African nations need regional solutions, not misguided advice from the West and the African Union

Special to

Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, Global Information System / Defense & Foreign Affairs

Western political leaders and media are often quick to make demands of African states and their leaders while completely absolving the “rebels” in the bush. Rebel leaders are customarily romanticized in the traditions of Fidel Castro’s adulation. In contrast, state leaders are handed long lists of programs to follow and implement in total disregard of the real situation on the ground and the prevailing circumstances.

Both the reforms and military interventions advocated by major Western governments end up aggravating the situations rather than contribute to alleviating regional crises.

Men confront African Union soldiers in Bangui on Jan. 30 after residents had surrounded a convoy of Chadian Muslims fleeing the country. /Reuters
Men confront African Union soldiers in Bangui on Jan. 30 after residents had surrounded a convoy of Chadian Muslims fleeing the country. /Reuters

The African Union has declared the fratricidal fighting and conflicts in adjacent South Sudan and the Central African Republic the most threatening crisis on the continent. The outgoing AU Chairman, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, stressed the African anxiety and sense of urgency. He called for “urgent solutions to rescue these two sisterly countries from falling into the abyss. … Failure to do so will have serious implications for peace and security in the region.”

The AU is convinced that the key to the resolution of both conflicts is negotiations between the various sides. “Both protagonists should know that the problem cannot be resolved through the barrel of the gun,” Hailemariam explained. “Therefore they should be fully prepared to sit at the negotiation table without any preconditions.”

AU Commission Chief Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma of South Africa emphasized the humanitarian aspects of the brewing crises. “Our hearts go to the people of the Central African Republic and South Sudan who face devastating conflicts in their countries and especially to women and children who’ve become the victims,” she said. “We have to work together to ensure that we build lasting peace.”

But, as usual, the AU ended up adopting the U.S. and Western approach to crisis resolution; an approach which is impractical at best. This was emphasized in the conclusions and recommendations made by the Commissioner for Peace and Security of the African Union, Smail Chergui of Algeria. “The important thing is to be able to meet the expectations of the people … so that they can have at least by the end of 2015 elections and a return to the constitutional order,” Chergui stated.

The people in both the Republic of South Sudan and the Central African Republic, however, yearn for stability, security, and availability of most basic food, water and services. With their bare necessities threatened repeatedly by a myriad of rebel forces, future elections are the last thing on their mind. Securing the lives and health of their children and grandchildren is the people’s focus and priority.

The profound discrepancy between the ideals and principles espoused by the AU and the situation on the ground is evident in both the Republic of South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

In South Sudan, the ceasefire is becoming a political nightmare. Localized fighting continue because coup leader and former Vice President Riek Machar and his coterie have no control whatsoever over the rebel forces, something they readily acknowledge to Western diplomats in order to absolve themselves of responsibility for the enduring violence. At the same time, the Administration of President Salva Kiir in Juba is under international pressure to make more and more concessions, mainly toward de facto powersharing in order to have the ceasefire implemented even when the other side acknowledges they can’t deliver.

The liberal West’s traditional approach — that the “rebels” represent the real interests of the people while the government pursues interests of the establishment — is maintained irrespective of emerging evidence to the contrary. This approach is being applied to Machar, the ostensibly romantic rebel, hiding in the bush in northern Jonglei State.

In reality, however, Juba has to cope with the destruction and looting of the stockpiles of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in Malakal (the capital of the Upper Nile State) when it was under rebel control.

Seemingly organized and systematic looting unfolded for a few days. According to UN officials, thousands of people — mainly rebel soldiers and ordinary civilians — loaded the supplies into donkey carts and trucks and took off for the bush where Machar’s forces were trying to reorganize under SPLA pressure. The WFP estimates that 1,700 tonnes of food were stolen: long-term supplies for about 100,000 of the poorest people in South Sudan.

Concurrently, rebel forces assaulted and looted the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Leer, Machar’s hometown in the southern parts of Unity State. This hospital treats both the local population and refugees from across the Sudanese border. Consequently, most of the staff and ambulatory patients fled the hospital.

Only about 30 staff members remained, trying to care for severely ill patients in the nearby bush. Until the rebel attack, the Leer hospital was the only functioning hospital in Unity State. On Feb. 2, SPLA forces returned to Leer and restored order. Throughout South Sudan food shortages are growing because rebel ambushes and raids make food distribution by international aid organizations impossible.

