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Resources-for-Infrastructure (RFI) deals between China and African countries are not always win-win as advertised. For example, the Angola-China deal trading oil for infrastructure spending did not pan out as conceived. However, this new RFI deal between China and Ghana should pan out differently because Ghana has negotiated a more favorable deal than other African countries have in the past.

In sum, Ghana has negotiated a deal with Sinohydro under which Ghana will receive $2 billion in financing for infrastructure—roads, railways, and bridges—in exchange for access to 5 percent of Ghana’s bauxite reserve. The deal, which is part of a $19 billion credit facility between both countries, also includes 100 vehicles to be donated to Ghana’s Police Service, $43 million in grants, and $37 million in debt waivers.

This deal has stirred controversy and debate within Ghana and across Africa concerning debt sustainability and the environmental degradation that could result from mining bauxite in the Atiwa forest. But considering the summary of the deal and information available in the public domain, Ghana appears to have negotiated a favorable deal with Sinohydro for three reasons.

First, this deal will not cause Ghana’s public debt to increase because China’s claim for repayment is not secured by Ghana’s general revenue. Rather, it is secured by revenues from aluminum sales. This distinction is important because it has implications for public expenditures. When loan repayment claims are against the general revenue, governments cannot prioritize other expenditures over the repayments. That is, if the indebted government desired to spend $1 million on building a new clinic, the government could not choose the clinic over repayment because that would lead to a default and higher borrowing costs in the future. But when a repayment claim is tied to a specific revenue stream, such as aluminum sales, the government is not obligated to use revenues from other sources to repay the debt. In this case, Ghana can spend the entire $1 million on building the hospital and not worry about debt repayment. This deal is similar to the revenue bonds that American and European municipalities issue to build toll roads and bridges; the repayments are tied to the tolls collected, not the general revenue. Thus, because Ghana’s obligation to repay the $2 billion is tied to aluminum revenues, Ghana will not face the dilemma of choosing between repayment and building schools or hospitals.

Second, Ghana remains in charge under this deal. Other RFI deals have made the Chinese responsible for both extracting and exporting the resources. Here, by contrast, Ghana remains responsible for extracting the bauxite, setting up the refinery to process the aluminum, and then exporting and selling the aluminum. Furthermore, this deal allows Ghana to build-up its industrial capacity through the value-added processing of bauxite to aluminum. In short, this will be a process setup by Ghanaians, run by Ghanaians, and owned by Ghanaians. China will simply receive its share of the sales.

Third, this deal will contribute to Ghana’s infrastructure. Specifically, Ghana negotiated the deal so that it will receive the $2 billion in infrastructure financing before it must begin mining bauxite or processing the aluminum. This will give Ghana the space to design an environmentally responsible bauxite mining process. Furthermore, these newly built roads, rails, and bridges will contribute to closing Ghana’s infrastructure gap. A recent World Bank report shows that Ghana needs to spend $2.3 billion per year over the next decade to close its infrastructure gap. This level of infrastructure spending will have the additional benefit of adding 2.7 percentage points to the GDP per year.

Despite these favorable points, mining for bauxite in the Atiwa Forest comes with serious risks to the environment. Atiwa is home to the sources for three rivers that supply drinking water to five million residents in Accra. It is also the habitat for rare and endangered species such as the West African White-naped Mangabey monkey, Mylothris atewa, and Anthene helpsi – the latter two being rare butterfly species found only in the Atiwa forest. The government, in consultation with environmental groups and stakeholders, therefore needs to formulate an effective environmental pollution mitigation plan to protect the forest ecosystem.

In conclusion, Ghana has negotiated well and received a better RFI deal that ensures it will develop necessary infrastructure, maintain control of the bauxite extraction process, and add value to the bauxite before selling it on the international market. For African countries to transition from being mere exporters of raw materials to also being value-added processors, they must trade the resources they have to acquire the infrastructure upon which a new economic model can be built. This deal accomplishes precisely this feat.

Francis Kiazolu is a Senior Derivatives and Securities Analyst at PRA Group, Inc.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir (L), South Sudan's opposition leader Riek Machar (R) and Mohamed Hamdan Daglo "Hemeti", Sudan's deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, speak to media after their peace talk at the State House in Juba, South Sudan, on December 17, 2019.
Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy leader of the Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, is flanked by President Salva Kiir (left) and First Vice President Riek Machar of South Sudan after peace talks in Juba.

Juba, South Sudan— Developments in both Sudans suggest that peace prospects are starting to bear fruit in a region that has known decades of war. In February 2020, signatories to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan formed a new government, called the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity, thus breathing life into the implementation of the ailing agreement, signed in 2018.

The agreement had faced a number of uncertainties and weathered two extensions, the first by six months and the second by one hundred days. The fact that the situation has remained stable has raised hopes among South Sudanese that the dividends of peace can now be enjoyed.

Yet competition for economic resources and control at both local and national levels persists, an obstacle on the road to sustainable peace.

