Asia/Africa update: February 19-20 2018



James Dorsey writes that the contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the Islamic world has expanded to Azerbaijan:

The two countries’ latest battleground is oil-rich Azerbaijan, an authoritarian, majority Shia Muslim but secular former Soviet republic on Iran’s northern border with a substantial ethnic population in Iran itself. Recent Saudi overtures came amid reports that Azerbaijan’ s security services had warned the government about Iran’s growing influence in the country.


The report suggested that an informal lifting in 2013 of a ban on preaching by Islamic scholars linked to Iran that had been quietly imposed in a bid to stem the flow of Azerbaijani Sunni Muslims joining the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq had enabled the Islamic republic to make inroads.


Three people were killed on Tuesday in an explosion in a hotel in the city of Jalalabad. There was no immediate claim of responsibility and at this point it’s not even clear that it was an intentional act, but given the context it seems likely that it was.


The Pakistani government is not going to be put on an international terrorist financing watchlist–at least not for the next three months, anyway. The Financial Action Task Force decided to defer action based on Pakistan progress reports made after the United States moved to have it put on the list.


The Maldivian parliament voted on Tuesday to extend the country’s state of emergency for another 30 days. A two-week state of emergency was put in place earlier this month by President Yameen Abdul Gayoom in the midst of a political crisis that has seen Gayoom assert military control over both parliament and the country’s Supreme Court. Opposition legislators boycotted the vote, which they then said was illegal since it was taken without a quorum present. Maldivian law is hazy on this point–on some measures a quorum could be 1/4 of the legislature’s membership, but on anything “requiring compliance by the citizens” it’s supposed to be 1/2 of the legislature. The problem is that the law doesn’t define what exactly “requiring compliance by the citizens” means, so it’s an empty standard.

Meanwhile, China sent a fleet of warships into the eastern Indian Ocean earlier this month, perhaps as a warning to India to stay out of Maldivian business. The current government of the Maldives has favored China over India, despite the country’s historical affinity with India.


I highly recommend reading this Al Jazeera interview with Rohingya activists Tun Khin (a Rohingya) and Maung Zarni (a Myanmar Buddhist) about the possibility of repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh back to Myanmar. Both agree that there is no prospect for repatriation without one of two things: either the establishment of a UN-protected safe zone for the returnees in Rakhine state, or a forced repatriation.

This seems pessimistic to me. Why can’t we trust the Myanmar government to take care of the Rohingya this time? Why, even as I write this the government is busy bulldozing mass graves in Rakhine to hide evidence of its crimes against humanity make the province look as nice as possible for when the Rohingya return. Nice!


The leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation front, Ebrahim Murad, says that ISIS fighters displaced from Syria and Iraq continue to come into the southern Philippines intent on recruiting followers and establishing a presence there. He says they’re approaching Muslims who are angry that Manila hasn’t followed through on promises to implement the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is supposed to address Moro issues with the Philippine state. This may be a little self-serving–Murad has every reason to use the threat of another Marawi-type incident to encourage Manila to get moving on reforms–but that doesn’t make it untrue. Likewise, the lingering displacement caused by the Marawi conflict is increasing the possibility of radicalization.

Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, has all but capitulated to Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Which is not particularly surprising in the sense that he runs the Philippines and China is, you know, China, but it is illustrative of just how much Duterte has separated his country from the United States. Past Philippine resistance to China’s activity in the South China Sea was supported by the sense that Washington would back its play. Now, it’s not even clear Duterte would want US help if he could get it. Frankly if the guy weren’t a serial killer I think you might have to give him some credit here.



The State Department announced on Tuesday that it’s sanctioning Ansarul Islam, Burkina Faso’s al-Qaeda affiliate, on terrorism charges.


The New York Times on Tuesday produced a lengthy account of the October 4 ambush in Niger that took the lives of four US and five Nigerien soldiers during a botched raid to capture a terrorist leader. It’s an important piece for the coverage it provides of how the ambush unfolded, the mistakes that allowed it to happen, and the debate over our metastasizing war on terror, which now encompasses vastly more groups and places than could even have been imagined on September 12, 2001. But it’s a very incomplete account in that it pretty much completely ignores the African perspective. Or as Colgate University’s Jacob Mundy puts it:

That said, describing early US security initiatives in the Sahel as proactive and prescient obscures the fact that they played a significant role in the destabilization of the region. As will be described below, securitizing the Sahel helped to reinforce the deep socio-economic precariousness of the region. It furthermore allied US policy to regimes with historically antagonistic relations with communities in their Saharan hinterlands.