Meanwhile, long-term genuine opposition and rebel leaders have begun to read the situation correctly. The overall position of IGAD, including erstwhile-nemesis Sudan, has been very clear. All the region’s states are committed to the prevailing of a unified tribe-blind South Sudan. The IGAD states would not permit the dismemberment of South Sudan or the ascent of tribal-dominated political forces for fear the menace will cross into their own fragile populace. Hence, veteran rebel leader David Yau Yau realized that his patrons and sponsors in Khartoum are far more afraid of the collapse of the state of South Sudan than of Juba’s influence in restive South Kordofan. Since Sudan can no longer be trusted as a long-term sponsor, David Yau Yau rushed to sign a ceasefire agreement with Juba as the first step toward making peace before it becomes too late.

In Bangui, both officials and the public are facing reality. Western and UN officials have long argued that fratricidal fighting would begin to subside quickly the moment President Michel Djotodia resigned and left the country. Djotodia was forced to resign on Jan. 10, and went into exile in Benin. Since then, there has been a marked escalation in the fighting throughout the Central African Republic.

All factions and aspirant forces, mainly tribal and clannish rather than purely sectarian, are posturing in haste in order to consolidate their gains and slaughter their enemies before a major foreign military intervention limits their ability to operate. The growing assertiveness of the French and MISCA (the African Union International Mission for Support to the Central African Republic) forces has so far failed to consolidate the tottering Government of President Catherine Samba-Panza. “The security situation in the Central African Republic is getting even worse despite the inauguration of a new leader,” a senior UN official in Bangui determined. “Many lives are at stake.”

The security situation deteriorated markedly in late-January 2014 just as MISCA was given a more assertive mandate. The escalation of fighting in Bangui started after the French evicted the Séléka fighters from the city. On Jan. 27, Séléka and pro-Djotodia forces evacuated Camp de Roux in downtown Bangui — the Army’s main base in the capital — and left town escorted by French forces. The next day, the Séléka and other pro-Djotodia forces also vacated Camp Kasai at the edge of Bangui and were escorted out of the city by French forces. Immediately, there began a “rising wave of reprisal attacks”, in the words of the senior UN, by the Christian Anti-Balaka and other vigilante groups.

Within the next few days, more than 60 civilians were killed and a few hundreds wounded, most of them Muslim, by the Anti-Balaka. “Muslim civilians are now extremely vulnerable,” warned the UN official by the end of the week. “Most Muslim civilians have fled Bangui by now or are preparing to do so.” Throughout, the French and MISCA forces proved incapable of blocking the rioting Christian vigilantes. Muslim leaders insist the French and MISCA were reluctant to confront anti-Djotodia forces no matter what they did.

Meanwhile, Séléka and other pro-Djotodia forces had been posturing in the vicinity of Bangui. On the night of Jan. 29, a convoy of about 50 vehicles loaded with Séléka and other pro-Djotodia fighters by Mamadou Rakis (the deputy police chief under Djotodia) arrived in the town of Sibut, about 180 kilometers (110 miles) northeast of Bangui. The rebel forces surrounded and shortly afterwards captured the city. According to the French command, the Séléka forces committed atrocities against the population of Sibut. On Jan. 31, sizeable French forces attacked Sibut but failed to evict the Séléka and pro-Djotodia forces despite the use of artillery, a couple of attack helicopters, and a pair of fighter aircraft.

On the night of Feb. 1/2, MISCA senior officers negotiated a deal with the Séléka, and a Gabonese contingent was permitted into Sibut to protect the civilians. The 200 odd hardcore Séléka fighters in town “succeeded to escape”.

Meanwhile, pro-Djotodia and Séléka forces remained, as of Feb. 2, in control of the town of Mbaiki, some 110 kilometers (70 miles) southwest of Bangui. Their commander, Col. Al-Nour Moussa, announced his readiness to support the transitional government of President Samba-Panza and said he was awaiting instructions from Bangui. Col. Al-Nour Moussa then warned President Samba-Panza that the support of his forces was not unconditional. “If she really wants to work with us, we are ready to serve. If not, we can go back and liberate Bangui, we are capable of it,” Col. Al-Nour Moussa declared.

Similar chaos is rising in other parts of Africa.