David Shearer, special representative of the United Nations secretary-general in South Sudan, briefed the UN Security Council on this and other issues on June 23. His presentation is part of concerted efforts by the international community and the wider region to ensure that this time the peace will last. The various entities involved are the UN, the African Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway (which were all instrumental in facilitating the formation of the transitional government); countries bordering on South Sudan, notably the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia; and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc of eight countries from the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region, and the Nile Valley.

The breakthrough political compromise that regional mediators put in motion has provided the opening for President Salva Kiir, former rebel leader turned First Vice President Riek Machar, and other key political leaders to join the three-year transitional government.

Although these positive developments were painstakingly slow, the chance that the peace agreement could hold only became firm when a parallel fast-paced process was taking shape: the Sudanese peace talks initiated by President Kiir.

 

Developments in the Sudan

Following the Sudanese Revolution of December 2018 that led to the ousting of long-serving president Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, there has been positive steps in Khartoum. It has provided a window of opportunity to address the root causes of the Sudanese crisis; to finally bring sustainable peace to the long-suffering people on the margins in Darfur, South Kordofan, Nuba Mountains, and Eastern Sudan; and to build a state based on freedom, justice, and shared prosperity.

The success of the popular uprising against the regime created a leadership vacuum and power wrangling between protest groups and the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which immediately took over from Bashir, albeit leading to a transitional power-sharing deal between civilians and the military brokered by the AU and Ethiopia. However, this agreement left out other key players, such as the armed rebel movements in Darfur and the Two Areas (South Kordofan and Southern Blue Nile).

South Sudanese president Salva Kiir exploited this opening during the swearing in of the transitional government in Khartoum to declare his willingness—with the support of Sudan’s neighbors and Gulf states—to mediate between the new rulers and the rebel groups, capitalizing on his in-depth knowledge of the Sudanese crisis and its actors. It should be recalled both governments in the past have often accused each other of hosting and supporting hostile forces that seek to overthrow their respective governments. At the closing session of the general conference of the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum in 2017, Bashir openly called for the two states to be reunited.

For his part, President Kiir had long repeated that the armed conflict in the Sudan was directly affecting stability in his country, as the clashes were mainly located in the border region. Also, he said, the continuation of fighting in the Sudan provoked Khartoum to back South Sudanese armed groups after accusing Juba of supporting the Sudanese rebels.

With the rapprochement started by Khartoum leading to the signing of South Sudan’s own peace agreement in September 2018, the time was ripe for Juba to play a leading role. In the past, Bashir had always resisted Kiir’s advances to facilitate peace talks with the Sudanese armed groups. After Kiir’s involvement in the IGAD-mediated peace talks to end the three-year armed conflict in the South, however, Bashir accepted his involvement.

 

Sudanese Peace Talks

In early September 2019, Kiir hosted talks in Juba between rebel movements, military members of the Sovereign Council, and Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok. Rebel movements involved in the Juba meetings included four Darfuri armed groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army led by Minni Minawi (SLM-MM), the Sudan Liberation Movement–Transitional Council, and the Alliance of Sudan Liberation Forces; the Blue Nile/South Kordofan rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu (SPLM-N al-Hilu); and the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), an alliance of Sudanese rebel groups created in 2011 in opposition to Bashir’s government.

The negotiations were divided along five tracks, in which each track addresses the grievances of a region, namely, Central Sudan, Eastern Sudan, the Two Areas, the North, and Darfur.

A first round of negotiations took place in Juba in mid-September. In the second round in October 2019, agreements were signed on the Two Areas track between the government and the SPLM-N al-Hilu, and on the Darfur track between the government and the SRF. The third round started in mid-December on the Eastern Sudan track, the Two Areas track with the SPLM-N Agar (the faction led by Malik Agar), and the Darfur track.

“The president of South Sudan has an experience similar to the Sudanese situation, and he is one of the first fighters who resisted injustice,” a leader of the SRF said in an interview with this analyst. He declined to be named, as he was not the spokesperson for the delegation in Juba.

The delegate also stressed that Kiir is well placed to mediate the Sudanese process. The authorities in Khartoum are also keen to reach a peaceful settlement of conflicts as per their country’s constitutional declaration, which sought to achieve peace in all of the Sudan within six months of its signing.

The vice president of the Sovereign Council of the Sudan, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), has helped to facilitate the formation of the new government of South Sudan, accompanying South Sudanese opposition leader Machar and guaranteeing his security on multiple visits to Juba in preparation for the government formation.

In parallel, Hemedti has continued Juba-based peace talks with Sudanese armed groups, including the Sudanese Revolutionary Front and SPLM-N al-Hilu, as cited in a UN panel of experts report on South Sudan released on April 28, 2020.

