Africa Blog Roundup: Malawi’s Near-Coup, Attacks at BUK, Somali Piracy and the EU, Mauritania, and More

The Economist‘s Baobab on Malawi:

FOREIGN leaders and commentators have been busy congratulating Joyce Banda, Malawi’s first female president, on the smooth transition of power in one of the world’s poorest countries following the sudden death of its late president, Bingu wa Mutharika, on April 5th. But for more than 48 hours after he died, Malawi teetered on the brink of a coup as members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) plotted to prevent Mrs Banda, the vice-president, from taking over and to thrust the late president’s elder brother, Peter, into power in her stead.

Carmen McCain reacts to Boko Haram’s attack last week at Bayero University Kano in Nigeria.

Jim Sanders writes about foreign investment in Southern Nigeria, which has apparently increased despite the violence connected with Boko Haram.

Dibussi Tande discusses the recent acquittal of Atangana Mebara, former Secretary-General at the Presidency of Cameroon, of charges of embezzlement.

Amb. David Shinn flags a critique of the European Union’s approach to piracy off the coast of Somalia.

The Moor Next Door rounds up recent articles and reports on Islamic affairs and movements in Mauritania.

Dr. G. Pascal Zachary on the New York Times‘ “disquieting pattern of presenting dead Africans on the front page of its great newspaper, while refusing to present dead Americans in the same fashion.”

And last but not least, Lesley Anne Warner asks, “Do we understand perceptions of U.S. military involvement in Africa?” The words of Blake Hounshell ring true: “Secret tip: The answer to headlines posed as questions is almost always no.” But do read the piece.

What has caught your eye today?

Focus on Sahelian Food Shortages

The Sahel gets a lot of attention for its security issues, but droughts and food shortages loom much larger in the lives of ordinary people than terrorism does. On Friday the European Commission boosted its food aid to the region by 10 million euros. This announcement calls attention to the scale of the problem:

Seven million people are already facing shortages in Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, with major shortfalls in food production in many areas. The figures point to a massive problem of food availability next year.

[...]

The poor 2011/2012 agro-pastoral season in the Sahel, with erratic rainfall followed by localized dry spells, is causing massive concern. Increased world market prices for rice will also have a negative impact on rice import levels and on prices in West Africa. As a consequence many of the poorest households will be unable to access adequate food and will fall rapidly into crisis…Niger and Mauritania have already declared a crisis, prepared national action plans and appealed for international assistance.

The UN gives more detail on the situation in Niger:

The majority of villages in impoverished Niger are now considered to be in a food and nutritional crisis, the United Nations humanitarian wing warned today, with the country facing especially tough times as the annual harvest season ends.

According to a joint UN-Nigerien communiqué, some 6,981 villages are deemed to be vulnerable to food insecurity, with particular concerns over the levels of infant and maternal malnutrition.

[...]

In the communiqué, issued last week, the UN and Niger say the landlocked nation has ended its harvest season with a deficit of more than 500,000 tons of cereals and at least 10 million tons of fodder for livestock.

As external donors sound alarms and increase aid, some national governments are taking steps to address the crisis before it escalates. For example, “The Burkina Faso government is attempting for the first time to implement a nationwide dry-season agricultural campaign to counteract possible food insecurity in areas that received poor or erratic rainfall this year.” Niger’s government, in contrast to the denials of famine that ousted President Mamadou Tandja made in 2005, is now “work[ing] with its humanitarian partners to establish an early response plan to try to alleviate the situation.”

Short-term measures like these could save thousands of lives, and it seems cooperation between governments and aid agencies is increasing over time. But the problem of food shortages in the region – like the problem of drought and famine in the Horn of Africa – will require long-term solutions also if the cycle of hunger is to be broken.

Africa Blog Roundup: Cote d’Ivoire, Nigerian Elections, China in Africa, the EU and South Sudan, and More

Mike McGovern has some questions about the international community’s actions in Cote d’Ivoire:

Have outside actors helped or harmed this long-simmering, low-level conflict? At first, West African states, the African Union, the European Union, and the United Nations spoke with one voice, insisting that Ouattara had won the election and that a power-sharing agreement (of the kind that has failed miserably in Kenya and Zimbabwe) was not an option. Such unanimity countered Gbagbo’s strategy of playing for time, hoping that African-European or inter-African schisms would provide him with some sort of mitigated legitimacy. Economic moves by the eight West African states that share the CFA currency to cut off the Gbagbo government’s access to banking channels was innovative and undercut Gbagbo’s ability to pay the salaries of civil servants and soldiers.

