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INTERNATIONAL POLITICS

France and Africa: Towards a New Model of Relations?

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By  Alexei Chikhachev

In recent decades, French foreign policy in Africa has been preoccupied with a jump-start of relations with the African nations, marked by a gradual curtailment of the Françafrique, a concept that provided for a direct military and political intervention in affairs of the French-speaking nations on the continent. France is now in search for a more balanced framework for interaction with the countries in the region.

Jacques Chirac was the first to voice the need to recalibrate these relations, with his sentiments echoed to varying degrees by each of his successors, whose proclamations were always coupled with certain symbolic gestures and initiatives. Emmanuel Macron is no exception here, as was demonstrated by his appearance at the latest Africa–France Summit in Montpellier on October 8, 2021. Once again, the event proved that Paris is trying to move beyond the outdated African strategy and diversify this policy case, both in terms of partners and in the scope of topics on the agenda.

The Context of the Summit

The key events in Macron’s African policy since 2017, which provided the background for the Summit, are a mixed bag when it comes to reinvigorating the dialogue between France and Africa, with a more or less equal number of hits and misses.

On the one hand, early into his tenure, the incumbent French leader made a number of statements, indicating that France would be willing to rethink all dimensions of its relations with Africa in a post-colonial fashion. Speaking at the University of Ouagadougou in November 2017, Macron explained that “there no longer is a French policy for Africa” in the older sense of the term. Instead of a network of clientelist ties with the old, mainly French-speaking elites, even-handed ties with all the 54 countries of the continent need to be fostered.

The President stressed that he belonged to a modern generation of politicians, who launched their careers in the aftermath of the colonial period in Africa and who never denied the crimes of European colonialists. E. Macron suggested that Europeans and Africans are “a generation whose destinies are interwoven”, meaning that there is no other option but move together along the path of harmonious and mutually complementary development. At the same venue, the President called for new channels of communication between the Hexagon and the African nations, implying that cooperation should develop at the grassroot level between small and medium-sized enterprises, educational centres, museums, sports associations; if not through government offices and large corporations, something typical of the Françafrique. Macron used a similar logic at the Summit of the International Organisation of the Francophonie in Yerevan, adding that the heart of the French-speaking world is “neither to the right nor to the left of the Seine, but undoubtedly in the basin of the Congo river”, since the population of African countries is rapidly growing, as is their potential for development.

Expanding on this thinking, a new policy of historical memory has gained traction. It places emphasis on returning once exported cultural property to Africa as well as on resolving the most sensitive issues of the common past. For example, a report was published in 2018, authored by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, providing a detailed list of items that could be donated to Africa from the funds of French museums. Some of the report’s recommendations were acted upon: during his trip to Senegal, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe brought an antique sabre to a meeting with the local government a year later while a law on the restitution of cultural artifacts was passed in 2020. Besides, in early 2021, the historian Benjamin Stora submitted a report to the President focusing on the Algerian War, outlining a number of steps towards mutual rapprochement. These were ranging from the construction of monuments to granting scholarships to support research into the 1954–1962 war. The trend was also stimulated by Macron’s recent recognition that France bears political responsibility for doing not enough to prevent the genocide in Rwanda.

Also important was that the Élysée Palace agreed to the prospective abolishment of the CFA franc, a common name for the two currencies used in West and Central Africa a fixed exchange rate to the euro, signalling France’s readiness to give up on this financial lever over its former colonies. The French government’s capabilities in the two sub-regions will significantly be reduced with the introduction of the new currency, the Eco. However, Paris will still guarantee the new currency’s convertibility into euro, however, withdrawing its representatives from the main financial institutions in the sub-regions (such as the Central Bank of West African States) and rescinding the requirement to keep over a half of these countries’ financial reserves in the Banque de France. In the future, this may give an additional impetus to regional integration, which was largely hampered by a consistently overvalued CFA franc.

Something that also deserves our attention here is that France has made numerous attempts to foster business cooperation with African nations. One such example is the Choose Africa initiative under the French Development Agency, launched in 2019 to provide support for 10,000 small businesses and entrepreneurs to the tune of 2.5 billion euro. That same year, during his tour of the Horn of Africa, where French is not widely spoken, Macron announced that Paris would be expanding ties with some of its non-traditional partners—notably, with Ethiopia (in the fields of military equipment, aviation and archaeology) and with Kenya (in infrastructure, energy, and the automotive industry)[1].