According to multiple sources involved in both mediations, the connection between the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement in South Sudan and peace talks in relation to the Sudan has become inextricable. For instance, Hemedti has tried to capitalize on his patronage relationship with Machar to ask for Juba’s support in softening the position of Abdelaziz al-Hilu, leader of the armed group SPLM-N al-Hilu, who is hosted in South Sudan. Machar’s party told the panel that Machar’s last-minute entry into the government had been “forced upon him” by the Sudan, Uganda, and the international community, and that Machar was “now a prisoner in Juba.” This intertwined relationship has carried the risk that the implementation of the agreement hinges on the Sudan making progress in its peace talks.

Progress has been made, including the signing of the declaration of principles (a political agreement that includes a renewed ceasefire) and the delivery of humanitarian assistance by government agencies to areas under conflict. A framework agreement has also been drawn up for the smoldering Darfur conflict, covering issues such as power sharing, wealth sharing, transitional justice, and a commitment to continue the negotiations.

The SRF and Sovereign Council representatives agreed on the creation of a special court for Darfur to conduct investigations and trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out during the war by the Bashir presidency and by rebel warlords. They did not discuss the issue of whether or not to transfer Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court.

Furthermore, Hemedti signed political and security agreements, constituting a framework agreement, on behalf of the Sovereign Council and Ahmed El Omda Badi on behalf of SPLM-N Agar. The agreements give legislative autonomy to South Kordofan and Blue Nile, propose solutions for the sharing of land and other resources, and aim to unify all militias and government soldiers into a single unified Sudanese military.

A “final” peace agreement for the North track—including issues of studies for new dams, compensation for people displaced by existing dams, road construction, and burial of electronic and nuclear waste—was signed by Shamseldin Kabashi of the Sovereign Council and Dahab Ibrahim of the Kush Movement.

Also, on March 25, the death of Sudanese defense minister Gamal al-Din Omar of a heart attack in Juba further delayed the process to allow for mourning. In a press statement, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who heads the Sovereign Council, said he mourned the death of Omar, “who died while struggling for the stability of the Sudan,” a reference to peace talks with rebels.

 

Delays, But Also Progress

Following this development, Tut Gatluak, chair of the mediation, stated that the Sudan, South Sudan, and other African countries are committed “to end all forms of war” in Africa by the end of 2020, referencing the African Union’s theme of Silencing the Guns.

Notwithstanding, delays have also plunged the ten-month process into uncertainty, with extension of negotiations month after month with no time limit. Some observers say the process has lost momentum.

The spread of COVID-19 to the two countries has also slowed the peace process, as social distancing measures have meant that delegates could not easily meet. Thanks to the European Union missions in both Juba and Khartoum, talks resumed via video teleconferencing.

The Sudan Liberation Movement of Minni Minnawi, however, has refused to take part in video conference meetings, saying the security arrangements require the involvement of military experts and physical negotiations.

Talks between the government and SPLM-N al-Hilu were suspended for several months, as the armed group wanted to put the right to self-determination and the relationship between state and religion on the agenda, a request the government wouldn’t consider. Sudanese government spokesman Mohamed Hassan Eltaishi announced an invitation by the mediators to resume dialogue via video conferencing with the SPLM-N delegation on June 22.

For now, negotiations to achieve a comprehensive peace continues in Juba with a pattern of extensions of deadlines for the signing of a final agreement. It is undeniable, however, that the fate of the two countries is intertwined.

Lasting peace in South Sudan is most likely to reflect positively in the Sudan, especially in the Two Areas, traditional strongholds of the SPLM-N, a movement with very close connections to SPLM, the ruling party in South Sudan. Once comrades in the armed struggle against the oppressive Islamist government in Khartoum, they were separated on July 9, 2011, when the south seceded to become an independent state.

Failure to achieve peace in the Sudan, on the other hand, is likely to be detrimental to South Sudan’s long-term stability, as the Sudan is a known haven for South Sudanese dissidents. But the Sudan has also been pushing for compromises thus far made by South Sudanese parties, which has spurred progress in the peace process. Any disinterest by Khartoum could lead to loss of momentum in Juba’s own implementation of agreements, possibly sparking a new wave of violence.

 

Patrick Anyama Godi is the editor of True African Magazine, a South Sudanese lifestyle, fashion, and business magazine

 

GERD
A view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam under construction, in a photograph taken near Guba, Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP)

Ethiopia wants to start filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile in July, when the rainy season starts, but it has not yet reached a final agreement with Egypt and Sudan downriver. Egypt fears it would reduce its water supply, and Sudan warned on Wednesday that the filling of the GERD without an agreement between the three countries would pose a risk to its own dams. Sudan is especially concerned about Roseires Dam near the Ethiopian border, which plays an important role in supplying the country with water and hydroelectric power.

 

The latest round of negotiations also failed to produce a compromise

 

Consultations have been ongoing between the three countries, with input from the World Bank and the United States. Most issues have been resolved, but the remaining bones of contention are the fill rate of the 74 billion cubic meter reservoir and the long-term operation of the dam.

The latest round of negotiations, by videoconference, also failed to produce a compromise. On June 19, Egypt requested the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to intervene to resolve the dispute with Ethiopia, after which Sudan sent a letter to the UNSC expressing its concern over the filling of the dam without a signed agreement. The UNSC will discuss the issue on Monday, June 29.