Yet as the endgame neared, many members of the international community acted in ways that were dangerously counterproductive. For example, when Gbagbo was hiding and refusing to give up power, one can think of few statements more unhelpful than the declaration by Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, that no one in Côte d’Ivoire could receive amnesty from war crimes prosecution. With one sentence, Moreno-Ocampo ensured that Gbagbo would reject any negotiated solution and instead fight to the end.

(h/t Chris Blattman)

Texas in Africa excerpts a report on the role of “magic” in Cote d’Ivoire’s civil war and thinks through some issues related to “magic and war” in Africa:

What I’m explicitly trying to avoid in this research is the passing of value judgments vis-a-vis the question of scientific rationality vs. belief in supernatural forces. Because I honestly don’t think that what is real is what actually matters here. It’s all about perception. It doesn’t matter whether a stone with a bunch of cursed red cloths inside really affects whatever will happen to Monsieur Gbagbo, whose days seem numbered by any standard. What might matter, however, is whether all or some of Ouattara’s troops believe that taking out that stone is key to their victory. It could affect how they fight, their strategy, and what they are willing to sacrifice at the negotiating table.

Baobab explores “Abidjan after Gbagbo.”

Carmen McCain writes about Nigeria’s NN24, class issues, and the impact of new media on the elections. You can check the Nigeria Elections Coalition for the latest results from last week’s legislative vote and yesterday’s presidential election.

Africa Is A Country previews the exhibit “Africa Dream – Chinese in Africa” by Chinese photographer Wang Zhe.

Rachel Flynn asks, “How Should the EU Engage with a New African Nation in Sudan?”

John Campbell looks at issues of justice and accountability in East Africa.

What are you reading today?

The EU Courts AU Support for Libya Operations

Uganda’s Daily Monitor reports:

The European Union will provide 265,000 euros (Shs840 million) in urgent funding to the African Union High-level ad hoc committee to Libya.

[...]

The AU mission consisting of the heads of state from Uganda, South Africa, Mali, Mauritania and Congo was delayed last weekend after a UN Security Council resolution imposed a no-fly zone over the war-torn country.

The EU and AU positions have clashed over whether the military action in Libya is warranted – the EU gave the measure early support, while the AU has flatly objected to foreign military intervention.

[...]

The AU has not yet set another date for its mission to Libya, but will be meeting with the UN, EU, Arab League and Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Addis Ababa tomorrow.

Cynics have explained the AU’s negative reaction to the no fly zone in Libya as motivated partly by Qadhafi’s significant and sustained financial backing of the AU. With the EU engaging the AU financially and diplomatically, it appears that European powers are looking to win some AU support for the operations in Libya – and to start shaping a new political calculus in (a post-Qadhafi?) Africa.

Saturday Links: Niger Coup Attempt, Guinea Clashes, Mubarak to Run Again, Etc.

Niger: The military junta confirms rumors of a coup plot.

Guinea: An indefinite delay in planned elections, announced last night, resulted in clashes between police and demonstrators in Conakry today.

Egypt: This is already old news, but in case you didn’t see it, President Hosni Mubarak plans to run in next year’s elections.

Somalia: The African Union wants the UN to blockade Somalia. Meanwhile, IRIN reports that stability in Somaliland has improved the schools there.

Sudan: The US is sending a number of diplomats to provincial capitals in Southern Sudan in advance of the January referendum, tripling the US presence there.

Sahel: A Monday meeting of EU foreign ministers will explore Europe’s options for assisting in the fight against AQIM.

Finally, check out this roundup from Jihadology, which links up a number of interesting articles (via a private Twitter account, so I won’t link).

Somalia: Mystery Helicopter Attack on al Shabab

On Sunday an unknown helicopter fired on a house in Merca, Somalia in an apparent strike on al Shabab. The press is busy speculating about whose helicopter it was. The US is a logical candidate, but no one who knows is talking. The case is far from certain:

A senior Pentagon official and a senior military official, both in Washington, said late Sunday that there were no American aircraft in the area and no American involvement in the attack. In fact, it would be highly unlikely for a single American helicopter gunship to carry out such an attack without one or more other aircraft nearby.

Last year, American commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a wanted agent of Al Qaeda, in a helicopter raid not far from Merca. That swath of southern Somalia is widely believed to be a sanctuary for several wanted terrorists and insurgent leaders, including Omar Hammami, an American militant originally from Alabama who has steadily risen up the Shabab ranks and become one of the organization’s top field commanders.

