What Does China Want in Ethiopia?

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: Zimbabwe lobbies to rejoin the Commonwealth, Mali’s military passes a law allowing its members to run for office, and Ethiopia faces calls for an independent investigation after the massacre in Oromia region.

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China Steps Up Diplomacy in Horn of Africa

As the United States and European countries turn their attention to Russia and Ukraine, China has stepped up its conflict mediation efforts in East Africa.

The China-Horn of Africa Peace, Good Governance, and Development Conference—held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last week—indicates a slow but significant shift away from Beijing’s historic stated policy of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs. As the United States vacates or loses influence in certain regions, China appears to be assuming a role it would otherwise have avoided to protect its economic ventures.

Protecting Beijing’s investments. Ethiopia could be considered a flagship for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with around $16 billion in investments between 2000 and 2020 and currently around 400 Chinese construction and manufacturing projects. China also has an oil monopoly in Sudan and South Sudan. China’s only military base on the continent is in Djibouti, which it has operated since 2017.

“I myself am ready to provide mediation efforts for the peaceful settlement of disputes based on the will of countries in this region,” Xue Bing, China’s first special envoy to the Horn of Africa, told an audience of the region’s foreign ministers and deputies at the conference. Although the prospect of Chinese military deployment is unlikely in the Horn of Africa, China will attempt to bring leaders to the negotiating table.

The region is facing not only a security crisis but food shortages caused by one of the worst droughts in four decades. A record 15 million Sudanese—one-third of the population—are currently facing acute food insecurity, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) recently warned. In South Sudan, around 2 million people are internally displaced and 2.3 million people are living as refugees. But as countries divert budgets to aid Ukraine, the WFP said it was suspending assistance to some 1.7 million people in South Sudan due to drastic cuts to funding from global donors.

Compounding the situation are internal rifts. On Tuesday, Sudan’s military recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia, a day after accusing the Ethiopian army of executing and putting on display the bodies of seven Sudanese soldiers and a civilian held as captives. A long-running border dispute has resurfaced in the al-Fashqa triangle as well as tensions over Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile river.

Washington’s fading influence. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has seen two Horn of Africa envoys leave after very short tenures. David Satterfield left his position in April after only three months on the job. And the administration’s first Horn envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, left in January after less than a year. In turn, Ethiopia—which has faced harsh sanctions from the United States over the conflict in Tigray—no longer sees Washington as a neutral mediator.

The Chinese envoy in his speech referenced “complicated and intertwined ethnicity, religion and boundary issues” in the region and noted they can be “difficult to handle, as many of them date back to colonial times.” It is of mutual interest to Beijing and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to put the country on a path toward peace without Washington’s involvement.

China provided $1.2 billion in funding toward the construction of the GERD. Moreover, China tends to support political dialogue without imposing outcomes and prefers soft diplomacy to sanctions, which plays to Ethiopia’s interests.

A theme of the Abiy administration’s pushback against human rights criticism has been accusations of political manipulation by the U.S. government and the right of Ethiopia to resolve its dispute without interference. Redwan Hussein, Ethiopia’s national security advisor, told the conference that Addis Ababa was ready to play a part in peaceful negotiations.

“Let us take our own share of responsibility for the failure [of regional peace] and commit ourselves to take the destiny of our region into our hands,” he said, noting an interest in avoiding “external interference.”

Yet China’s ambitions to be friends with all parties could ultimately be its downfall. Despite promises made to back talks that would reach a mutually beneficial outcome for Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the GERD, there has been no resolution. It is not clear that Beijing will have greater success when it comes to Ethiopia’s internal conflicts.

Wednesday, June 29: The United Nations Security Council meets to discuss its mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Wednesday, June 29, to Friday, July 1: The African Union’s Annual Small and Medium Enterprises Forum continues in Cairo.

Thursday, June 30: OPEC and non-OPEC nations hold a meeting virtually.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo celebrates its independence from Belgium in 1960.

Monday, July 4: Rwanda commemorates when the Rwandan Patriotic Front took control of the capital, Kigali, in 1994.

Saturday, July 9: South Sudan celebrates its 11th anniversary of becoming an independent state.

Sunday, July 10: Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in the Republic of Congo.

What is the Commonwealth for? Zimbabwe is reportedly lobbying to rejoin the Commonwealth after it was suspended in 2002 over allegations of human rights abuses. It comes as Togo and Gabon, former French colonies, officially joined the group on Saturday and Rwandan President Paul Kagame took over as head, sparking fresh criticism that the group has become a race to the bottom on democratic values. (Togo and Gabon have each been governed by one family since the 1960s, and Kagame’s government has been accused of war crimes.)