And the African Union’s Executive Council will hold an emergency video meeting on Friday, June 26, to discuss the dispute in response to a call from South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chairman of the African Union.

 

President XI
Chinese president Xi Jinping speaks at a joint press conference during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on September 4, 2018. (Lintao Zhang/AFP)

President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China delivered a keynote speech during a virtual China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19. The Chinese president began by emphasizing China’s role in providing medical equipment and teams to help Africa combat the pandemic, including the construction of China-Africa hospitals and the bold promise to guarantee that Africans will be some of the first to receive a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed in Chinese labs.

 

This marks the first time the Chinese government has formally addressed the issue of African debt

 

He went on to emphasize the need for greater investment and cooperation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as pledges to help alleviate African debt through zero-interest loans that will mature by the end of 2020. This marks the first time the Chinese government has formally addressed the issue of African debt, which has become a major sticking point as COVID-19 continues to strangle African economies, many of whom are saddled with billions of dollars’ worth of debt from Chinese infrastructure projects linked to the BRI.

Soon after the outbreak reached most of Africa, Western news outlets began to openly ponder whether China would be willing to embrace the growing calls for debt relief emanating from numerous African heads of state, the European Union, and financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

President Xi’s call for “taking China-African friendship forward” prepares the continent for a geopolitical shift toward China. This is, perhaps, how US secretary of state Mike Pompeo saw it when he said “no country will rival what the US is doing” when it comes to assisting African countries with the fight against COVID-19.

 

Niger Niamey Billboard G5
A billboard in Niamey, Niger, announcing a summit of heads of state of the G5 Sahel regional security forum. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

 

In the intensely hot, semiarid Sahel zone that bridges the climatic transition from lush West Africa bordering on the Atlantic Ocean to the rocky deserts of North Africa, a deep ideological schism has emerged between competing Salafi-jihadi fighting groups. This rancorous divide, once a topic of speculation, has been manifested in declared pitched battles. The local militants who have sworn an oath to either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) in the Sahel are openly competing for influence within the Salafi-jihadi thought spectrum, geopolitical and matériel resources, and additional followers to replenish their ranks.

Kalashnikov-tipped sparring between the two absolutist movements has already been reported from Syria to Yemen, and it should not come as a surprise that such clashes are taking place in the impoverished Sahel. It has been speculated that there was some level of cooperation between al-Qaeda and IS factions in West Africa, but the relationship between the otherwise peer competitors has been far from clear.

 

The Salafi-jihadi competitors are trading barbs usually reserved for secular Muslims involved in state bureaucracies or non-Muslim populations

 

On May 7, 2020, the IS weekly publication al-Naba described clashes with al-Qaeda’s current incarnation in the Sahel, an umbrella organization known as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimeen (Group to Support Islam and Muslims, commonly reported by its transliterated Arabic acronym JNIM). IS characterized its antipathy toward JNIM as a betrayal, which may indicate that some form of modus vivendi existed between the two groups, as has been speculated by Sahel security analysts for some time. If this were in fact the case, it certainly is no more by IS’s own description. This allegation of betrayal does not, however, indicate that the two groups in fact ever collaborated on the battlefield. It more likely means they coexisted without clashing. IS makes an implicit accusation that JNIM may in fact be collaborating with counter-terror elements in an effort to diminish IS, a grievous slander in jihadi circles. The Salafi-jihadi competitors are trading barbs usually reserved for secular Muslims involved in state bureaucracies or non-Muslim populations. Terms such as “apostates,” “hypocrites,” and “dogs,” have been hurled across social media platforms in recent months by these two now bitter opponents.

 

Ideology, Ungoverned Spaces, and French Intervention

The instability in the Sahel today is rooted in a convergence of three key events occurring in the past three decades: the Algerian Civil War turned insurgency, which was triggered in late 1991 following an Islamist electoral victory annulled by the military; the Libyan revolution turned civil war, which began in February 2011; and a hybrid Salafi and ethno-nationalist Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali that sparked a coup d’état in the capital Bamako in April 2012.

The events in Mali in 2012 whereby the country’s already lightly governed north was lost to the aforementioned rebellion led to large-scale foreign military intervention led by France in 2013, soon joined by other extra-regional state military actors. In the post-colonial context, French forces have been continuously present in the wider region since at least 1986, when Operation Épervier was launched in Chad to halt the creeping expansion of Libyan forces below the 16th parallel in that country. French troops remained in Chad for decades, long after the conflict with Libya concluded. Such policies of heavy economic and political engagement in Francophone Africa are known derisively by the controversial portmanteau “Françafrique.” Deep-seated resentment toward Françafrique across the Francophone Sahel has been seized upon by Salafi-jihadi leaders since French boots-on-the-ground overtly returned to Mali and across the Sahel region in the name of aggressive counter-terror operations.

