African Hot Spots in 2010

by J.PETER PHAM, PHD January 7, 2010
As I have been wont to do in this column space at the beginning of each year, the following is a broad survey of the most significant conflicts or flashpoints which will require the particular attention of the United States and its African and other international partners in the coming year.
Sudan. Moving up from the No. 2 slot it occupied in last year’s list, Sudan enters the most decisive phase in its modern history this year. In the survey 12 months ago, I noted that the looming indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of Sudanese President Umar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of 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.”
As it turns out, the despot did indeed become the first sitting head of state against whom the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber issued an arrest warrant when, on March 4, 2009, it charged him with five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. On the other hand, the indicted war criminal was not as isolated as I had expected, in large part because the Obama administration’s special envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, apparently thinks that the difficulties that Darfuris have with the regime in Khartoum is due to “psychological stuff” and that Bashir needs “cookies…gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk and engagement.” It has gotten so bad that even the leftist editors of The New Republic have recently called on the President to fire the “Ingratiator” for not only being “inept,” but also for owning an “almost utopian” view of international relations that even that bastion of liberalism terms “unacceptable.”
Irrespective of who is charged with implementing official U.S. policy toward Sudan (see my comments on the strategy unveiled by the administration in October), things will move very quickly in the coming months and rapidly acquire a momentum of there own such that while outsiders may be able to mitigate some of the effects, their ability to direct the actual course of events will be very limited. As I outline in the January/February 2010 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, here’s how I expect things to play out:
For the most part, Darfur, which for years has been the focus of attention because it was the locus of conflict in the country, will remain in a state of relative, albeit uneasy, calm, at least for the first part of the year. Instead, it will be the fault line between the northern Arab Islamists who hold the reins of power in Khartoum and the largely Christian black Africans in South Sudan where the fissure will emerge with a vengeance this year.
In theory, repeatedly postponed elections are supposed to be held in April, yielding a government that everyone can accept as legitimate, thus paving the way for that government to amicably resolve the still-unsettled disputes over the boundary between South Sudan and the rest of the country and thus pave the way, after the CPA-mandated January 2010 referendum in which the southerners are expected to vote overwhelmingly for secession, for what the Obama administration’s Sudan strategy document optimistically describes as the “orderly transition to two separate and viable states at peace with each other.”I expect none of this to take place as expected. There might indeed be some sort of voting in three months, but the result will hardly be anything approaching minimum standards for free and fair polls. For one thing, the entire electoral exercise is based on a highly-contested census. Even putting aside the census’s significant flaws and everything that would follow from them – including constituency demarcation and voter registration – Sudan lacks the basic legal and social infrastructure, including basic guarantees on freedom of speech and association, that is the foundation of democratic practice. Just this week, Ibrahim Ghandour, political secretary of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) declared that the United Nations was “barred by law” from monitoring the poll. In fact, far facilitating a climate conducive to political campaigning, the Khartoum regime has been pouring part of its immense oil revenues into stoking communal tensions in South Sudan such that in 2009 alone more than 2,000 people have been killed and over 250,000 displaced in local violence. On the other hand, pushing the vote back yet again, as an International Crisis Group briefing recently suggested, is not an option given that the final-status referendum is just around the corner: southerners have waited too long and are likely to interpret any delay rather negatively.
