Africa’s long walk to unity (2)
Dr. Oyeleye, a consultant, journalist and policy analyst, can be reached via:
May 22, 2023176 views0 comments
ARAB LEAGUE SUMMIT was held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last week. In the summit, which brought together no fewer than 24 countries, two remarkable statements stood out during the meeting on Friday. These are considered significant in the context of today’s writeup. First one was that the Arab League’s Secretary General, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said, “Arab League should function without interference from the outside world.” The second was about Sudan. “We hope we will reach a final settlement for [the] Sudan dispute, including humanitarian ceasefire.” This concern was expressed by Saudi’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. Within the context of the African Union, these two statements raise some pertinent questions and can be interpreted in a number of ways. At the intersection of geography, world politics and economy is the delineation of a community that is generally referred to as Middle East and North Africa. This should not be surprising as the group of countries within this bracket has a community that came into existence nearly 80 years ago.
The Arab League was founded on March 22, 1945, in Cairo, Egypt. This league is a cord that runs through the Middle East countries and Arab countries of North Africa. The significance for Africa is under consideration here. The commitment of the Arab community in North Africa to Africa’s cause comes under scrutiny as they seem to be more prominent and consistent within the Arab League than they are in the African continental intergovernmental organisation. There are historical antecedents and contemporary evidence. There is a regional grouping in North Africa made up of the Arab Maghrebs, known as the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). But both AMU and the Arab League served as safe havens for Morocco when it left the former Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the African Union’s (AU’s) predecessor, in 1984, to protest the seating of the Polisario Front as representatives of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), also known as the Western Sahara. Morocco remained in this self exile for 33 years, returning to the AU only in 2017, although its animosity against SADR persists. The Maghreb countries in North Africa, which constitute the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) are Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and Western Sahara operate a distinct association. Although it needs to be regarded in the context of a regional economic community (REC), the Union has been unable to achieve tangible progress on its goals due to deep economic and political disagreements between Morocco and Algeria regarding, among others, the issue of Western Sahara (SADR). To that extent, Morocco cannot be said to be fully committed to the AU as it has been to the AMU and the Arab League.
After he was sworn in as Sudan’s interim leader, replacing the longtime president Omar al-Bashir that was overthrown by the army in April, 2019, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in May, the following month, made his first international trip to Egypt to meet Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. His second visit was to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE and Saudi Arabia did not waste the opportunity offered by the revolutionary uprising of 2018/2019 that led to the ouster of Omar al-Bashir to draw in al-Burhan after they had failed for years to decisively woo Omar al-Bashir to their axis. And after the ongoing crisis in Sudan between the army led by al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by his estranged deputy (Hemedti) broke out, the truce meeting between the two factions was called to take place in the Saudi city of Jeddah, according to Saudi Arabia and the United States, which brokered the truce. Diplomatic space — like nature — abhors vacuum. Since the clashes began on April 15, little has been attributed to the AU in the favour of truce in Sudan. It is thus easy to imagine where the diplomatic fulcrum of Sudan is and where its allegiance lies. These instances clearly underscore the sharp division between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, the former being evidently more pro-Arab League than pro-AU.
It then goes without saying that the African continent is torn between two competing regional intergovernmental groups, one claiming to own the whole and the other one taking only a part. The latter, undoubtedly, has two strong logical points of justification. First, its formation predated that of the AU by as many as 18 years. Secondly, It is a group that identifies itself as a uniform entity — the Arabs. This is clear from their religious and language commonalities. The influence of language can be far-reaching in creating and sustaining a bond. In all of these African countries within the Arab League, Arabic is an official language. That means so much. In reference to the statement of the Arab League’s Secretary General, the import is therefore not lost. The same cannot be said of the disparate countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Despite having various regional economic communities (RECs) such as ECOWAS, ECCAS, EAC, SADC and IGAD, a lot of differences exist within each REC. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), established in 1986, has Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda as members. But, since the outbreak of war in Sudan in April, IGAD has been relatively quiet and unable to intervene, both because and despite the fact that the current Chair is Sudan’s Abdalla Hamdok, the man that was earlier thrown out of government by al-Burhan in October 2021, later reinstated in November, following popular uprising, but resigned his appointment as Prime Minister in January 2022.
Membership of the AU within the rest of sub-Suharan Africa have a lot more differences than they have in commonalities. Their colonial histories have been as wide ranging as their contemporary histories. The same applies to their economies and governments. For good or for bad, events in one Arab country within Africa or Middle East easily spread in influence to other Arab countries across the continental divide. For instance, the Arab Spring, a social media-enabled pro-democratic monumental and historic event that redefined governance in North Africa and the Middle East, began in Tunisia in 2011. This gave rise to the most obvious change in the form of redefinition of political space in Arab societies. While the protests merely swept through Djibouti, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Palestine, its influences elsewhere were more definite and dramatic. In Morocco, Algeria and Jordan, constitutional reforms were implemented in response to the protests. In Kuwait, Lebanon and Oman, government changes were implemented. In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, it ended up toppling the governments. In some countries, it took a heavy toll of human casualties as some countries have been in a perpetual state of turmoil since then. In both Yemen and Syria in particular, it led to protracted wars that persist till now, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and displacement of millions. Syria presented a particularly different story in the sense that Dr. Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president — in trying to crush the protesters — turned the protests into war, divided the country into factions and unwittingly provided a breeding ground for terrorism. Both Syria and Yemen are yet to end the war. Syria and al-Assad were then expelled from the Arab League, only to be readmitted last weekend.