Historically, Commonwealth nations were former British colonies but others, such as Rwanda, have since opted to join largely because of trade agreements, though those benefits are limited. The group now encompasses 56 nations, representing about 2.5 billion people. Although this year’s meetings in Kigali generated a huge amount of coverage from the British media, a more muted response from newspapers across Africa is telling of the Commonwealth’s lack of relevance among the African public.

Paradoxically, the United Kingdom, having lost political influence across its former colonies, is perhaps why the Commonwealth still thrives. As author Charles Onyango-Obbo argues in the East African, “With Britain a minor power, there will be less nationalist resentment toward the Commonwealth.”

A farmer carries a bale of wheat during the harvest in the village of Bamha, Egypt, on May 17.

A farmer carries a bale of wheat during the harvest in the village of Bamha, Egypt, on May 17.KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

Egyptian wheat reserves. Egypt has sufficient strategic reserves of wheat to last nearly six months, the country’s supply minister, Aly Moselhy, said in a news briefing on Sunday—adding that the country had procured 3.9 million tons of wheat in the local harvest. It comes on top of a 180,000 ton purchase from India following Cairo’s request to be exempt from India’s export ban.

One idea being tested, according to the Egyptian government, is the use of potatoes in bread-making to reduce dependency on imports. The country had previously purchased most of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

Mali transition. Mali’s military junta paved the way for possible elections by signing a law on Friday that would allow its members to run for office in future elections, scheduled for 2024. The law replaces a three-party system with a single election management body.

However, observers have voiced concerns that the military being able to run in the election raises doubts about how democratic the process will be. The Economic Community of West African States has been pushing Malian authorities to agree to a 16-month transition period.

Massacre in Ethiopia. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a rebel group, has called for an independent probe into mass killings in the west of the country. The OLA said Abiy’s government could not be trusted to carry out an impartial investigation.

But the federal government, residents, and regional authorities have blamed the OLA for the massacre on June 18, during which hundreds of people, mostly ethnic Amharas, were killed by gunmen in the village of Tole, in the country’s Oromia region.

The OLA denies the allegations, claiming the group is being framed “to justify the regime’s refusal to consider peaceful resolution.” Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has urged Ethiopian authorities to hold “prompt, impartial, and thorough” investigations into the attacks.

Observers say this latest attack, coming as the president announced the establishment of a committee to handle peace negotiations with Tigrayan rebels, demonstrates the immense challenge that Abiy, who is from Oromia, faces in his attempt to centralize administration in the country. 

Nigeria finds lithium. This month, the head of Nigeria’s Geological Survey Agency, Abdulrazaq Garba, said high-grade lithium had been discovered in the country close to the capital, Abuja, attracting potential investors. “Nigeria’s lithium is a hot cake now,” Garba said at a news briefing. The country’s federal government has invested $50 million to explore gold, lithium, and several other metals to diversify away from oil.

Lithium is a highly valuable mineral essential to the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptop computers, digital cameras, and electric cars. Three countries—Australia, Chile, and China—currently mine about 86 percent of the world’s supply.

UAE to build Sudan port. The United Arab Emirates will build a new Red Sea port about 120 miles north of Port Sudan as part of a $6 billion investment. The project, according to a Reuters report, includes the $4 billion port as a joint venture between Sudanese conglomerate DAL Group and Abu Dhabi Ports, owned by Abu Dhabi’s holding company, ADQ.

It would also involve a free trade zone, a small international airport, and a $300 million deposit to Sudan’s central bank, which would be the first such credit since the country’s military coup in October 2021 and the suspension of aid by the United States and World Bank.

Young Africans across 15 nations view China as having the most positive influence in their countries, but U.S. political figures are perceived as driving changes that will have considerable impacts—whether positive or negative—according to one survey, released last week.

Big Tech silence. Writer Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu discusses in Protocol why tech giants based in Ghana have failed to push back against a proposed law that would further criminalize LGBTQ+ activities in the country. Twitter and Google were courted by the president and have established offices in the capital, Accra, as they look to expand into West Africa—all of which suggests the companies have some influence if they care to wield it. “LGBTQ+ advocates in Ghana are calling on those companies to use their global clout to kill the bill. Their calls are being met with silence,” Asiedu writes.

Young politics. In Africa Is a Country, writer William Shoki argues the current obsession among politicians for young people to “shake up” South Africa is a bad way to do politics. “Rather than fantasizing about the potential for young people to change this country, we have to change this country for young people,” Shoki writes.

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