So what happens after this year’s electoral farce removes any delusions about holding a credibly free referendum a year from now? The southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) will be under tremendous pressure to unilaterally declare South Sudan’s independence. First, while an internationally-monitored plebiscite might be ideal, it is not like the result of any such poll is in doubt. Why, after years of political marginalization, war, and other abuse at the hands of successive Khartoum governments, if they were actually given a choice, would the peoples of South Sudan want to remain in the same country with northerners when they can strike out on their own, taking with them a majority of the country’s hydrocarbon wealth and beggaring their erstwhile oppressors in the process? Hence, the Government of South Sudan could reasonably argue that a declaration of independence reflects the will of its citizens, even without formally consulting them in a referendum. Second, even if a referendum were held, there is no guarantee that Khartoum would respect the outcome without a fight. Just this week, Ghazi Salaheddin, an advisor to Bashir and leader of the NCP’s parliamentary group, even characterized the legislation setting up the referendum as “a recipe for war.” Third, not only has Khartoum cheated the South on oil revenues that were supposed to be shared during the interim, but it has used its wealth to purchase significant armaments as well as to sow discord among various groups. Thus time is not on the side of the South Sudanese as their current unity is fractured while those who might use force to prevent their secession acquire an insuperable military advantage. Since the SPLA cannot be expected to stand idly by while this happens any more than the ruling clique in Khartoum can easily give up the resource wealth it has hitherto relied upon to maintain power, the international community needs to be prepared for open conflict later this year, one that could well spill over to other parts of the country, including Darfur and the eastern regions, if not beyond.
The former Somalia. While Sudan may represent Africa’s biggest geopolitical and possibly humanitarian challenges in 2010, the chaotic conditions continuing to prevail in most of what was, until 1991, the territory of the Somali Democratic Republic will still be the greatest security threat to the continent and the world.
Last year, following the forced resignation of the president of Somalia’s weak “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) and the withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces which had intervened in late 2006 to save from the interim regime from almost certain defeat at the hands of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a supposed “moderate” Islamist, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who had himself been chairman of the ICU, was installed at the head of the TFG through the extra-legal machinations of a group of ersatz parliamentarians designated for that purpose by the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (see my report at the time on this episode). The result came as no surprise. As I told a Congressional hearing last June, the TFG under Sharif Ahmed is “not a government by any common-sense definition of the term: it is entirely dependent on foreign troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to protect its small enclave within Mogadishu, but otherwise administers no territory; even within this restricted zone, it has shown no functional capacity to govern, much less provide even minimal services to the citizens.” Nor have any subsequent events justified a change to that assessment. As I noted in this column in September, “Neither the Obama administration’s obtaining of a waiver from a longstanding United Nations arms embargo on Somalia to ship weapons to the beleaguered remnant around Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed nor the TFG head’s photo op in Nairobi with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton [in August] can alter the fact that the regime is so lacking in popular legitimacy that it requires the presence of no fewer that 4,300 Ugandan and Burundian troops…just to be able to camp out in a few square blocks of its putative capital.” And, as the December 3rd suicide bombing of a graduation ceremony within the small enclave of Mogadishu thought to be still controlled by the beleaguered regime, an attack that killed three of its ministers as well as 16 other people, underscored, even within those limited frontiers, the TFG’s prospects are dim – and can only grow dimmer in 2010.
Outside the TFG’s bunkers, despite suffering some setbacks this year due to its strategic overreach as well as disputes over spoils with its allies in the Hisbul Islam (“Islamic party”), the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“Movement of Warrior Youth,” al-Shabaab) continues to consolidate its position in southern and central Somalia. Just over the weekend, al-Shabaab forces were on the offensive challenging the militia of Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama'a (roughly, “[Followers of] the Traditions and Consensus [of the Prophet Muhammad]”) for control of Dhuusamareeb, the capital of the Galgaduud region of central Somalia. Just about the only glimmer of hope is that ordinary Somalis are increasingly weary both of the Islamists and the foreign jihadists who have rallied to their cause, especially given their imposition of brutal hudud punishments and other extremist measures alien to the Islamic tradition in Somalia.