The AP has other denials of responsibility:

The U.S. military’s Special Operations Command Africa and its conventional counterpart, U.S. Africa Command, said they had no involvement, as did a spokesman for the EU Naval Force, an anti-piracy unit that has military forces off the east coast of Somalia. African Union troops also said they weren’t behind the exchange.

“I can tell you we don’t have any troops in that vicinity at all. We are surprised as you to be honest,” said Maj. Bryan Purtell, the spokesman for the Germany-based Special Operations Command Africa.

The EU NavFor spokesman, Lt. Col. Per Klingvall, said: “We’re not operating on the Somali coast. We’re just operating out on the waters.”

[...]Somali Minister of Information Abdirahman Omar Osman declined to immediately comment, and the spokesman for the 7,100 African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu said the AU force was not responsible.

The BBC adds a potential motives for the denials:

BBC East Africa correspondent Will Ross says if this was a failed attack on senior al-Shabab officials, perhaps it is not surprising that no-one is claiming to have carried out the mission.

The attack, failed or not, caused a lot of uproar in Merca:

According to one Shabab official, the helicopter’s rockets narrowly missed killing several leaders of the group.

Immediately after the attack, the group started blocking the roads in and outside the town and started investigations. They also seized cellphones from local reporters in an effort to ensure that the information did not go beyond Merca, according to residents.

If the strike failed, one has to ask whether it was worth the cost – a flurry of speculation that must feel uncomfortable to the strike’s authors, and another opportunity for al Shabab to flex muscle in its area. Likely the strike will also allow al Shabab to invoke the threat of foreign intervention that seems to bind and motivate many of its followers.

I’ll update with more information as it becomes available.

Weekend Links: Nigeria, Niger, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, and More

Flooding in Nigeria:

About two million people in northern Nigeria have been displaced after authorities opened the floodgates on two dams, an official says.

The flooding began suddenly when the gates on the Challawa and Tiga dams were opened, a spokesman for the Jigawa governor said.

The dams are in Kano state, but about 5,000 villages in neighbouring Jigawa state have been affected, he added.

Several states in northern Nigeria have been hit by floods this year.

It is not yet clear whether residents received a warning or if anyone was injured or went missing in the flooding, reported the Associated Press news agency.

On Monday, the EU will likely move toward greater cooperation with Niger.

Sudan: “A top Sudanese official says people in south Sudan will no longer be citizens of the north if their region votes for independence in a January referendum.”

International Crisis Group has a new report on Eritrea.

In Somalia, a change in US policy toward Somaliland and Puntland?

Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said U.S. officials were developing ties with authorities in both Puntland and Somaliland, both of which declared themselves independent in the early 1990s when the Horn of Africa nation descended into civil war and anarchy.

Carson said the United States did not plan to recognize either government as an independent state. But he said increased U.S. cooperation, particularly on aid and development, could head off inroads by Islamist Al Shabaab insurgents, who stepped up their fight to topple Somalia’s Western-backed central administration last month.

Check out this piece from Professor Laura Seay (Texas in Africa) on UN Week and the Millennium Development Goals.

Enjoy your weekend!

EU Aid for Sahelian Hunger Crisis

As millions suffer from hunger in the Sahel, the EU adds $29 million in aid to the $24 million it had already pledged for the region:

Humanitarian programs will target more than seven million people in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and northern Nigeria.  The aid will fund emergency food assistance between harvests, allocation of seeds to farmers and treating acutely malnourished children.

The Sahel was pushed into crisis by erratic rains, resulting in poor harvests.  The EU says that setback, coupled with high food prices and limited job opportunities, has forced up to 10 million people in Chad and Niger to require emergency assistance.

This is the first mention I’ve seen in the press that Northern Nigeria is also considered to be in crisis, but I’m not surprised: desertification and drought have been problems there for years, and famines elsewhere send people from other Sahelian countries into Nigeria.

Tommy has more on the crisis.

Controversy over US Approach to Bashir Inauguration in Sudan

The inauguration of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir last week was a significant event for Sudan but a complicated event for the international community. As Gregg Carlstrom reports over at The Majlis, few world leaders attended the ceremony, though “the US, UN and EU all blessed Bashir’s reelection because they feared criticism might derail South Sudan’s independence referendum, scheduled for January.”

Khartoum

Khartoum, Sudan by Ahmed Rabea

Gregg notes that the UN’s decision to send top officials to the inauguration drew criticism from Human Rights Watch and others. The US’ decision to send a junior diplomat brought outcry as well. Now the State Department is on the defensive:

The State Department says its dispatch of a junior foreign service officer to the inaugural ceremony reflects the broad agenda the United States has with the Sudanese government, but signals no change in its policy of avoiding dealings with President Bashir himself.