 

Macron Flight to Mali
French president Emmanuel Macron, pictured arriving at Modibo Keita International Airport in Bamako, Mali, on July 2, 2017. Macron traveled to Mali to consolidate Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force as France beefed up its counter-terror operations in the area. (Luc Gnago/Pool/AFP)

 

When Paris made the move for a hard power intervention in central and northern Mali, it easily siphoned off men and resources from its existing Operation Épervier to begin Operation Serval in January 2013. This mission was a casus belli for the then triumvirate of Salafi-jihadi groups al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Ansar Eddine; and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, commonly known by its French acronym MUJAO, which ruled for the better part of a year roaming freely in Mali’s Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao regions as well as parts of the Mopti region, implementing their interpretation of Sharia. The scope of the French mission in Mali quickly escalated and morphed into a vast international project bringing in multiple supranational bodies—including the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union, and the African Union—in addition to American military partners who have maintained a presence in the region since the launch of the Pan-Sahel Initiative in 2002 and currently maintain two known drone bases in Niger.

 

The militant movements are now more difficult to pursue, as their action space has greatly metastasized since 2013

 

Though Operation Serval was initially quite effective in dislodging Salafi-jihadi fighting groups from the capitals of Mali’s restive regions, the intervention ultimately had the effect of dispersing the then ensconced militants, making them more fluid across regional nation-state borders, even while they are not yet considered a threat to the global order like their equivalents in Yemen. Militant violence quickly seeped into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, which, like Mali in 2012, have sparsely populated, under-governed spaces that had been neglected for decades by their respective central governments. The militant movements are now more difficult to pursue, as their action space has greatly metastasized since 2013. Though the French-led intervention restored the territorial integrity of Mali, it can be argued that the wider Sahel has become less stable in the ensuing years.

 

Operation Barkhane
A soldier bearing the insignia of Operation Barkhane on patrol in Mali on November 1, 2017. (Daphné Benoit/AFP)

 

The French troop presence in the Sahel fluctuates between 4,500 and 5,000, under the rubric of Operation Barkhane, established in August 2014. Barkhane is the current counter-terror initiative that succeeded Operation Serval and inherited the infrastructure of Operation Épervier, and is chiefly staged out of N’Djamena, the Chadian capital.

Concomitantly, in 2014, the G5 Sahel was formed in the Mauritanian capital during a summit of five Sahel countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The goal was to enhance cross-border security cooperation among these countries, all grappling with the threat posed by transnational terrorism as well as deeply entrenched criminal networks involved in human and drug trafficking. The G5 Sahel Joint Force, launched in 2017, is meant to include about 5,000 soldiers, cooperating with both Operation Barkhane and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali—known in security parlance by its French acronym MINUSMA—to secure the Sahel.

 

Salafi Schisms

The contested realm of jihad in North and West Africa is a densely convoluted one. Fighters defect from one outfit to another, leaders shame each other for being too extreme or insufficiently hardline in the face of the enemy, and oaths are pledged to faraway central leaderships in the Levant or South Asia. JNIM, the al-Qaeda wing of the region’s Salafi-jihadi fighters, has effectively capitalized on historical discontent dating to well before independence, as it has made dislodging the “crusader” French presence its most vociferous goal. While a French departure on JNIM’s terms may seem preposterous, it demonstrates that the al-Qaeda-aligned fighters are being pragmatic in their approach, at least in terms of their statements, though its attacks have not abated. The fact that JNIM is demanding the French leave Mali specifically seems to indicate that its leadership recognizes the undeniable reality of modern Mali as a nation-state. In stark contrast, IS holds the worldview that erasing borders drawn in the colonial era is one of its core tenets in order to “remain and expand.” Therefore, it views JNIM’s position as an unacceptable capitulation that deviates from Salafi ideology to the detriment of the ummah, the global Muslim community it claims to represent, while seeking to purify the faith by violent means.

The presence of foreign armies, including the regional contingents of the G5 militaries that operate in tandem with the French and MINUSMA, acts as a magnet for militant attacks. These vulnerable bases populate a more target-rich environment for marauding groups. Despite backing by Paris, its partners in Berlin, and the EU more broadly, the G5 is woefully underfunded to combat the numerous militant groups in theater. State fragility is on the rise in many rural regions where JNIM and IS currently compete.

 

That they can attack local and foreign militaries while mustering the manpower to simultaneously fight one another shows how permissive the war fighting environment has become

 

The recent clashes between JNIM and IS groups there emphasize this point. The internecine violence between competing Salafi-jihadis is a symptom of this increased destabilization. That they can attack local and foreign militaries while mustering the manpower to simultaneously fight one another shows how permissive the war fighting environment has become. The core focus of France, its G5 partners, and the United States in the jihadi cauldron the Sahel has become has been primarily manifested through a hard security paradigm. What this counter-terror model lacks is an equally robust component for bolstering local governance and addressing serious humanitarian concerns like food security for populations affected by the spread of violence, not to mention the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While not often making front-page headlines in the Western Anglophone press, Mali is now home to the fifth-deadliest military intervention in the history of UN peacekeeping efforts since the first mission in 1948. MINUSMA has lost some 209 Blue Helmets to insurgent violence out of a force ranging between 11,000 and 12,000 members. The regional militaries comprising the G5 coalition have also sustained heavy losses from both local al-Qaeda and IS groups successfully staging mass casualty attacks on their bases and remote outposts.