In meantime, however, al-Shabaab is increasingly proving to be a far greater threat than just to the Somalis and their immediate neighbors. With a small, but steady, stream of young men from the Somali diaspora moving back and forth between the United States and other Western countries and the “jihad” in Somalia, it would be foolhardy to totally discount the possibility of some sort of threat, no matter how limited, by al-Shabaab which, after all, not only has links to al Qaeda, but also a current senior leadership of al-Shabaab that includes a number of veteran jihadists with experience on battlefields abroad, including in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kashmir. Earlier this year, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Attorney General Robert McClelland announced the designation of al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization, prompted in part by the arrest of five men of Somali or Lebanese descent associated with the group who were plotting an attack on Holsworthy Barracks in western Sydney. In the United States, in just the last six months, no fewer than fourteen defendants have been charged by federal officials through indictments or criminal complaints that have been unsealed and brought in connection with an ongoing investigation into the recruitment of persons from U.S. communities to train with or fight on behalf of the terrorist group. Four of the defendants have already pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.Even as the latest batch of indictments were being handed down in the federal district court of Minnesota in mid-November, across the border in Canada, some half-dozen young men disappeared from Toronto’s Somali community and later crossed the Kenyan border with Somalia to join al-Shabaab. According to a statement released last Saturday by the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET), the 28-year-old Somali man wounded and arrested by police while attempting to assassinate Kurt Westergaard, the artist whose 2005 cartoon of Islam’s prophet Muhammad sparked a series of riots across the Muslim world, “has close relations to the Somalian terror organisation al-Shabaab and al-Qaida leaders in East Africa, and he is also suspected of having been involved in terror related activities during his stay in East Africa.”
While, with the exception of the conspiracy to attack the military installation in Sydney, al-Shabaab thus far limited its “international outreach” to drawing in fighters for its own insurgency, a change may be in the offing. The movement has recently issued statements threatening Uganda and Burundi, the two countries that have contributed to AMISOM, as well as all of Somalia’s neighbors. Over the weekend, a stringer for the New York Times reported that senior leaders of al-Shabaab were promising to send jihadists to assist al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in its fight against the government of Yemen, where there are estimated 200,000 Somali refugees. If this proves to be true, it would represent a significant shift on the part of the extremist group to embrace a more global agenda.  
The continuing chaos in Somalia has meant, of course, that there is no sovereign to restrain the Somali pirates who continue and, indeed, have expanded their attacks on merchant shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean. Despite an unprecedented deployment of international naval vessels in the waters around the Horn of Africa and a whole series of United Nations Security Council resolutions authorizing the carrying the fight against them to shore, Somali pirates carried out a record number of attacks and hijackings in 2009. At year’s end, some 214 vessels had been attacked and 47 successfully seized, with 11 of those ships and nearly three hundred crew members still held captive for ransom by the pirates. In comparison, according to the International Maritime Bureau, 111 ships were attacked in 2008, a figured that itself represented a 200 percent increase from 2007.
The pirates greeted 2010 by relentlessly continuing their attacks, taking two significant prizes on New Year’s Day itself, the British-flagged cargo ship MV Asian Glory, which was carrying some 4,000 cars from Singapore to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and the Singaporean-flagged chemical tanker MV Pramoni, which was bound for Kandla, India, from Genoa, Italy. Rather embarrassingly for the three multinational task flotillas – the United States-coordinated Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), NATO’s “Operation Allied Protector,” and the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) “Operation Atalanta”— and their independently operating partners from China, Russia, and other countries, the Pramoni and the British tanker MV St. James Park, which was hijacked on December 28th and is presently anchored off the pirate haven of Hobyo, were both successfully attacked while in the Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor (IRTC) in the Gulf of Aden that is supposed to be secure. The Asian Glory, on the other hand, was taken some 900 nautical miles north of the Seychelles, some 600 nautical miles from the nearest Somali coast, continuing a trend I first pointed out here two months ago of attacks being carried out farther east in the Indian Ocean.
Given both the vast sums to be earned from their predations – just last week the pirates received some $8 million in ransom payments for the release of Chinese cargo ship MV De Xin Hai and the Singaporean boxship MV Kota Wojar – and the small likelihood that they will be made to suffer any penalty even if caught – witness the pathetic case of the 13 pirates released by the Royal Netherlands Navy frigate HNLMS Evertsen, which is serving as part of EU NAVFOR’s Operation Atalanta, after the European Union decided it could bring charges against them even though they were seized in a speedboat laden with ladders, grappling hooks, automatic weapons, grenades, and other ammunition after a failed attack on the Antigua and Barbuda-flagged cargo ship MV BBC Togo – expect even more pirate attacks in coming year.
