier by Eritrea’s increasingly rogue behavior, including backing al-Shabab militants in Somalia. The imposition of U.N. sanctions in 2009 brought the country to the brink of financial collapse.

But the war in Yemen gave Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki a get-out-of-jail-free card. He switched sides in the Yemen conflict and allied himself with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners. As a result, the Eritrean president is now publicly praised by the Yemeni government and welcomed in Arab capitals. His government is also reaping handsome if secret financial rewards in exchange for its diplomatic about-face.

But the fact that Eritrea has decisively escaped Ethiopia’s trap does not mean it has suddenly become a more viable dictatorship. On the contrary, the renewed geostrategic interest in the country and its 750-mile Red Sea coast make the question of who succeeds Afewerki, who has been in power for a quarter century, all the more contentious — especially since Ethiopia has long sought to hand pick a replacement for the Eritrean president. Already, Ethiopia mounts regular small military sorties on the countries’ common border to let Eritrea know who is the regional powerbroker. It would not take much for these tensions to explode into open war.

Saudi Arabia’s revamped security strategy has also meant a sudden influx of Arab funds into Somalia. The Saudis promised $50 million to Mogadishu in exchange for closing the Iranian embassy, for example, while other Arab countries and Turkey have spent lavishly to court the allegiance of Somali politicians. This is partly intra-Sunni competition — Turkish- and Qatar-backed candidates pitted against those funded by the Wahhabi alliance — but it also reflects Somalia’s increasing geopolitical importance. In the country’s national elections scheduled for September, Arab- and Wahhabi-affiliated candidates for parliament could very well sweep the board. 

All of this has made Ethiopia very nervous — as it should. The tremors of the region’s shifting tectonic plates may not directly cause a major crisis. The more probable outcome is deeper divisions between Egypt and Ethiopia, which could cause a proliferation or deepening of proxy disputes elsewhere in the region, such as the two countries’ competing efforts to shape the future leadership of Eritrea and Somalia.

Still, it’s impossible to rule out the possibility of a dramatic security crisis stemming from the shifting regional balance of power. It could come in the form of renewed fighting over Eritrea’s still-disputed land borders, or spinoffs from the war in Yemen, such as the eruption of maritime terrorism. That would lead to a dramatic escalation of the militarization of the region. It would also threaten to entirely close the region’s sea lanes — the ones that are so central to global commerce.

Unfortunately, the international community is sorely unprepared for such an outcome. A well-established, multi-country naval coalition patrols the sea lanes off Somalia’s coast to combat piracy, but no international political mechanism currently exists to diffuse a regional crisis. In the relevant bureaucracies that might be called upon in an emergency — from the United Nations to the U.S. State Department — Africa and the Middle East are handled by separate divisions that tend not to coordinate. The EU’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Alex Rondos, has taken the lead in developing an integrated strategy for both shores of the Red Sea, but the EU’s foreign policy instruments are ill-suited to hard security challenges such as this that span two continents.

For its part, the African Union has developed a sophisticated set of conflict management practices for its region. It has taken a hard line against coups and pioneered the principle of non-indifference in the internal affairs of member states — foreshadowing the doctrine of “responsibility to protect.” Its summits serve as gatherings where peer pressure is used for the informal management of conflicts, with more success than is usually recognized. The Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional alliance of Gulf monarchies that would inevitably be involved in a major regional dispute of this kind, should learn from these African best practices. That would require a dramatic change in the mind-set of Arab royal families, which assume that their relationship with Africans is one of patron and client. Too often, the Africans reinforce that mind-set by acting as supplicants. For example, when the African Union sent a delegation to the Gulf countries in November, the agenda wasn’t strategic dialogue or partnership — it was fundraising.

But to prevent Zenawi’s “nightmare scenario” from coming to fruition, the Africans and the Arabs need to recognize the Red Sea as a shared strategic space that demands their coordination. A sensible place to start would be by convening a Red Sea forum composed of the GCC and the AU — plus other interested parties such as the United Nations, European Union, and Asian trading partners — to open lines of communication, discuss strategic objectives for peace and security and agree on mechanisms for minimizing risk. The fast-emerging Red Sea security challenge is well suited to that most prosaic of diplomatic initiatives — a talking shop.