 

Al-Qaeda-aligned and IS fighters are competing over interpretations of radical Sunni jurisprudence and territory as well as recruits 

 

While these intensely violent hardline groups were ostensibly established to dismantle the secular post-colonial order that exists between the Sahara and Equatorial Africa, it has become evident that they have turned their Soviet-engineered weaponry on one another in a clash over legitimacy as viewed through the Salafi prism. Both groups see this kind of legitimacy as crucial to achieving primacy on the ideological battlefield. Al-Qaeda-aligned militants and IS fighters are competing over interpretations of radical Sunni jurisprudence and territory as well as recruits. Salafism at the point of a gun has made deep inroads in Mali and its neighbors by exploiting local grievances regarding the endemic corruption of the post-colonial state’s power structure and its ties to Françafrique legacy policies.

 

Ag Ghaly
A still image made on June 25, 2016, from a video released by Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of the Islamist group Ansar Eddine, showing him making threats against France and the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Mali. (AFP)

 

JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former ethnic-Tuareg secessionist leader and one-time Malian diplomat in Riyadh turned violent Islamist. The formation of JNIM was declared in March 2017 by four al-Qaeda-aligned constituent groups: the Saharan branch of AQIM; Ansar Eddine, of which Ag Ghaly is the chief; al-Mourabitoun; and the lesser-known Katibat Macina, led by Amadou Kouffa, a staunch ally of Ag Ghaly.

JNIM portrays itself as a primarily indigenous movement with more localized aims, such as evicting French troops from Mali and the wider region, while it is theoretically willing to negotiate with the secular government in Bamako. The regional IS affiliate abhors this stance as betraying more globalized Salafi-jihadi principles, and would rather destroy state institutions than cooperate with them under any circumstances. JNIM draws ideologically from a more timeworn jihadi narrative of ending military occupation by non-Muslim military forces or secular state militaries such as those taking part in Operation Barkhane and the G5 Joint Force. JNIM is Salafi-jihadi with very a localized agenda and characteristics. 

 

Jihadi Geography

In the wider Sahel, IS has two groups operating, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). It remains not entirely clear whether ISWAP and ISGS are operationally distinct outfits, have an occasional degree of overlap, or are in fact one and the same by mid-2020. ISGS stems from Saharan radical roots more broadly and Algerian militancy more specifically, whereas ISWAP has Nigerian origins with a Sahelian focus in terms of its area of operations. ISGS’s primary focus has been the tri-border area where Niger’s Tillaberi region, Mali’s Menaka region (formerly part of Gao region), and Burkina Faso’s Sahel region roughly intersect.

ISWAP is an outgrowth of the fissured Nigerian movement Jamaat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Dawah wa’l Jihad, almost always referred to by the informal name Boko Haram, a Hausa and Arabic term meaning “Western education is impermissible.” ISWAP, the IS-ordained faction of Boko Haram reportedly led by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi, is most active in the greater Lake Chad Basin area. This is where Nigeria’s Borno state, Cameroon’s Extreme North region, Niger’s Diffa region, and Chad’s Lac and Hadjer-Lamis regions intersect to form a zone of deadly militancy irrespective of nation-state boundaries. It may be that ISWAP, as a dedicated wilaya (province) ordained by IS’s central command in the Levant, has absorbed ISGS at least in terms of branding, which, while being an affiliated group, is or was not a designated wilaya likely owing to its past lesser importance in the global IS hierarchy. 

 

Though the schism between al-Qaeda and IS fighters is rooted in ideology informed by their own official narratives, clashes among egos carved out this violent chasm

 

The opaque relationship between ISWAP and ISGS remains open to analytic interpretation for the time being. ISGS is led by Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui. Sahraoui’s militant origins, like his Tuareg rival Ag Ghaly’s, lay not in a doctrinal Salafi movement but in a secular ethno-nationalist one. Though he began with the POLISARIO Front, an avowedly secular Algerian-supported national liberation movement in Western Sahara, Sahraoui fell into Islamism and quickly rose up through various al-Qaeda-aligned groups in Mali before defecting and swearing allegiance to IS in 2015. With the infighting among Salafi-jihadis in the Sahel, it must be remembered that among the leadership, these men were each other’s confidants not long ago. Though the schism between al-Qaeda and IS fighters is rooted in ideology informed by their own official narratives, clashes among egos carved out this violent chasm.

