The Trump administration left a vacuum in many parts of Africa. This had consequences. When the US retreats, others come in and occupy the space. China has gone full speed ahead with the Belt and Road initiative, massively investing in many African countries, nurturing new friendships. The Gulf States have used the opportunity to approach new allies on the African continent, in a battle for hegemony in the Middle East and beyond. With their deep pockets and big appetites, these countries are using economic investments, new military bases, and strategic political alliances to change the geopolitical landscape. Iran and Qatar, working with Turkey, have similarly engaged. Russia too is exploring new territory on the African continent. Where does this leave the new Biden administration?
This development does not only have geopolitical implications. It also affects the region. Transactional politics have now gained more of an upper hand. A mutual “what’s in it for me” has delivered opportune deals for leaders in many countries. In a political marketplace, loyalties may also shift, depending on who provides the best benefits at which point in time. Short term gains rather than long-term strategic interests dominate. Furthermore, these new allies tend not to ask difficult questions or bother with internal matters. For some leaders, this is more than welcome.
All international actors are now facing a much more assertive African continent. Its leaders want to rely on their own capacities supported by new foreign investors and are not taking lectures from anyone. Understandably. Gone are the days of the African renaissance, a partnership built on good governance, democratic transformation and economic development benefiting the masses, not the few. Several of these most promising leaders are still in the same leadership positions 25 years later, having deviated from this more progressive agenda. While foreign aid will continue to play an important role in many countries’ economy, the conditionality that often comes with it is seen as a hindrance. Hence, other investors are pursued most actively.
The lack of strategic interest in Africa by the Trump administration has led to a feeling of American withdrawal, making it harder to engage in constructive dialogue with African leaders. Biden has promised change, however. The question is whether a new Biden-administration will be able to regain lost ground and engage African leaders in a positive agenda for the continent? Can American political and economic investments rebound? Is it too late, as others have occupied the space, or will there be room for Biden’s Africa team at the State Department and the National Security Council to turn things around? They should be mandated to engage pro-actively and urgently.
More than geopolitical turf, this is about strategic engagement, and, I hope, a more value-based engagement which focuses on the long-term interest of the peoples of this vast continent. As for the turf, the power struggle with China is likely to be significant also for Biden. How this may impact developments on the African continent remains unclear. The Chinese investments on the continent are massive, in roads, ports, railways and real estate, as are those of the Gulf countries. Indeed, the two camps in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Emiratis on the one hand, and Iran, Qatar and Turkey on the other, are competing for impact in countries across the Red Sea, in the Horn of Africa and beyond. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are entertaining close links with Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as the military leadership in Sudan. Qatar and Turkey, on the other hand, have engaged heavily in Somalia. Qatar is also making its mark in the heart of the Great Lakes, building a large international airport in Rwanda. And Russian security companies are now protecting the embattled President in the Central African Republic, now engaging in fighting around the country’s capital Bangui. Geopolitical competition is also taking place in North Africa, with Libya as the most concerning case – where all of these countries are heavily involved.
On the Horn, the petrodollars from the Gulf are put to good use in establishing military bases, harbors, infrastructure investments and ensuring access to arable land. The Emirates has military bases in Eritrea, Djibouti and Somaliland. Last year, the UAE also agreed to invest $100 million to support micro, medium and small scale projects across Ethiopia and pledged to build an oil pipeline between Ethiopia and Eritrea. While most of that expansion is about competition over resources and economic influence, especially as it relates to China, the activities in the Horn of Africa are often guided by short-term goals for strategic positioning. The power asymmetry between the Gulf States and the countries in the Horn does not provide for conditions that spell political stability. And the region is full of flashpoints. Indeed, there are mounting fears in the African Union about what this new scramble may imply.
As an observer rightly pointed out, the Horn of Africa is the playground for rising aspirations of several geopolitical actors, trends that are likely to be replicated across the African continent. The decline of US influence globally and new regional alliances and competition have contributed to this, as well as an increasing strategic interest in international security.
The Horn of Africa and the Red Sea are in constant flux. We have seen this unfolding in Sudan, where military allies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia were given the green light to crush the popular protests in 2018. They didn’t succeed. A new transitional government in Khartoum was formed. But the Emirates are still influencing power dynamics in Sudan, both through their ally, the strongman Hemedti, now Deputy Chairman of the Sovereign Council and through dubious links to several armed groups now joining the Sudanese government following a rather transactional Juba peace agreement. Several Russian companies have also entered Sudan’s mining sector, which is dominated by Hemedti and Sudanese security actors. The Russian connection has also been crucial to the Hemedti and his Rapid Support Forces’ build-up of a separate IT arm in Sudan.
At the same time, neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE have kept their promises of economic support to the reform-oriented civilian government. Whether this is a deliberate attempt to undermine the reformists is not clear. Whatever the case may be, the economic crisis now unfolding in the country poses serious risks to the reform government’s survival. While the former Administration did engage significantly on the economic side at the end of last year, a stronger and more strategic engagement is now needed to help Sudan out of the quagmire.
Ethiopia is another challenge. While the country’s recent troubles primarily are internal, with civil war unfolding between the TPLF and the central government, geopolitical concerns have also played a part. The significant military engagement of Eritrea, with the continued presence of large numbers of Eritrean troops in Tigray, has also prompted speculations about UAE-involvement. Both leaders have nurtured close relations with the top echelons of the Emirates. Reports are now coming out of civilians killed, sexual violence and rape, massive looting, even massacres. While further verification is needed, these initial reports have prompted tough statements from international leaders, both the UN, the EU and the US, the latter also requesting the Eritreans forces to withdraw from Tigray.
While allies in the Gulf have quietly expressed their concerns, it is not clear whether geopolitical considerations will make them turn a blind eye to what is unfolding in Tigray, and its possible spillover effects in other parts of the country. Whether a new insurgency will be the outcome of this development remains to be seen. Ethiopia would be wise to engage its neighbours, Sudan and Egypt, in finding acceptable solutions to their differences over the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD), and settling the border issue with Sudan. The GERD itself has the potential to become a source of serious conflict between these countries and warrants urgent and smart diplomacy. Indeed, the volatile situation in both Ethiopia and Sudan has the potential of destabilizing the whole region.
This is certainly not the time to leave the region to its own devices and to other actors with different geopolitical agendas. This alone should prompt an active US-role both in the Horn and in Africa more broadly. That the Secretary of State Tony Blinken has a long-standing engagement with the region helps. Several statements on the developments in Ethiopia and Tigray since taking office has proven that. The consequences of inaction in relation to the challenges on the Horn of Africa and beyond will have long term devastating consequences for the whole continent. While other Africa-appointments are pending, President Biden should urgently put in place a US Envoy for the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea with a strong mandate. Working with the Secretary of State and the White House, Biden would be in a position to take action, swiftly and resolutely. It is much needed.