Africa Showdown: Major Players Involved, including Russia


Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront

In considering the situation in the Middle East, including the African part of the region, attention should be drawn not only to the external forces but also to the processes of the local elites, as demonstrated in the Sudan, and to the complex combinations in countries where the interests of the main regional and international centres of power intersect as in Somalia.

The article is based on materials from experts of the l A. Bystrov and Yu. Schelgovin.

Against the backdrop of rising tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, as well as between the latter and Kharthoum, tensions in the ruling Sudanese elite are mounting after the completion of the “Revival” dam due to the disagreements over the Nile spillway. First and foremost, it is the crisis between President al-Bashir and Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour.

“Sudan Issue”

The recall from Egypt in December 2017 of Ambassador A.M. Abdel Halim, “for consultations” during the crisis between Cairo and Khartoum has caused the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sudan to protest. The President ignored his opinion, and the official was disgraced. During the visit of Turkish President Erdogan to Sudan, Ghandour did not attend the heads of state meeting. He was replaced by the Minister of Oil and the main lobbyist for Chinese interests Awad Ahmed Al-Jaz. This veteran of the Islamist movement was responsible during the 1989 military coup for the relations between the underground and the military. The head of the Foreign Ministry decided to resign. The head of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) Mohammed Atta al-Moula (which later affected his career) and Prime Minister Bakri Hassan Saleh prevented him from taking this step.

The polarity of views in the Sudanese leadership is quite high, few hide their points of view, but the political culture does not imply (as in Yemen and Iraq) the mandatory elimination of political opponents. Former dictator Jaafar al-Nimeiri lives in Khartoum, none of the opposition figures were killed (sometimes the most active ones spend a month or two in jail), and in the Islamist party “People’s Congress” exists open differences of opinion. Thus, during the withdrawal of Khartoum from Iran’s orbit of influence, the Defence Minister actively criticized the President’s decision, and is still in office.

The development of events has shown the correctness of al-Bashir’s actions. The recall of the Ambassador, the concentration of additional military contingents on the border with Eritrea in response to the appearance of the Egyptian military, the demonstration of the alliance with Ethiopia (not only political, but also in the coordination of armed forces) forced the President of Egypt A.F. al-Sisi to initiate a compromise at the following trilateral summit.

So, if the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sudan is fired, it is not due to the differences with the head of the government on a private matter. The issue is much more serious. In mid-November 2017 the Deputy State Secretary D. Sullivan visited Khartoum, informing Ghandour of “Washington’s principle position”: for the US, al-Bashir’s participation in the 2020 presidential elections is unacceptable. The Americans sent this way a signal to the Sudanese political elite that must he must be removed from the post, otherwise this will prevent the development of bilateral relations and prevent the country’s integration into the global financial system.

There is nothing new in this fact, but the Sudanese President was disturbed that the American proposal was not reported to him, but to the Prime Minister. This means a combination is forming an alliance in the government ready for a palace coup. Hence the Sudanese traditional political culture reaction: the insincere episode with Ghadour happened in November, but felt his disgrace in January. Hence, al-Bashir’s unexpected visit to Russia with a proposal to lease Moscow a military base in the Red Sea under the pretext of “American aggressive policy”. As for Ghandour, we can assume that he will be pushed to the Sudan’s political periphery by the end of the year with all ensuing consequences of the man’s immediate entourage.

The perturbations in the Sudanese elite were not limited to the Foreign Ministry. The front, which supported the head of the Foreign Ministry, turned with the change of the head of NISS. Mohammed Atta al-Moula replaced Saleh Gosh on this post. Employees of NISS took an active part in the suppression of the recent anti-government demonstrations. Protests and clashes with security forces began in January 2018 after Khartoum, on the recommendations of the IMF, introduced tough economic measures. The authorities dropped the exchange rate of the national currency, which devaluated it. The dollar, worth 6.7 Sudanese pounds in 2017, in January 2018 was at 18, falling almost half from the official rate. Subsidies on wheat were cut, which resulted in an almost doubling of the price of bread. Sudan refused state support for grain imports and transferred this scope of activity to the private sector, which led to a significant increase in the cost of basic foodstuff. The elimination of subsidies on food, fuel and water prices, the common ground of economic reform in Arab countries, is not going anywhere smoothly. The severity of social outrage depends solely on the standard of living of the population. Incidentally, Khartoum rejected the withdrawal of subsidies plan. At the same time, the change of the head of the NISS has nothing to do with the unrest. Its reasons should be sought in the domestic political context among the Sudanese elite.