Since the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria’s Idlib governorate in October 2019, IS’s central command seems to be in a succession crisis, at least in terms of its public face as to who the purported caliph is or shall be. This may indicate that the geographically non-contiguous wilayas are more independent without a unifying figure like al-Baghdadi—whom ISGS’s Sahraoui pledged an oath to—to act as a centripetal force among adherents. Therefore, while ISWAP will still appear properly branded via IS’s highly centralized al-Naba publication and Aimaq News Agency, its local attack tempo and current feud with JNIM seem to be occupying its energy. By contrast, JNIM has its own regional media outlet, al-Zallaqa, which details its local agenda as tending to be far more decentralized in nature, with its far-flung regional groups operating with a much higher degree of autonomy than its IS competitors.

 

Droukdel
An undated photo of Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who was killed on June 3, 2020, in Mali. (Al-Andalus/AFP)

 

Meanwhile, on June 5, 2020, the French Minister of Defense Florence Parly announced that French special forces assassinated Abdelmalek Droukdel, the elusive Algerian-born leader of AQIM, in the hamlet of Talhandak in northern Mali’s Kidal region on June 3. At the time of this writing, JNIM’s al-Zallaqa has yet to confirm or deny Droukdel’s death.

A veteran of the Algerian Civil War, the AQIM commander was considered to be an al-Qaeda purist in ideological terms while also playing a key role in the southerly expansion of Salafi-jihad from Algeria into Mali and other parts of the Sahel. His death, if indeed a reality, may call into question JNIM’s current feud with ISGS and its position on negotiating with the Malian government. The reported killing of Droukdel may send shockwaves through the landscape of jihad from North to West Africa. Although Iyad Ag Ghaly is the public face of JNIM’s leadership, Droukdel was still considered a crucial link to al-Qaeda’s inner circle despite maintaining a more behind-the-scenes role after the declaration of JNIM. Now it would appear that Ag Ghaly, notably a non-Arab, is al-Qaeda’s premier representative in the region. The sudden elimination of Droukdel further emphasizes France’s prioritization of hard security measures in the Sahel rather than a sustainable hearts-and-minds strategy. Droukdel’s demise after decades of jihad may also signify that militancy in West Africa may be coming more indigenous in nature rather than an import from northern Algeria. 

 

Conclusion

In this benighted environment of shifting militant alliances, it can be challenging to keep track of the outright hostility between militant groups and the alleged cooperation between them. What is certain is that the fighting between JNIM and IS is sure to further destabilize this already troubled region, which is bursting with potential and hampered by a cross-border cat-and-mouse counter-terror campaign that has achieved mixed results at best. Beyond the French-assisted restoration of central authority over Mali’s northern regions in 2013, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad are arguably worse off in terms of security than when the French military descended on Timbuktu more than seven years ago. As the world witnessed in the Grand Bassam resort attack in Côte d’Ivoire four years ago, extraordinarily violent Salafism has already well migrated from the shores of the southern Mediterranean to the West African littoral. 

 

Derek Henry Flood is a security correspondent focusing on transnational terrorism and geopolitical fault lines. Twitter: @DerekHenryFlood

 

In this undated handout file photo released by Al-Andalus on May 23, 2012 shows Abdelmalek Droukdel, aka Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with his fighters in Azawad, an unrecognized state in northern Mali. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) chief Abdelmalek Droukdel was killed on June 5, 2020 in Mali. Al-Andalus / AFP
An undated photo of Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, who was killed on June 3, 2020, in Mali. (Al-Andalus/AFP).

French soldiers killed the leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, and several of his associates in northern Mali on Thursday, June 3, revealed French defense minister Florence Parly.

France has more than 5,000 troops in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgent mission that cooperates with local armies under the umbrella of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) provided intelligence about Droukdel’s location.

AQIM is a Salafi-jihadist organization active in North Africa and the Sahel. It was founded in 1998 as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (known by the French acronym GSCP), after it splintered from the Armed Islamic Group, a key participant in the Algerian Civil War. It was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in January 2007 after it became an affiliate of Al-Qaida.

 

It is one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world

 

AQIM, and previously as GSPC, is notorious for kidnapping Westerners for ransom in North Africa. The American Center for International Security and Cooperation says it is one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world.

AQIM also leads Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), a militant alliance of various jihadist groups that has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against Malian defense and security forces.

 

A Veteran of the Algerian Civil War

Droukdel, a.k.a. Abou Mossaab Abdelouadoud, was born in Blida, Algeria, in 1970. He was a postgraduate engineering student when the civil war broke out in 1992; he gave up his studies and became joined the Islamist insurgency against the Algerian government. In 2004, he succeeded Nabil Sharaioui as the leader, or emir, of GSCP/AQIM, and steered it to a closer alliance with al-Qaida.

 

 

 

Africom_russian_jet
AFRICOM shared satellite photos of Russian fighter aircraft that had arrived in Libya from an air base in Russia via Syria. (Photo from Twitter: @USAfricaCommand)

The US Army Africa Command (AFRICOM) released a press statement on May 26 saying Russia recently deployed military aircraft to Libya to support private military contractors there fighting on the side of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

 

They had been flown from Russia to Syria, where they were repainted to camouflage their origin

 

In a series of tweets, the US military said fourteen fighter planes had been delivered to Al-Jufra Air Base in central Libya, including MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter aircraft. They had been flown from Russia to Syria, where they were repainted to camouflage their origin, before flying to Libya.