In addition to colonial histories, sub-Saharan African countries have strong ethnic affinities, pulling members of the same apart along ethnic sentiments. These have been responsible for, or have exacerbated, many wars in many countries. Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, old Sudan (at Darfur in 2003), South Sudan, Central African Republic, Burundi, Rwanda and eastern DR Congo, among others. These cause distractions and needles dissipation of resources, with loss of precious lives. In all of these unfortunate events, the mediating role of the AU has been both minimal and ineffectual. Two most recent events involving Ethiopia could be illustrative. The war launched by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed against the Tigray fighters on November 3, 2020, lasted for two years before the AU could make a breakthrough in a truce. It was not until November 2, 2022 a day before the war’s two years’ anniversary, that the representatives from Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a cessation of hostilities agreement to end the war that had devastated the country. The agreement, which was brokered in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, was led by AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as chief mediator, after several days of mediation talks, facilitated by a team comprised of the former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, and former Deputy President of South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
The second illustration is from Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a signature $4 billion hydroelectric project expected to provide electricity for millions of Ethiopians, half of whom have no electricity. But the GERD still remains a source of friction among neighbouring countries. The rhetorics from Egypt and Ethiopia are particularly indicative of defiance and obstinacy. While Abiy said at a ceremony in 2022, that “from now on, there will be nothing that will stop Ethiopia and (the dam) will not disrupt the River Nile’s natural flow,” Egyptian authorities have shown concerns over the scheme and threatened to escalate into violence. At some point, Egyptian politicians considered military options to halt the dam, with proposals such as backing Ethiopian rebels or sending in special forces to destroy it. It seems such considerations are still in Egypt’s mind as Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said during a visit to Khartoum in March 2021, that “we reject the policy of imposing a fait accompli and extending control over the Blue Nile through unilateral measures without taking the interests of Sudan and Egypt into account.” Days later, he added that “the waters of Egypt are untouchable, and touching them is a red line.” If that was not provocative and daring enough, consider his further threat that no one “can take a single drop of water from Egypt, and whoever wants to try it, let him try.” But recent events may have started to alter the equation between the three countries as Egypt may likely become isolated if the recent response to Abiy Ahmed by al-Burhan is anything to go by, except the latter loses out at the end of the on-going war in Sudan, in which case, the crisis in Sudan may end up stalling any progress hitherto made on a peaceful resolution. Both Sudan and Egypt were opposed to the GERD idea when it was first announced but Egypt now appears to be the lone ranger in the opposition and events may be covertly overriding el-Sisi’s earlier diplomatic overtures to Sudan on the GERD. Earlier in January, what appeared like a softening on the part of Sudan came when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Khartoum to try to win Sudan’s support for the GERD on the Blue Nile. The fourth filling of the dam is being done during this year’s rainy season and the dam is now expected to be 90 percent complete. It is yet to be seen whether or not el-Sisi will make good his 2021 threats.
Even when the inability of the AU to mediate on the GERD issue was apparent and the issue was referred to the United Nations, the Security Council was nearly unanimous in passing the GERD ball hurriedly back to the AU, which was a major setback for Egypt and Sudan. Thus, diplomatic efforts got stuck for a while as the issue was sent back and forth between the UN and the AU until the AU later took over as the lead mediator after South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, as AU chair, persuaded the three countries not to refer the dispute to the Security Council. For a year, the AU negotiations remained off and on, with limited progress. Egypt and Sudan had to resort to their back-up intergovernmental umbrella body, the Arab League of States, which took the GERD negotiations back to the Security Council that refused to take up the issue and sent it back to the AU. It was reasoned that the AU should stay the course and use its convening power to bring all three parties together to de-escalate the situation, using the concept of “African Solutions for African Problems (ASAP)” to promote a viable option to address GERD dispute. It is concerning that while the negotiations on the GERD in 2021 reached a deadlock, the AU summit in Addis Ababa in 2022 ignored the dam crisis and did not tackle it. The failure of the AU has therefore become so glaring in dispute settlement that obviously shows its weakness as a continental body. How the AU hopes to truly assert its relevance in other areas of cooperation — cultural, military, economic or intellectual — remains more of a matter of conjecture as the future beckons. The African Union — especially on the unity among countries of Africa — clearly still has a long, winding and bumpy road ahead.