Nigeria. As I argued earlier this week in a National Interest online commentary, all the attention on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed “underwear bomber” who tried blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day as it was en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, misses the bigger story of the crisis in leadership which Africa’s most populous country (and its second-biggest economy) faces at this critical time.
It is bad enough that the country has a head of state whose election in 2007 was due to massive violence, fraud, and other irregularities (see my report at the time, which includes photographs of some of the abuses I personally witnessed), but President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua has turned into something of an absentee. He has not even been in Nigeria for more than six weeks, having been rushed in late November to a bed that he hasn’t left in the intensive care unit of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Even before his current overseas hospitalization, officially for acute pericarditis, Yar’Adua was less than fully engaged. Debilitated by a long-term kidney disorder, he frequently missed appointments and even cabinet ministers had trouble getting to see him.
Things have gotten so bad that there are now no fewer than three lawsuits accusing the ailing president of breaching the Nigeria’s constitution. The Nigerian Bar Association has petitioned the High Court to compel the country’s Federal Executive Council to begin the process of transferring power to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, something the president and his advisors has thus far declined to do voluntarily. In a separate action, prominent human rights lawyer Fema Falana, who was slain author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s attorney, has asked the courts to annul all cabinet actions taken in the absence of the president. The political opposition has also gotten in on the act: Farouk Adamu Aliyu of the All Nigeria People’s Party, which came in second in the last election, has filed suit demanding that the courts declare the presidency vacated by Yar’Adua’s effective abandonment of his office. Finally, somewhat satirically, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (Huriwa) has asked the National Assembly to declare the president “missing” and to “send out a search party.”
The problem is that replacing the moribund Yar’Adua with his vice president may be a bit of going from the frying pan into the fire. First, Goodluck Jonathan and his wife Patience are tainted by persistent allegations of massive corruption which, in the latter’s case, includes a criminal indictment by anti-corruption Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for money laundering. Second, even if the Jonathans did not have such an unsavory reputation, the fact that they are southerners runs afoul of Nigeria’s informal system of alternating power between the country’s regions. Northern Muslims and southern Christians are supposed to rotate in and out of positions. Since Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, just took over in 2007 after eight years in office by a southern Christian, Olusegun Obasanjo, should Jonathan take over, the northern Muslims will get less than their “turn” at controlling the approximately $100 billion in annual oil and gas revenue that comes under the chief executive.
Consequently, Abuja these days is rife with rumors of plots and counterplots. There is even talk of a military intervention, either to keep Jonathan out of the presidency or to tuft out the corrupt political class altogether. And even if it doesn’t get that bad, a power vacuum in Nigeria means that the volatile situation in the hydrocarbon-rich Niger Delta isn’t being attended to, continuing radicalization among northern Muslims is not being confronted, and no efforts will be made to implement the much-need reforms of the Nigerian political system. Thus even a merely listless Nigeria poses distinct risks to regional and global security.
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The former Belgian Congo will mark the 50th anniversary of its independence in June – not that there is much cause for celebration. By almost any measure of progress or index of well-being, the nearly 69 million people of Africa’s third-largest country are worse off today than they have ever been. For a country with the area one-fourth the size of the United States, the country today barely has 2,000 kilometers of paved roads which, if laid together in one stretch, would not be sufficient to get from the capital of Kinshasa to Goma in the east.
