The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy stated, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” This is a significant change for U.S. global security policy but probably has limited meaning for Africa. The National Defense Strategy goes on to say that in the case of Africa, the United States “will bolster existing bilateral and multilateral partnerships and develop new relationships to address significant terrorist threats that threaten U.S. interests and contribute to challenges in Europe and the Middle East.” The United States will work with local partners and the European Union to degrade terrorists, build capacity to counter violent extremism, and limit the malign influence of non-African powers. The latter may be a reference to China and Russia. My main point is that in the case of Africa counterterrorism remains one of Washington’s main concerns, if not the major one.
The US Department of Defence recently accused China of using non-lethal weapons to interfere with the US military planes in Djibouti while Americans pilots suffered minor injuries caused by the Chinese lasers as the Pentagon argues, although Beijing denied the Pentagon’s claim. The American and Chinese forces in Djibouti are close to each other and there are military tensions between the two countries in the South China Sea. If these incidences occur again, as Washington eyes Beijing as a strategic competitor, how do you think retaliation from the US would affect the stability of the region?
There does not seem to be any doubt, as stated by a Pentagon spokesperson, that high-grade lasers have been used against American pilots in Djibouti. The spokesperson said the Pentagon was confident that Chinese nationals were responsible. A spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry denied any Chinese involvement in the laser attacks. There is an element of doubt as to the source of the attacks. If China is, in fact, behind the attacks it will significantly worsen the relationship between the United States and China in the region and make it much more difficult to find areas of cooperation. I doubt, however, that it would have any significant impact on wider regional stability.
Since the Saudi led coalition attacked Yemen in 2015, the Horn of Africa is experiencing a new era of militarization by both major and regional powers. Some of these powers have their own suspicions about each other like the US and China, the UAE and Turkey and so on. In addition, the GCC crisis had an impact on the Horn of Africa, as the Saudi led coalition and Qatar both sent delegations to the region to seek support and expand their sphere of influence. So how would that affect the fragile security in the Horn of Africa in the long-term?
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Iran have been seeking support from all of the countries in East Africa and the Horn of Africa for their political and security agendas in the Arabian Gulf. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have urged African states to break relations with Iran and offered financial incentives from military access to Assab port in Eritrea and apparently in Djibouti to support their war in Yemen. Sudan sent troops to South Yemen in support of the UAE, which is also actively engaged in Berbera, Somaliland. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are pressuring African states to isolate Qatar diplomatically. While certain African governments (or leaders) are being handsomely reimbursed for their support, these actions are complicating interstate relationships in East Africa and the Horn and even influencing internal politics in the case of Somalia. These developments are not in the long-term interest of stability in East Africa and the Horn.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) emerged as one of the most important projects that are currently ongoing in the Horn of Africa that will improve the region economically, by providing energy that is necessary for economic growth. Since the project started, Egypt was concerned about the development of the dam due to its worry that when the dam operates, Egypt will lose its lion share in the usage of Nile water, and used strong rhetoric to express its own anxiety towards the project. Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan are currently under dialogue to address the Egyptian concern. If the three countries fail to reach an agreement about the issue, would the United States play a mediatory role, since both Egypt and Ethiopia are important US partners in Africa and a conflict between Addis Ababa and Cairo is not in the interest of the United States?
I am optimistic that Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt will reach an agreement on the use of Nile water. Egypt’s primary concern, a legitimate one, is the rate at which Ethiopia fills the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. While it is being filled, there will be a reduction in the amount of water reaching Egypt. Once the dam is filled, the water will continue to flow at about the same rate as in the past, allowing for the impact of evaporation of water in the reservoir behind the GERD. The dam will even serve a useful downstream purpose by ameliorating flooding, especially in Sudan, during the rainy season.
If I am wrong and the parties do not resolve this situation amicably, there is a possibility the United States would offer to mediate, although it would not necessarily be the first choice of all the parties. It is certainly in the interest of the United States to avoid a new conflict involving the three states.
Last year, the United States ended more than two decades of embargos against Sudan after a dialogue between the two countries that addressed the US concerns on human rights in Darfur and terrorism, but there are still sanctions against Khartoum in the US. For instance, Sudan remains in the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The Washington Post reported that beyond the Darfur and counter terrorism cooperation between the two countries, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East pushed Washington to consider lifting sanctions. While Israel and Saudi Arabia are trying to contain Iran’s influence in the region, easing up sanctions against Khartoum will lead Sudan to break up its relations with Iran, although they broke relations with Tehran before the sanctions were lifted. To what extent do you think this geopolitical factor influenced the US decision and would it normalize relations between the US and Sudan in the future? On the other hand, how do you think Al Bashir’s recent invitation of Russia to establish a military base on the Red Sea will affect the rapprochement between Washington and Khartoum?
Sudan broke relations with Iran in January 2016. President Obama at the end of his administration partially lifted sanctions on Sudan in January 2017. I doubt that Sudan’s decision to break relations with Iran in January 2016 had a significant impact on Obama’s decision to partially lift sanctions in January 2017. The Trump administration reaffirmed the decision of the Obama administration. However, because Sudan remains on the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism, many sanctions remain in place. Sudan’s continuing cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism, its role as a positive force for regional stability, and improving its human rights practices will determine whether the United States fully normalizes relations with Sudan.President Omar al-Bashir’s offer to Russia in 2017 to establish a military base in the Red Sea has so far not materialized and it is not likely to happen in the immediate future. Russia is preoccupied in Syria; a base in the Red Sea would not aid its situation in Syria. Russia has supplied weapons to Sudan over many years and would like to continue those sales so long as Sudan can pay for them. Al-Bashir also stated recently that Sudan and Russia have agreed on a joint military program for improving the Sudanese national army. Relations between the two countries are good but complicated by Russia’s desire, at the same time, to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Turkey, all of which have interests in the Red Sea. The United States would have concerns about a future Russian base in Sudan, but of course, the United States, France, China, and Japan all have bases further south in Djibouti.