The Sahel remains volatile despite the French military intervention in Mali and a flow of foreign aid. The Presidential elections held in Mali in Summer 2013 had no immediate effect on the evolving conflicts and crises throughout the Sahel including Mali. To some extent, the elections even aggravated the overall situation. Berber and Tuareg tribes oppressed by jihadists have been rising up against the states, mainly Mali and Algeria. The French intervention lessened some of the jihadist menace but failed to address root causes of instability in the Azawad area, as well as adjacent swaths of southern Algeria and northern Niger. There is growing famine in northern Mali and adjacent areas.

The local tribes had great expectations that the postelection State of Mali would address the challenges and shortages in the northern parts. By now, these hopes have been dashed and the disappointed and despaired tribes see no alternative to taking care of their own.

Meanwhile, the jihadist forces operating throughout the Sahel continue their raids on inhabited areas and key oases. In mid-January 2014, French forces launched a new operation into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain region near the Algerian border in the hope of interdicting jihadist forces using the area for hideouts. On Jan. 24, the French troops operating north of the desert region of Timbuktu finally intercepted a jihadist force attempting to reach southern Algeria and killed at least 11 jihadist fighters.

Meanwhile, the jihadists continued to demonstrate their resilience and enduring presence in the main cities. For example, also on Jan. 24, they blew up two bombs in the volatile town of Kidal. One of the bombs was placed near a Malian military base and the other near the regional office of the state broadcaster. French and Malian senior military officials concurred that despite the claimed success of the French raids in northern Mali “threats of militant attacks on Timbuktu and Kidal remained real”.

The French thrust into northern Mali failed to take into account the complex tapestry of the local population and particularly the Berber and Tuareg tribes. Most significant is the crisis of the Al-Mizabeyen Berber tribe of southern Algeria and northern Mali. The tribe is 800,000 people strong and is Tamazight speaking, rather than Arabic. In late January 2014, the Al-Mizabeyen demanded autonomy from the Algerian Government and threatened armed revolt if their people continued to be attacked from both north and south.

The Al-Mizabeyen tribe has a long history of clashes with the Algerian government. Algiers has repeatedly unleashed the Al-Hanbah Arab tribe to attack the Al-Mizabeyen and loot their property. In response, the Al-Mizabeyen repeatedly attacked police stations and other government facilities in the Ghardaia area near the border with Mali. However, it was the escalation in French operations in northern Mali starting in the Autumn of 2013 that brought the crisis to near explosion.

The French raids pushed thousands of jihadists and allied fighters to flee Mali for southern Algeria in the second half of 2013. The French and Algerian forces blamed the Al-Mizabeyen of providing haven for the jihadists. The Berbers, however, see themselves as victims of the jihadists who invade their lands. Starting mid-January 2014, the French pushing of a growing numbers of jihadists into the Al-Mizabeyen lands from Mali and then conducting hot pursuits against both jihadist encampments and local tribal people resulted in the tribes siding with the jihadists against the French forces invading their lands.

The one country making progress in helping defuse the Mali and Sahel crisis is Morocco. On Feb. 1, King Mohammed VI received Bilal A. G. Cherif, the Secretary General of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA). Moroccan policy, the King told him, aims “to preserve the territorial integrity and stability of the Republic of Mali, as well as … to contribute to a solution and a compromise that would help fight the fundamentalist and terrorist organizations that threaten the Maghreb countries and the Sahel, and promote the development and dignity of the people of Mali.”

While it is imperative “to fight violence, extremism and terrorism that are threatening the Sahel and Sahara”, the only way “to achieve a just and lasting peace in Mali” and resolve the ongoing crisis would be by taking into consideration and addressing the aspirations and goals of Mali’s diverse population within the unified state.

Bilal A. G. Cherif pointed out to the current plight of the MNLA as indicative of the deeper crisis unfolding throughout the Sahel and Sahara.

The MNLA has always been “a secular separatist Tuareg rebel group” fighting for an independent Azawad “for all the peoples of northern Mali”. In recent years, however, the MNLA was expelled from the biggest cities in Azawad — mainly Gao and Kidal — by various jihadist forces including Ansar al-Din and the Movement for Tawhid and jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

Consequently, the MNLA and the diverse multi-ethnic constituency it and like-minded entities represent find themselves pressed between the French-led military intervention that seeks to impose Bamako’s unconditional rule over Azawad, the myriad of jihadist forces fighting them, and the local population that is yearning for self-determination and autonomy within the Malian state and are pressuring the MNLA and other secular-nationalist groups to deliver.