The problem is, all these actors tend to start talking only after a crisis has already exploded. Here’s a timely warning.

Alex De Waal is a research Professor at Tufts University and an expert on the horn of Africa.

Khartoum's Humanitarian Embargo on the Nuba Mountains: Death by Starvation

By Eric Reeves

March 2, 2016 (SSNA) -- The "Special Bulletin: Food security situation in Warni and Kau-Nyaro" just released by the Food Security and Monitoring Unit (FSMU), reports levels “of food insecurity unprecedented” in their regular monitoring of the Two Areas. 

[1] As many as sixty four percent (64%) of households in the area are severely food insecure; and a further thirty six percent (36%) are moderately food insecure (total 97%). This degree of food insecurity is not without its manifestations. Two hundred and forty two (242) people are reported to have died between July and December 2015, in the 8 villages assessed, 145 of which were attributed to lack of food. Almost 10 percent of those who died from lack of food were under the age of five.

The households assessed had no food available to eat for an average of 16 days (out of the last 30 days). For an average of 10 days in 30 they went a whole day and night without any food. All households reported having no remaining food stock from the current harvest and are consuming wild foods, including wild roots and green leaves, as their main food source.

High levels of insecurity around the area have prevented people from accessing land to harvest during the last agricultural season. This, along with low levels of rainfall and insufficient seeds, has contributed to the poor harvest. Insecurity has further deteriorated with the beginning of the new season of fighting. Fear of attacks by government-supported militias was assessed as the most prevalent factor preventing people from moving out of the area, and the main limiting factor when searching for wild foods. As quoted in the report, people “preferred to stay put and die, rather than undertake moving."

Unless assistance reaches the people in need, continued hunger-related deaths are inevitable in the coming weeks and months, as high levels of food insecurity persist. The CU urges the international community to increase pressure on both sides of the conflict in order to open a humanitarian corridor to assist the 65,000 people in need in the Kau Nyaro-Warni area, who can hardly endure another lean season.

[1] FSMU Special bulletin: Food security situation in Warni and Kau-Nyaro of South Kordofan State, results of a rapid needs assessment, February 2016. Report available upon request.



International failure to respond to the ongoing humanitarian crises in South Kordofan and Blue Nile—failure to demand that Khartoum permit a humanitarian corridor be created to people such as those in Warni and Kau-Nyaro—is unforgiveable. The accommodation of Khartoum's humanitarian embargo—in place for almost five years now—is all too evident in recent comments by Baroness Sandip Verma, representing the UK government:

HOUSE OF LORDS | February 29, 2016


Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean (Lab): My Lords, the noble Baroness has described the terrible situation described by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, as merely disturbing. We then listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, told us about the horrific atrocities being committed, and the noble Baroness said that these matters were a setback. Surely Her Majesty’s Government can produce a more robust response to these terrible descriptions than calling them a setback or disturbing.

[For the UK government] Baroness Sandip Verma: My Lords, the noble Baroness knows that these are very difficult situations and we have to be mindful of the language used if we are to continue to have dialogue with the Government of Sudan. They are of course horrific atrocities and we as the UK Government take our role very seriously in raising those horrific atrocities. At the same time, we are working both with the Sudanese Government and others to ensure that we are able to access those who need our assistance the most. They tend to be the ones who are hardest to reach.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for the past seventeen years. He is author of Compromising with Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012.

Let's Celebrate the Beginning of Peace in South Sudan

By James Okuk, PhD

"peace will bless us once more with hearing the happy giggling of children and the enchanting ululation of women who are excited in happiness for one reason or another." - Dr. John Garang at Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi, January 9, 2005.

February 27, 2016 (SSNA) -- When the peace-loving people appreciated President Salva Kiir Mayardit for issuing the Republican Decree No.60/2016 on Thursday February 11, 2016 to appoint Dr. Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon as the First Vice President (FVP) of the Republic of South Sudan, caution for delaying the celebration of the announcement was recommended until the major hurdles get resolved. 