Saleh, known in Sudan under the nickname Gosh, was head of the NISS for a long time. He planned and carried out the war in Darfur, subdued the South Sudan insurgents. It was his idea to use in the struggle against the partisans tribal irregular formations (the “Janjaweed”). He was one of the key figures in organising the exchange of operational information with the CIA, intensified after the events of September 11. Shortly before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, it was Gosh’s intelligence services that warned the CIA about this (the US ignored the message). Gosh was removed from the post of head of the NISS unexpectedly in 2009. His trustee and deputy Atta took his place.

From 2009 to 2013 Gosh was an adviser to al-Bashir on security issues; in 2013 he was accused of organising a coup attempt and was arrested along with 13 party functionaries. Gosh was charged with violations of the antiterrorist law, organisation of acts of violence against representatives of the government, etc., which had nothing to do with reality. Gosh spent six months in jail and was released for lack of evidence. The true reason, first the firing him from the post at the NISS and then the arrest, was the President’s fear that in close contacts with the US intelligence services, Gosh had reached such levels of confidence that he discussed not only the fight against terrorism but also the transformation of the regime.

The main reason for the dismissals and shuffling in the Sudanese leadership was al-Bashar’s fear that someone from his entourage would reach an agreement with the US on his removal. This is why all dismissals are accompanied by accusations of treason, as was the case with the disgraced former Vice President O. Taha.

The removal of al-Bashir as defendant in the ICC of criminal charges is emphasised by Washington under all administrations as the main condition for the normalisation of bilateral relations and Sudan’s full return to the world’s financial system. Such talk stirred up the country’s party leadership in 2009 and 2013, when the national elite hesitated and talks were held that al-Bashir was an obstacle in the way out of international isolation. This was not only said at the grassroots party level but also in the “Politburo” of the Islamists.

In 2013, Gosh with other high level functionaries, the head of the “Islamist intelligence” N. Nafi and Vice President Taha wanted to remove the president, whose health deteriorated, but he underwent surgery in the KSA. But then al-Bashir outplayed them. The current resignation of Atta is associated with the resumption of such conversations on the part of the Americans, who are conducted mainly through the intelligence services. And Atta, in any case was spared the temptation, especially since in the discussions about the nature of the Sudanese-Egyptian relations he supported the disgraced Ghadour. The resulting al-Bashir party faction group has been destroyed by the return of Gosh, who will be more resistant to American temptations, as he is under the indictment of the ICC for war crimes in Darfur.

Map of Somali Nationalism

In February the probability of a military conflict between Somaliland, Puntland and the federal government of Somalia increased. The latter two forces form a military block against Hargeisa. The President of Somalia, M.A. Farmajo at the end of February approached the leader of Puntland Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas with a request to provide a contingent of troops from the enclave (three thousand men) to “strengthen the national army”. Then in a matter of a few weeks, parts of the Puntland contingent have been deployed in the rolling hills of Galkayo. According to the government, this was done to prepare for the operation against the Islamists from al-Shabab.

Farmajo’s request for three thousand troops deployed at the military base in Garowe, where Mogadishu regroups its forces, are preparing for operations in the area of Sanaag. The President of Somalia presented this as a reaction to the fighting between Somaliland and Puntland for the control over the disputed autonomous territory of Khatumo. This region is inhabited by representatives of the Dhulbahante, having traditional ties with the Marehan, the country’s President’s clan. A few months ago, in Khatumo the development of closer relations with Hargeisa, not Mogadishu and Farmajo, were voiced which dramatically exacerbated the situation. The crux of the problem is oil and the independent policy of Hargeisa, where the planned transfer of military personnel from the UAE to the former USSR naval base in Berbera.

Farmajo is making another attempt to affect it and the mobilisation of the Putland forces aims not to fight Islamists but to secure control over Khatumo. The solution of this issue means the elimination of separatism of Hargeisa in the medium term or the need to reach a compromise with the leadership of the enclave for Mogadishu. The President sent to Eastern Sanaag the Minister for Development D.M. Hasan. He must meet with emissaries of the President of Somaliland Muse Bihi Abdi. The result of these consultations will depend on whether Somaliland will go for a full deployment of troops to block the Puntland forces, which needs to come from Garowe. The UNO envoy M. Keating called for a truce, but M. Bihi refused, citing the need to protect the territorial integrity of Somaliland. There were no direct clashes between the forces of the enclaves yet.