Human rights groups had urged a boycott of the ceremonies at which the Sudanese leader was sworn in for a new five-year term, after winning an election last month marred by fraud charges.

A coalition of eight U.S. human rights and Darfur activist groups Friday criticized the decision to send an American diplomat to the event, calling it a missed opportunity to lead by example.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. delegate was a junior consular officer from the embassy in Khartoum.  He added most states with Sudan relations had sent more senior representatives.

From the statement by activist groups:

“The administration missed an opportunity to build leverage and lead by example,” states John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress.  “An announcement a week before the inauguration that the US would not participate would have stiffened the spines of other wavering countries and highlighted the issue, reasserting US leadership on principle. Getting nothing in return for this reversal of long-standing US policy is baffling and ineffective diplomacy.”

The progressive blogger Digby has taken to calling President Obama “President Goldilocks” because of a perceived tendency to seek a “just right” middle ground on key domestic issues. The decision to send a junior diplomat to Bashir’s inauguration might have been intended as another decision of that sort, designed to avoid controversy, but that apparently didn’t work. To me it reads as a lack of commitment in either direction. If Washington wants to support Bashir, send Gration to the inauguration. If it doesn’t want to support Bashir, send no one. I think there are arguments both ways,* but taking a middle course in this case makes it look as though Washington does not have the stomach to take a stand. It would be best to have a diplomatic strategy that is clear, consistent, and decisive.

On the other hand, Bashir is at least rhetorically committed to working with the West, so perhaps I am wrong. I guess Washington is just holding its breath through January 2011.

*Argument for: working with Bashir will help ensure the 2011 referendum goes peacefully. Argument against: US recognition cannot decisively influence Bashir on the referendum, and extending recognition undermines American credibility on human rights.

Ethiopian Elections: Results and Criticisms

Ethiopia released results of its parliamentary elections yesterday. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won at least 499 of 547 seats. Eleven more seats remain to be declared. That increases the EPRDF’s majority by at least 172 seats (2005 results here). Medrek, the most prominent opposition alliance, has won only a single seat so far.

The headquarters of Ethiopia’s main opposition party was like a funeral parlor as observers reported in from around the country, opposition leaders were dumbstruck at the possibility of a nearly complete rout.

High-profile leaders such as former president Negasso Gidada, senior figures in the parliamentary opposition Merera Gudina and Beyene Petros, all appear headed for defeat.

Other prominent political leaders, including Hailu Shewal and Lidetu Ayalew were also said to have conceded.

Ruling party leader and incumbent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi struck a defiant tone vis-a-vis the rest of the world:

Mr Meles, one of Washington’s and London’s closest regional allies, told a rally in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Tuesday that foreign forces could do nothing to overturn the outcome and warned against any post-election bloodshed.

“The vast majority of the residents of our cities and the farmers of our country who actually consider themselves and the EPRDF as two sides of a coin have yet again shown the world that nothing can ever shake their unwavering support for our organisation,” he said.

Still, the EU and the US are questioning the integrity of the results:

The EU:

EU Chief Observer Thijs Berman says this year’s elections have been relatively peaceful, and the voting process was well-planned and safe.  But his preliminary report states the election was marred by a “lack of level playing field”, which favored the ruling party.

Berman also says the ruling party used government resources for campaign purposes, had unfair access to the state-run media, and blocked other news sources, such as VOA broadcasts.  And without a national voting list, he said, it is impossible to detect certain kinds of fraud, like double-voting.

“These shortcomings lead us to the conclusion that this electoral process falls short of certain international principles, certain international commitments,” said Berman.

The US:

“While the elections were calm and peaceful and largely without any kind of violence, we note with some degree of remorse that the elections there were not up to international standards,” Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson told a House of Representatives panel.

Carson, the Obama administration’s top diplomat for Africa, said Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government had taken “clear and decisive” steps to ensure it won a landslide victory in Sunday’s vote. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and allied parties won nearly every seat in the country’s 547-member parliament.

What effect will such statements have in Ethiopia? Meles was as defiant in private as in public, it seems: an Al Jazeera reporter writes, “I understand from sources that Thijs Berman, the EU chief observer, had been summoned by Zenawi on Monday for a serious dressing down – even a threat of expelling the 170-strong mission from the country.”

I do not think Meles fears the EU or the US, perhaps because he believes they will not move from words to actions – in other words, from statements to cutting aid. We’ll see who blinks first.