Now we have seen that the Government of the Republic of South Sudan (GRSS) has finally resolved the hurdles via external pressure by redeployed the unauthorized forces from Juba as agreed though it might not be all of them at once. 

Also the GRSS has identified and delimited some stations for hosting the first phase of the authorized forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement - In Opposition (SPLM-IO) inside Juba, including the ones to form the integrated police for the capital city. 

Further, President Salva Kiir has asked the Vice President James Wani Igga to vacate his Office Building at the Presidency so that it could be used by FVP Dr. Riek Machar for his newly established strong office.

Further more, a five star hotel is prepared to accommodate Dr. Riek and his entourage once they arrive in Juba in March after completion of phase one of the compromised special security arrangement proposed by H.E. Festus G. Mogae, the most able African Grand Chairman of Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC).

The good news is that the Troika countries and other donors have pledged through the leadership of the JMEC that they will bear the financial costs and transport by air the urgently needed 1370 forces of SPLM/A-IO to Juba. This shall occur by 29th February 2016 as planned by JMEC in its new schedule. The outgoing GRSS' Council of Ministers had endorsed this in its ordinary sitting of Friday, 26th February instant.

The short visit of the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, to Juba on Thursday, February 25 instant and the assurances he got from H.E. Gen. Salva Kiir directly and from H.E. Dr. Riek Machar on phone regarding their readiness to form the Government of National Unity (TGoNU) soon in the first week of March, is now a positive indication towards realization of first crucial steps of peace at last for the embattled new country on the globe.

This third visit of Mr. Ki-moon has not been a light one as per the African saying that “the third is bitter". The language in his message was diplomatically loaded with a warning to the top South Sudanese political leaders that they will be held accountable by the international community if they failed to put the people first as commitment for the ethics of care. Missing the second chance will raise the cost of intransigence on the the warring leaders. Peace does not need protection because it is the highest blessing for the land.

The UN Secretary-General is regarded as the symbol of UN ideals of peace and security and the spokesman for the interests of the world's peoples, particularly the poor and vulnerable ones. What he says is given a weight by the community of nations. The very serious message he brought to Juba on Thursday is for the GRSS and SPLM/A-IO to: 

a) form the TGoNu and implement the August 2015 Agreement on Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) without further delay; 

b) respect the UNMISS’ Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for peacekeeping operations under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter; 

c) allow humanitarian access by air, roads and rivers so that relief items and personnel could reach to the needy population at risk of starvation;

d) attract international community to support humanitarian action for about 5 million vulnerable South Sudanese (Mr. Ki-moon set the example by donating US$ 21 million); 

e) push for justice and accountability against those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, the recent of which was witnessed in Malakal UNMISS' PoC when armed elements in SPLA uniform attacked and burnt down shelters belonging to Shilluk and Nuer IDPs, killing 24 on the spot and wounding 91; 

f) know it well that the UN will not tolerate continuation of protecting a big number of South Sudanese population in its camps because this is unsustainable as the core responsibility to protect the people should be on the shoulder of the government; and 

g) recommit to inclusive nation-building and cease all senseless power struggle so as to restore the lost sense of national unity that prevailed at the time of independence.

The First visit of Mr. Ki-moon came when he witnessed the declaration of independence and sang ‘South Sudan Oyee, not SPLM Oyee’ on July 9, 2011. The result of that visit led to the unprecedented recognition and admission of South Sudan as the 193 member of UN on 14th July 2011, five days only after the highest profile visit. 

His second visit occurred in May 2014 but on sad situation and for attempts to contain the senseless SPLM’s leadership war that resulted in massive destructive displacement of vulnerable population, constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity in international law. Mr. Ki-moon described the situation of the affected population in the refuge camps in South Sudan as the worse, compared to many refugee camps he had visited around the world. 