Finally, some of the initiatives proposed by Macron during his four years in power have, directly or indirectly, to do with Africa. In 2019–2021, he repeatedly talked about a “Paris Consensus”, labelling it as a new set of rules for the global economy to replace the well-known “Washington Consensus.” The President has not yet elaborated on the main parameters of the concept; still, he stressed that it should take a more flexible approach to addressing the imbalances between the North and South and, primarily, the needs of Africa. Macron was one of the first leaders globally to argue that a temporary moratorium on African debt should be introduced. Besides, he endorsed the global ACT-A project to expand access of developing countries to COVID-19 vaccines. Paris hosted the International Conference to Support the Sudanese Transition in May 2021 and brought its African partners into various ad hoc coalitions—the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, the Tropical Forest Alliance, the Alliance for Multilateralism, and others.

On the other hand, certain elements of France’s current policy in Africa have left a distinctly less favourable impression than as it meets the eye, especially among the Africans. This mainly has to do with security issues: in the Sahel, Paris has been running its Operation Barkhane to fight terrorism since 2014, and no victory seems to be in sight for the French troops and their allies. Having “inherited” the operation from François Hollande, Macron tried to follow the “three Ds” (Défense, Diplomatie, Développement), a tactics that soon faltered in practice. While occasionally announcing liquidations of terrorist leaders, the forces France has at its disposal in the sub-region are insufficient to assume full control of the vast expanses of the Sahel, easily permeable from both north and south [2]. Finally, the joint contingent of five countries has so far proven rather ineffective[3].

Mustering all its diplomatic charm, France turned for help to its European partners, with no one proving ready to send a large force to the area, only agreeing to deploy special forces instead (such as the 2020 Takuba Task Force). Besides, the various projects to develop the Sahel funded by France, the EU and international organizations have not produced any real results yet. They have either duplicated what existed before or failed to penetrate the clan structure of local societies. As a result, French military presence is increasingly seen in a negative light, while the Sahel countries have started to explore other options for cooperation, reaching out to alternative security providers [4]—primarily, Russia—in the form of businesses, military instructors and PMCs.

This evidently shook France’s Quai d’Orsay, which recently threatened to abandon the Sahel altogether. This would never have happened were the Françafrique logic really a thing of the past, as Paris declared. The current French leadership believes that the Operation Barkhane cannot go on forever, with Macron having announced this summer that it would be coming to a close. However, Paris wants to prevent competitors from filling the vacuum that it will leave.

The situation in the Sahel is not the only challenge exposing the ambivalence of France’s recalibrated African policy. The Élysée Palace has been inconsistent in its stances on the domestic situation in various African countries. In some cases, Paris prefers to act in the spirit of the Françafrique: Vasily Filippov, for one, argues the French forces in Gabon were instrumental to preventing a coup d’état in early 2019. Besides, Paris’ silence regarding the third-term re-election of Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire (who was originally installed in power with a certain support from France) after receiving 95 per cent of the vote amid a violent suppression of the opposition was very much in line with France’s earlier policy case in Africa. Later, following the death of President Idriss Déby of Chad, France moved to establish contacts with the military led by his son, who would go on to assume the role of interim president.

Meanwhile, Macron called for fair and legitimate elections in Mali following successive coups in the country in 2020 and 2021. In the run-up to the Africa–France Summit in Montpellier, the media launched an attack on the president for his stance on Algeria as he criticized the ruling “military-political system,” accusing it, among other things, of a deliberate politicization of the historical memory. Another classic example of how French policy in Africa oscillates between democratic values and pragmatic interests is its relationship with the Egypt: Macron may, on occasion, voice concerns about human rights violations in the country (albeit in a very measured way), while still concluding mutually beneficial agreements, including military and technical contracts.