While the joint Rwandan-Congolese military operation in the eastern part of the DRC at the beginning of last year against the Hutu rebel Forces Démocratiques de la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR, “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda”), some of whose members are fugitives responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, was an important step (see my analysis last January), not enough progress has been made to stabilize the situation, notwithstanding the presence of the largest United Nations peacekeeping operation in the world today, the 20,000-strong Mission de l’Organisation des Nations-Unies au Congo (MONUC, “Mission of the United Nations Organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo”) that costs the international community more than $1.35 billion a year. If anything, the situation is getting even direr as groups that were previously marginal to the Congolese conflict like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have stepped up their attacks. The LRA alone, for example, was responsible the killing of 1,200 people, the abduction of 1,400—including 600 children and 400 women – and the displacement of 230,000 in just the DRC’s Orientale Province, according to a report released just before Christmas by MONUC and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Despite Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s declaration in Goma last August of “President Obama and I want to see a new era of partnership in our relationship with the DRC and the Congolese people,” one wonders if President Joseph Kabila is capable of delivering on his side. Certainly he’s made good on almost none of the promises made three years ago when he was elected to the office he originally inherited rather extra-constitutionally when his warlord father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated in 2001. On the political side, even as Kabila fils is planning to change the constitution to eliminate presidential term limits and expand his own powers, the Congolese have yet to even be allowed to choose their own candidates for bourgemestre and councillor in their townships as is their right under the charter. On the economic front, the collapse of commodity prices during the global recession has taken its toll on government revenues. However the real long-term damage to the economy will come as investors learn of and flee from a commercial climate that is increasingly characterized by highly questionable official shakedowns of legitimate businesses by government officials and agencies trying to make up for budgetary shortfalls, if not personal expenses, in the current straitened fiscal circumstances.
What I wrote last year about this benighted country remains true this year: “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.” And, just to make it explicit, this includes a serious reconsideration of whether it is in anyone’s interests, especially those of ordinary Congolese, that scarce resources should continue to be expended to try to keep this artificial state glued together. While this position was none too popular when I raised it two years ago in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for Defence and Security Studies, since then a number of serious scholars and other analysts have taken up similar positions, including Jeffrey Herbst of Miami University of Ohio and Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation, whose essay this past year argued eloquently that:
Congo is rightly notorious for being one of the most pathological instances of the European division of Africa. Perhaps as a result, Western powers have shied away from anything other than reflexively trying to get Congo to work within the boundaries that the king of Belgium helped establish in 1885. Setting aside the scope of human tragedy, there are real reasons that getting things right in Congo matters now more than ever. The country is the region's vortex; when it has failed in the past, its neighbors have often gone down with it. The very concept of a Congolese state has outlived its usefulness. For an international community that has far too long made wishful thinking the enemy of pragmatism, acting on reality rather than diplomatic theory would be a good start.
One could also single out other places in Africa where there will difficulties in the coming year, including the Maghreb, where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seems to be stirring again as well as getting more involved in illicit trafficking of drugs and persons, as the indictment in December of three Malian men by a U.S. federal court in New York highlighted; Guinea, where uncertainty about both the leadership of the country and various armed groups within it threatens the stability of entire West Africa subregion, especially Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire where so much progress has been made in recent years (see my analysis last month of the situation in Guinea); Zimbabwe, where the octogenarian Robert Mugabe stubbornly continues to cling to power and Morgan Tsvangirai, who temporarily withdrew from the unity government during 2009, has yet to get access to national security institutions that was promised as part of the power-sharing agreement; and Eritrea, on whose regime the United Nations Security Council slapped sanctions two weeks ago at the request of the African Union and the subregional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (see my October column on this subject) and where anti-government rebels have recently stepped up activities, killing twenty-five soldiers in two New Year’s Day ambushes. One could also mention ongoing transnational threats, such as climate change (see my report two months ago) or organized criminal networks, which will, unfortunately, only increase in 2010.
Looking across Africa and projecting forward the next twelve months, the one certainty is that not only will there be no shortage of threats affecting both the well-being and security of Africans and the strategic interests of the United States, but these challenges can also present opportunities for cooperation and strengthening of relations. Contributing Editor J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also hold academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).

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