Thus, it could be deduced from the above-mentioned evidences, in addition to the pressing terrible economic situation and GRSS’ declared bankruptcy, that peace-loving people could now start preparation to celebrate the beginning of peace even with dry mouths and empty stomachs. The hurdles that were put on the way of the ARCSS implementation are now cleared though the issue of 28 states remains pending till suspended soon by the TGoNU in accordance with the provisions of the 31st January 2016 IGAD’ Council of Ministers Communiqué. Like what President Kiir and VP Wani did by giving peace a chance so that they could get a second chance to rule, it is expected that the currently power-obsessed governors of the illegal but de facto 28 states will do the same to allow the defunct legal 10 states to be released from the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) as required by the ARCSS.

Hence, we can proudly say that the horse of peace is now being put in front of the TGoNU’s cart, ready to move with the interest of the people of South Sudan lifted up above Machiavellian politics of the power-hungry SPLM leaders. 

Time is now ripening for us to listen and see with open hearts on SSTV and all media houses the captivating songs by MC Lumoex: “Salaam Ja, Salaam Ja Kalas, Fi Daula ta Nina Junub Sudan, Salaam Ja Kalas — peace has come at last to our country, South Sudan” 

We will also love to listen to Greatest Emmanuel Kembe signing enthusiastically with tears of patience in our eyes: “Taalu nabni baled sawa — come let’s build the nation together” while we welcome Dr. Riek Machar in Juba finally. 

The golden voice of Vivian Nyachan shall also crack the waves lengths across the country with the song (Piny mier e podhi won, de o donya wen, Junub won nyi para ka America — Our South Sudan is beautiful in peace and shall be comparable to none but America!). 

The regional leaders and international envoys shall be happy with honor of peace to accompany Dr. Riek Machar to Juba and witness the swearing-in of the entire TGoNU’s cabinet (i.e., the President, the 1st VP, the VP, the 30 Ministers and 8 Deputy Ministers) as well as the expanded National Legislative Assembly of 400 MPs led by a popular Equatorian Speaker. The Judiciary shall be made independent and reformed with honest judges for a new task.

Thereafter, all of the TGoNU VIPs will take up their dignified duties for the transitional period and practice both their individual and collective powers for: 

1) Restoring peace, security and stability in the country; 

2) Expediting relief, protection, repatriation, rehabilitation and resettlement of IDPs and returnees; 

3) Facilitating and overseeing national reconciliation and healing process through an independent mechanism including budgetary provisions for compensation and reparations;

4) Overseeing and ensuring that the Permanent Constitution-making process is successfully carried out; 

5) Working closely with the IGAD-PLUS Member States and Organizations and other partners and friends of South Sudan to consolidate peace and stability in the country; 

6) Reforming the public financial management, civil service, and security sector; 

7) Ensuring prudent, transparent and accountable management of national wealth and resources to build the nation and promote the welfare of the people; 

8) Rebuilding the destroyed physical infrastructure in conflict-affected areas and giving special attention to prioritizing the rebuilding of livelihoods of those affected by the conflict; 

9) Establishing a competent and impartial National Elections Commission (NEC) to conduct free and fair elections before the end of the Transitional Period and ensure that the outcome is broadly reflective of the will of the electorate; 

10) Making all efforts to conduct National Population and Housing Census before the end of the Transitional Period; 

11) Devolving more powers and resources to States’ and County levels; and 

12) Carrying out normal functions of a democratic government of peace time (i.e., government by the people, of the people, for the people and with the people). 

There should be nothing called opposition political parties to operate in opposite direction of the peace program as enumerated above. All must be in support of the success of the mandate of the TGoNU as long as those entrusted with the duty do their work diligently and honestly.

The credible civil society, academia, faith-based institutions and all the guarantors, witnesses and adherents of the ARCSS should operate as the watchdogs and whistle blowers to any deviation by the peace partners (i.e., GRSS, SPLM/A-IO, SPLM-FDs and Other Political Parties). 

It is not going to be like SPLM's business as usual in the past 11 years of misrule of South Sudan. Nerves shivering deterrent is proving to be the best policy than lethal combat. Alleluia for Peace at last!

Dr. James Okuk is a lecturer of politics reachable at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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