Needless to say, none of this is examined in the Times’ dissection of the 2017 attack in Niger. We get imperial handwringing, intimate portraits of the fallen US soldiers, and a blow-by-blow account of the attack itself. But what is truly concerning about the Times’ narrative of US involvement in the Sahel is not its blind spots. It is the fact that the narrative is vague and disorienting. Islamist terrorism in the Sahel seems to emerge from nowhere, coalesce without explanation, and metastasize uncontrollably. Africa is a land without an intelligible history and terrorism is a violence without a discernible political economy.

The NYT piece puts Niger in the context of the post-9/11 War on Terror, where it should be, but in the process ignores seminal aspects of the development of terrorism in West Africa, like the Algerian Civil War, the Libyan Civil War (and Western intervention), and American security assistance that has bolstered repressive governments in the region.


A group of Boko Haram fighters raided the town of Dapchi, in northeastern Nigeria’s Yobe state, on Tuesday. They attacked a boarding school and looted its food, but may have intended to abduct girls from the school as the group did in Chibok in 2014–this is a practice that is still a fundamental part of Boko Haram’s appeal to potential recruits. Fortunately the students and their teachers were able to evacuate the school in time.


Reporter Tom Gardner talks about the wrangling for power within Ethiopia’s ruling coalition that has fueled some of the country’s recent political turmoil:

Behind the drama of the last week lies a radical shift in Ethiopia’s political landscape, one that has the potential to lead to genuine reforms. The EPRDF, a coalition of four nominally ethnic parties that has ruled the country single-handedly since taking power in 1991, is in the midst of a vicious internal power struggle. At issue is the question of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has long been the dominant of the four ethnically based coalition partners, despite representing only a small minority of the country (Tigrayans make up about 6 percent of the population). Yet the influence of the TPLF is waning as two rival factions, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) — which represent Ethiopia’s first- and second-most populous regions, respectively — vie with the TPLF for control over the coalition and, with it, the country.

The OPDO, under leader Lemma Megersa, has found success by positioning itself as a quasi-opposition party, feeding on popular discontent with the governing coalition of which it is still a part. That success may be pushing the ADNM to follow suit.


Kenyan opposition leaders James Orengo and Jimi Wanjigi were reportedly barred from leaving the country on Monday when they attempted to attend the funeral of Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe. The two men had their passports suspended after Raila Odinga’s “inauguration ceremony” last month, but a subsequent court ruling was supposed to have reversed that decision.


Two Congolese refugees were reportedly wounded by Rwandan soldiers on Tuesday when their protest against food ration cuts at the United Nations’ Karongi refugee camp was met with live fire from the Rwandans. Several other protesters were reportedly injured–some by gunfire, others having been beaten. Rwandan authorities deny these accusations.


The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees says that there is a “humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions” brewing in the southeastern DRC. Clashes between rival militias and between militias and DRC forces are fueling the problem and have already displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Meanwhile, in northeastern DRC’s North Kivu province, two aid workers were killed and one abducted by by gunmen on Monday.

Luckily, DRC President Joseph Kabila has identified the root cause of Congolese violence, and on Tuesday he finally took the much needed step of resigning and fleeing the country replacing his interior minister. At least when they rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic it actually made the deck look different.


Conservation efforts in Cape Town continue to pay off. On Tuesday, “Day Zero”–the day the city will run out of water and taps will be turned off–was pushed back again, this time to July 9. This latest postponement puts the date squarely in the middle of the South African winter, and if it’s a normal one that could mean enough water to stave off “Day Zero” indefinitely. But it’s far too soon to make that prediction.

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One thought on “Asia/Africa update: February 19-20 2018

  1. all over Africa, when you have ethnically complex states ruled by a single party, the dominant faction within that party tends to come from some small ethnicity that is less than 10% of the population.

    why? because (1) if a large, powerful ethnic group is also running the country’s single party, politics turns into a nasty game of “everyone else versus those guys”. this is part of the problem in Kenya, where there’s a widespread perception that the last three governments have been of, by, and for the Kikuyu. And then also (2) Tigrayans are fiercely loyal both to Ethiopia and to the party. They have to be! If Ethiopia breaks up, they’re screwed — they’ll end up a minority in someone else’s country. And if the party loses power to multiparty democracy, they’re still screwed, because there aren’t enough of them to compete politically at the national level. So the Tigrayans are always going to be strong Ethiopian nationalists but not liberal or democratic. if Ethiopia ever does start to break up, the Tigrayans would play roughly the role of the Alawites in Syria: the embattled minority that’s fanatically loyal to the “legitimate” national government.

    Doug M.

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