The EU is trying to stop a military conflict. Political dialogue between Mogadishu and Hargeisa, suspended in March 2015, should resume at the end of this month in Djibouti under the mediation of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. As expected, the Centre of Humanitarian Risks in Geneva will play a major role in the reconciliation. President Farmajo and his colleague from Somaliland Abdi welcomed such a format, besides Switzerland, supported by Great Britain and Sweden. Similar offers of mediation from Ankara were rejected, where President Farmajo justified the unsuccessful experience of the Turks in 2015. Mogadishu does not consider Ankara as a neutral mediator. Turkey, a regional partner of the UAE, is interested in supporting Somaliland in this dispute. At the February 23 meeting with Farmajo the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey Hakan Çavuşoğlu expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that his country was excluded from the negotiations.

Experts believe that the current confrontation will not lead to a serious conflict. For Somaliland the improvement of relations with Mogadishu, undoubtedly, will allow them to overturn a ban on livestock exports to the KSA, will help reach an agreement on the allocation of the state budget revenues, receiving from the joint airspace management with Somalia, and gaining the right to issue licenses for exploration and extraction of mineral resources to international companies. Mogadishu is seeking its share of this activity and incorporation of Somaliland into the federation to monopolise foreign policy and the military development.

Let us recall that the former leadership of Somaliland for several years held talks with the UAE and France on their acquisition of the former USSR military base in Berbera. Hargeisa offered to Moscow as well, but because of a potential questionable transaction and legal risks involved in this connection, it refused. Paris missed the chance, rather, Abu Dhabi outbid former Somaliland President Silanyo, giving him several million dollars in cash and giving him and his family ownership of a mansion in the UAE and life-long services in one of the prestigious medical centres. This prompted a response from Mogadishu, where the deal was considered to be legally void due to the absence of permission from the central authorities. The topic has intensified during Farmajo’s presidency, which has enlisted tacit support from the KSA for the submitted claims to international arbitration.

It is the possibility of losing the case at the time that frightened off potential buyers. The KSA plays on Farmajo’s annoyance with Hargeisa’s independence, obstructing the UAE from increasing its influence through the construction of military bases in the Horn of Africa. The President of Somalia is pressured from all sides. In the election for financial support, he was pressured by Qatar, which explains Farmajo’s vague position in the “Arab Quartet” (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain) and Doha conflict. According to American data, the unwillingness of the Somali leader to articulate an anti-Qatari position led to the fact that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh reduced or curtailed assistance to his government. The UAE worked with unrecognised states such as Somaliland, to undermine the country’s central government and offered money to the Somali legislators for a vote of no confidence in the current ministerial cabinet.

In February, Farmajo sent emissaries to Turkey, where the leadership of the opposition and people close to former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, having managed to reach a compromise with the rotation of a number of ministers and replacing them with more acceptable expatriate faces. So the Abu Dhabi attempt to arrange in Somalia a “soft coup” has failed. However, the termination of Farmajo’s assistance from the Arabian monarchies concerns mainly Abu Dhabi. Riyadh does not limit the support of the cabinet and the President personally. The Saudis are satisfied with the attitude of the head of Somalia to neutralise the UAE’s influence in Somaliland. For this they are ready to ignore Farmajo’s contacts with Doha and press on Hargeisa.

Abu Dhabi tries to act pre-emptively. On March 1, the UAE state-owned DP Word (official buyer of the military base) announced that the Ethiopian government had acquired a 19 percent stake in the port of Berbera in Somaliland. This is a strong move involving Addis Ababa in the dispute, especially given that a number of forces in the EU lobbied by French make attempts to challenge the legality of the transaction on Berbera. It should be noted that Ethiopia considers Somaliland as its protectorate and a buffer against Islamist infiltration into the country. The US considers the deal beneficial to Addis Ababa, which is in dire need of access to seaports. This is not quite so, as it received such an exit in 2017, when the Chinese built a railway to the ports of Djibouti, albeit it does not yet work in full capacity.

However, the Somali authorities consider Somaliland as their sovereign territory and have publicly spoken out against this deal, declaring that it violates international law. In this regard, Farmajo, in addition to the external pressure exerted by his clans, is trying to play the Somali nationalism card. Fortunately he has ties with the Ogaden tribe living in both Ethiopia and Somalia, rebelling against the Ethiopian authorities (Ethiopian-Somali wars in the new era were precisely because of this). In any case, he created himself an external opponents’ front in attempts to subjugate Somaliland. How this will end, is impossible to predict.

The African specificity in general and the Somali specificity in particular, does not give grounds for optimism, either in the formation of a stable centralised government or in relation to attempts of external interference, be it the army of neighbouring countries, the African Union or the UN troops, in favour of any of the local players. History supports this. Any foreign military contingents in Somalia suffered losses and preferred to operate through local troops, limited to short-term operations when their clients were at risk of defeat, and withdrew immediately after the situation stabilised. And the Arab monarchies were no exception.

Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute


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