Included in the statement were a series of satellite images allegedly showing Russian aircraft taxied at the Syrian base in question before flying to Libya. American foreign policy analysts have speculated that this rare public statement from AFRICOM is an effort by the Pentagon to cajole the Trump administration to take a more assertive role in the Libyan conflict, one that Donald Trump has largely tried to avoid.

The announcement comes right before Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov spoke with Aguila Saleh Issa, speaker for the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and a close ally of Haftar, indicating the Russian government’s support for an immediate ceasefire.

 

gna libya
Muhammad Qanunu (center), military spokesperson for Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), addresses the media in front of a Russian-made Pantsir S-1 air defense system on a truck after it was seized from forces loyal to Libya’s eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar.

Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), recognized by the United Nations and based in Tripoli, reported that hundreds of Russian mercenaries had been evacuated from combat zones south of the city. The news comes not long after a particularly devastating set of defeats for the Libyan National Army (LNA), under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who lost the strategically important al-Watiya Air Base to GNA forces on Monday, May 18.

 

Russian support for Haftar played a key role in the LNA’s advance towards Tripoli

 

Images quickly started circulating on social media of GNA forces basking in their victory, parading a captured Russian-made Pantsir-S1 air defense system and other seized equipment. Russian support for Haftar, which delivered anti-air equipment and munitions alongside a couple of hundred private military contractors, played a key role in the LNA’s steady advance towards Tripoli since the launch of the offensive to capture the capital in April 2019.

 

Balancing Act 

Moscow has denied any role in the presence of Russian fighters in Libya, but the fact is that a collapse of the GNA and a prolonging of the conflict would help Russia check Turkey’s power in the Mediterranean. Turkey formally backs the GNA along with Qatar, whereas Russia and the United Arab Emirates support Haftar. The United States, which prioritizes the fight against terrorism, has been vague about its support of either Haftar or the GNA.

 

 

DRC army
Soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) confront members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Opira, North Kivu.

On Sunday, May 24, at least seven villagers were killed in their homes and others were reportedly kidnapped in the DRC’s North Kivu province in an attack attributed to the Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).

Members of the ADF settled in the forests along the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern border following their expulsion by Ugandan forces in the mid-1990s. They were tolerated by the locals until about six years ago, when they began to attack civilians and raze villages. They frequently target military bases in order to steal weapons and ammunition before retreating into the forest, where local farming operations help them stay active despite no known source of formal funding.

 

Secretive Jihadist Group

This latest attack casts further doubt on the efficacy of a Congolese military operation launched in October 2019 to dislodge the ADF from the Beni region in North Kivu province. The DRC’s armed forces, FARDC, did succeed in pushing rebels out of their stronghold while also establishing a permanent presence in the region, yet ADF fighters have continued to attack civilians, killing an estimated 1,000 people in four months after the start of the operation.

Of the numerous armed groups operating in this region of the DRC, the ADF has remained one of the most elusive and least understood players in the region. Though initially formed to remove Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni from power and largely led by Ugandans, the ADF has spent most of its existence in the DRC, embedding itself in local power structures to encourage recruitment. Propaganda from the group suggests it is trying to establish ties with international jihadist groups such as Islamic State with the intent of creating a local caliphate.

 

 

Smoke fumes rise above buildings in the Libyan capital Tripoli, during reported shelling by strongman Khalifa Haftar's forces, on May 9, 2020
Plumes of smoke rise above buildings in the Libyan capital Tripoli after reported shelling by Khalifa Haftar’s forces on May 9, 2020.

 

The dislodging of fighters loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar from al-Watiya Air Base west of Tripoli suggests a reversal of fortune for the would-be leader of Libya, who began his offensive against the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in April 2019. This latest military setback follows the ousting of Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) from the coastal towns of Sabratha and Sorman in mid-April, both located about 70 kilometers from the seat of the GNA.

Taken together, these victories reveal how vital Turkey’s military assistance has been to the GNA, which includes anti-aerial defenses and Anka-S offensive drones that have stripped away Haftar’s air superiority.

Until recently, the LNA’s steady advance towards Tripoli, including the capture of the strategically important petroleum port of Sirte, seemed to suggest an inevitable victory for Haftar and the competing government of the House of Representatives, based in the eastern city of Tobruk. Haftar attempted to declare a unilateral ceasefire for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan following these defeats in late April, which was rejected by the GNA, claiming they could not trust Haftar’s promises due to prior truce violations.

 

Foreign Players

The crisis in Libya has drawn in a number of international players supporting either side of the conflict, in violation of an arms embargo signed in Berlin in mid-January.

 

Lockdown

Making matters worse, the presence of COVID-19 has forced the war-devastated country into lockdown, which, combined with ongoing offensives, has disrupted access to medical services and placed more than 250,000 children at risk of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio and measles.

 

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