Key Takeaways from the Meeting

Perhaps to redress the effects of this ambivalence, the French took the unusual step of not inviting heads of state and government to the summit in Montpellier (with the exception of Emmanuel Macron himself), aiming instead for a broader representation of the civil society, business and academia. The rationale behind this, as was explained by Benoit Verdeaux, Secretary-General of the Summit, was to cater for the main target audience. It appears that the summit was geared towards future leaders rather than the current elites—and it was notably the African youth whom the President of the Republic addressed at the University of Ouagadougou four years ago. The summit was, therefore, “therapeutic” in that its purpose was to establish contacts with the new generation of Africans, overcoming mutual stereotypes and improving the perception of France across the continent.

It strikes the attention that the Summit’s participants were not limited to Africa’s Francophone countries, proving once again that Paris wants to go beyond its traditional stomping grounds. An emphasis on a fostered cooperation with the non-Francophone Africa looks all the more understandable as it includes the continent’s larger economieséSouth Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia—where the historical memory of France’s presence is less important than in the countries that were once part of the French Empire.

The specific nature of the Summit meant that no major political decisions were made. Instead, the Summit saw the announcement of a new series of steps towards the continent’s countries, chief among which were:

-Establishing a fund to support African democracy, with a 30-million-euro budget for the next three years. Such a relatively meagre sum suggests that the money will not be spent on sponsoring African leaders or local political parties—it will rather be spent on projects run by non-profit human rights organizations.

-Breathing new life into the Digital Africa initiative, which was launched back in 2018 to support African start-ups and small entrepreneurs. Initially, 65 million euro was allocated for the initiative; however, as press reports suggest, the money never got past bureaucratic obstacles. An announcement was made on the sidelines of the Montpellier summit that the French Development Agency would be taking the initiative under a closer supervision, adding another 130 million to its budget until 2025.

-Intending to open a “House of African Worlds and Diasporas” in the heart of Paris, meant as a creative space for exhibitions, tours, educational programmes, etc. The House will serve as a single platform for Africa’s presence in France and a place to network on a multilateral basis. E. Macron also spoke in favour of a more active involvement of African diasporas in the staff of French state bodies, including the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. As the Institut Montaigne expert Mahaut de Fougières noted, the Macron’s idea went against the statements of Eric Zemmour, a journalist and a likely 2022 presidential hopeful, who is in favour of the conservative project for the French nation, going on to call for a Francization of the names of African migrants.

These are just some of the announcements contained in the main document that set the tone for the Summit: a special report on the contemporary French–African relations was prepared on behalf of E. Macron by the famous post-colonial theorist Achille Mbembe. Having interviewed some 3,500 people (mainly of the younger generation), Mbembe concluded that there is a strong demand for self-sufficiency in the African countries of today. What this means, as Emmanuel Macron also notes, is that the relations between Europe and Africa should be re-fashioned along the lines of equality. Africa stands on the verge of a comprehensive economic, social and geopolitical transformation, with the coronavirus crisis only highlighting the need for such a change.

The incumbent African elites do not share these sentiments, though, having grown quite accustomed to their own irremovability while throwing a spanner in the attempts to effect some changes. One solution, according to Mbembe, would be to carry out a revolution “in their heads,” where new generations of Africans would decide to take their fate into their own hands. This would require an extensive work at the grassroot level that would include the most pressing issues of the day, ranging from digital technologies and climate change to migration. Another prerequisite is a revision of the French narrative to entail a shift from “assistance for development” to investments and partnership.

Judging by the recent summit and the steps already taken by Macron with regard to Africa, it would seem that the French leadership agrees with this. Compared to the times of the Françafrique, reorienting the strategy towards non-state actors is an unconventional approach to say the least. If implemented consistently, it could theoretically improve France’s image in Africa over the next 10 to 15 years. What is more, looking at the cost of the initiatives mentioned above, France could save money that would previously go towards supporting the regimes in power. At the same time, this strategy does not guarantee that the younger generations now supported by France will not reorient themselves to other players at some point in the future, as the competition (including China, Turkey or Russia) is stepping up their activities in Africa. Cultivating contacts with the civil society “over the head” of the local elites may provoke anger, which would lead to a slowdown of the French initiatives on the ground.

It is also unlikely that France’s support for small start-ups in Africa will provide a quick solution to the problem of the country’s shrinking economic presence on the continent, which may have grown over the past 20 years in absolute terms (from $13 billion to $28 billion in exports), though falling in relative terms (from 12 per cent to 7 per cent of the market share).