The primary and very real outcome of the multi-sided escalation in northern Mali is famine. In late January 2014, French and Malian senior officials warned that over 800,000 Malians were already “desperate for food” and that another three million Malians were “going without meals” on a daily basis. These endemic food shortages are a direct result of the enduring armed conflict. The declining international support and humanitarian aid could not reverse or replace the disruption of the local economy and food production by the repeated military operations.

The long-term key to alleviating the shortages and suffering of the people of northern Mali is in revitalizing the local economy. Toward this end, the King told Bilal AG Cherif, “Morocco has taken the lead in aiding Mali’s humanitarian and economic obstacles.” Morocco is spearheading a major effort at the grassroots aimed to reverse “the poor agricultural conditions and a deterioration in trade agreements that led to great loss in economic momentum in Mali over the past two years.” The King is convinced that this humanitarian initiative would not only lead to alleviating the hunger and suffering of the population, but embolden the grassroots to fight back jihadist terrorism and reclaim and rebuild their country.

Crises are brewing to the point of imminent eruption even where fighting is not taking place at present. For example, the out-of-control urbanization in the greater west Africa is a hotbed for future violence. French experts anticipate a megapolis along the coast that would stretch between Abidjan and Lagos and be inhabited by some 70 million. There are no infrastructure and support systems in the offing. There are neither sources of food and water, nor viable distribution systems to reach the people. As well, there are no national and regional plans on how to ensure grassroots safety, police the people, or how to handle population which would be expected to be able to cross national borders with impunity.

However, for President François Hollande’s Paris, this megapolis is the key to the French long-term influence over the entire West Africa region. The French envisage a cheap and docile urban-based workforce delivering the Sahel’s natural riches to the coast with some of the revenues used by France to buy food and supplies to sustain the dynamic. Hence the encouragement by Paris of urban development in the name African Renaissance.

However, the accelerated urbanization creates mega-slums without concerns to residual social tensions because the rates of migration to the urban centers will always exceed the pace of job availability, as well as the availability of food, water and basic services. Seeking shelter, security and solace among those of similar background and origin, the new waves of migrants would thus exacerbate the prevalent tribal, ethnic, and religious enmities under the pressure cooker conditions of Africa’s new mega-slums.

Moreover, migration from the countryside already reduces indigenous food production. Those left behind in the resource-rich areas such as the Sahel consider themselves victims of encroachment and exploitation by the south and coastal areas on the basis of both ethno-centric and economic factors. Lingering hostility and mistrust will further break African states with no remedy in sight.

Hence, African governments and governance do need major reforms. African states are yet to cope with the growing schism between the imperatives of the African modern state and the trends of the African population.

Under pressure and in growing destitution, much of the African populace is returning to tribal, national, ethnic, and religious frameworks of self-identity in quest for solace, security, and shelter. This is a mega-trend which also takes place throughout Asia and even parts of Europe. In contrast, to be effective and successful in delivering security, stability, reforms, good governance, development, food and water, modern states must be tribe-blind.

Thus, there is an urgent imperative to formulate new checks and balances between the sub-state, state, and supra-state (regional) levels of self identity and quests for self-determination.

This means the imperative for reassessment of all basic services and infrastructure, particularly security, education, energy, communications, and transportation. To be effective in the vast rural areas, all of these long-term planning and reforms must be undertaken with close attention being paid to sub-state and supra-state, or regional, identities and aspirations. Similarly, delivering food, water, and basic services in the swelling shanty towns and slums is far from simple, as is addressing residual social violence brought over from the rural areas and aggravated by real and imaginary fight for scarce resources, employment and income.

Ultimately, the tangible success of proposed long-term reforms and development programs depends first and foremost on the legitimization, trust, and cooperation between state authorities and the populace; both individuals and groupings. To succeed, states and regional bodies must be both tribe-blind in caring for all the people as equally as humanly possible, and also tribe-sensitive and -conscious in order to care and cater for heritage sensitivities and proclivities. This delicate balancing will enable the grassroots to celebrate and preserve their distinctions and self-identities while eradicating the ability of aspirant leaders to exploit real, manufactured and imaginary tribal and sectarian tensions and self-identities as the levers to rebel against the modern state and the government.

These challenges must be addressed at an all-African level, given the artificiality of African borders and the importance of cross-border population connections. Alas, the AU has so far failed to rise to the challenge.

Hence, African states must establish small regional groupings to address these burning issues before it is too late. And herein lies the essence of the most urgent reforms.

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