In turn, African nations are faced with the task of not only improving the conditions for smaller businesses but also implementing large-scale infrastructure projects. This is something that China tends to focus on, and this will also be on the agenda at the Second Russia–Africa Summit to be held in 2022. The biggest problem, however, is that none of the approaches employed by French diplomacy can compensate for the failures in the military and political sphere. It is precisely here that France must be successful to sustain its authority in the eyes of African nations. It would thus be logical to assume that the next President of France (or Emmanuel Macron should he be re-elected) will still face the task of balancing the country’s African policy case so that it does not appear to exclusively favour either Track I or Track II diplomacy.

  1. Vasily Filippov, “E. Macron’s Tour in the Countries of the African Horn,” Asia & Africa Today, no.1 (2020): 10–16.
  2. As of September 2021, the French contingent in Sahel includes 5100 troops, 900 ground vehicles, between 5 and 8 transport aircraft, 20 helicopters, 7 fighter jets and 6 unmanned aerial vehicles.
  3. France’s five partners in the operation are Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania.
  4. According to media reports, there have been numerous demonstrations in Mali in recent years, with protestors chanting anti-French and pro-Russian slogans.


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INTERNATIONAL POLITICS

The Death of Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi

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By Patrick Wintour

The death of the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, in a helicopter crash comes at a time when the country, faced by unprecedented external challenges, was already bracing itself for a change in regime with the expected demise in the next few years of its 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In the country’s hydra-headed leadership where power is spread in often opaque ways between clerics, politicians and army, it is the supreme leader, and not the president, that is ultimately decisive. Indeed, in some ways the posts of president, and prime minister – originally based on a model of the French constitution – became overwhelmed in the drafting of Iran’s constitution in 1979, leading to advocates of a more powerful presidency to claim the role was being subsumed in a form of autocracy created in the name of religion.

The presidency, however loyal to the supreme leader – and Raisi was considered very loyal to Khamenei – is often cast in the role as a useful scapegoat helping the supreme leader to avoid criticism. That certainly became the fate of Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, who became a punchbag for decisions taken elsewhere. In recent months Raisi, elected president in 2021 but in practice handpicked by the supreme leader, had been mentioned as a possible successor to Khamenei. His death instead clears a thorny path for Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei.

The choice is made by an 88-strong “assembly of experts”, and Raisi’s departure certainly increases the chances of a hereditary succession in Iran, something many clerics oppose as alien to Iran’s revolutionary principles. Raisi’s death will add to the sense of a country already in political transition. A new hardline parliament was only just elected on 1 March in which turnout for some of the elections fell below 10%, and was overall presented as reaching a nationwide turnout of only 41% – a record low.

Reformist or moderate politicians were either disqualified or soundly beaten, leaving a new and, as yet, untested division in parliament between traditional hardliners and an ultra-conservative group known as Paydari or the Steadfastness Front. The effective exclusion of reformists from political participation in parliament for the first time since 1979 adds to the sense of a country in uncharted waters.

The cumulative disruption also comes at a time when Iran can ill afford such uncertainty as it faces western challenges over its nuclear programme, a dire economy and tense relations with other Middle Eastern states, especially with regard to relations with Israel and the US.

The loss of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the foreign affairs minister, in the helicopter crash only adds to a sense of instability for a country that prided itself on control and predictability. His most likely successor is his deputy, Ali Bagheri, but hardliners may regard him as too willing to negotiate with the west over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Although Iran has not lost a president in office since the revolution in 1979, the country has a clear formal system for succession in which the first vice-president – currently Mohammad Mokhber – takes charge. Few regard Mokhber, a banker and former deputy governor of the Khuzestan province, as presidential material. A new president should be elected within 50 days, giving the supreme leader and his entourage relatively little time to select someone that will not only become president at such a critical time, but also will be in a strong position succeed Khamenei himself. The immediate challenge of any new leader will be to control not just internal dissent, but the factional demands within the country to take a tougher line with the west and draw closer to Russia and China.

With the sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian regime unexpectedly finds itself faced with having to hold elections to appoint a successor. The choice for Tehran is whether to allow the vote to be semi-democratic and contested, or risk nothing by ensuring no candidate with any organisation or following stands against the hardliner likely to be chosen as the regime’s preferred candidate. It is not likely to be a long discussion.

Recent experience suggests the regime will opt for the safety of an election in which its chosen candidate has no serious rival, even if this leads to a lower turnout and a disillusioned electorate. With so much external and internal pressure on the regime, central to which is the inevitable and looming need to replace the 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the regime is not likely to leave much to chance. This is a critical moment, Khamenei and his allies will believe, for continuity and security.

Such a decision comes with risks. Iran has a long and well-known history of filtering out potential political leaders from elections. All candidates have to be deemed qualified by an elite body known as the Guardian Council, and are interviewed to ensure their worthiness for high office.

In most cases, shunned candidates shrug their shoulders and walk away. Many do not even put their names forward, knowing they will be rejected. The less the process is challenged, the less its methods are scrutinised.

Over the last month, however, a public row about the process has developed between the former president Hassan Rouhani and the Khamenei-appointed Guardian Council which has gone to the heart of the arguments about the president’s role and legitimacy. The dispute stems from Rouhani, who was presidentfrom 2013-21, having been banned from standing this year for the Assembly of Experts, an 88-strong body that selects the supreme leader.

Rouhani, already bruised by the way he was treated as president, had refused to acquiesce on the matter. Last week, he wrote a scathing open letter that he said was written not out of personal ambition, but in defence of the republic, and insisting he would not be silent in the face of his attempted sidelining.

He revealed in correspondence with the Guardian Council that he had failed the qualification test on the grounds of insulting the judiciary and the council, lacking political vision and lacking commitment to the constitution – accusations he insisted were an attempt to usurp the authority of the president. He argued that if the Guardian Council could disqualify from future public office leaders with whom they had political, not religious, differences, the president is no longer answerable to the people, but to an unelected body.

Recalling the number of times he had been elected with the support of millions of votes, Rouhani asked: “Do the jurists of the Guardian Council with the least political, security and diplomatic experience have the expertise to disqualify candidates because of what they call political knowledge and insight? You who accuse the candidates of not knowing the people, how many times and in which competitive elections have you exposed yourself to the people’s vote?”

In the withering assessment of his treatment, he said he had been found guilty on the basis of evidence compiled by “agents whose files are a mixture of factional analysis and intercepted and mostly illegal wiretapping, and whose reports turn into vague and general letters with obvious purpose”.

He further warned: “Future presidents (if such an office and institution remains) should know that with this indictment, even they no longer have political freedom and will be unable to perform their legal duties, and instead of the constitution, they should be subject to the Guardian Council, Otherwise, do not doubt that the position of president at the end of the term of office (or even halfway) will be the ceiling and the last responsibility for which they are qualified.”

Referring to specific criticisms of his time in office, Rouhani defended his role in negotiating the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with the US under the Obama administration. Referring to Donald Trump’s subsequent withdrawal from the deal in 2018, he said: “My government is proud that it was not only a government of negotiations, but also became a government of resistance when Trump’s unconventional government appeared in the United States.” The agreement had been endorsed by the supreme leader.

Equally, he said, a president had a right to speak about the judiciary’s flaws. And crucially, he argued, criticising others, as he did as president, was not unIslamic. “Freedom of speech is a right, although someone may use this right to say something wrong,” he wrote.

The cumulative effect of the Guardian Council’s actions, he said, would be to reduce voter participation.

Rouhani’s criticisms, written at a time when Iran was not expecting elections, will resonate with many, but the chances of his warnings being heeded and the supreme leader allowing an open field seem slim.

Recent experience suggests the regime will opt for the safety of an election in which its chosen candidate has no serious rival, even if this leads to a lower turnout and a disillusioned electorate. With so much external and internal pressure on the regime, central to which is the inevitable and looming need to replace the 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the regime is not likely to leave much to chance. This is a critical moment, Khamenei and his allies will believe, for continuity and security.

The perennial challenge to Iran remains relations with Israel, which reached a new pitch of danger in April when the two countries exchanged fire, sparked by an Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, and more broadly by Iran’s support for proxy groups willing to fight Israel, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

But any new president will have to make big decisions over Iran’s nuclear programme. On 9 May, Kamal Kharrazi, the supreme leader’s foreign policy advisor and former Iranian foreign minister, said Iran would consider a doctrinal shift to nuclear deterrence if Israel attacked what Iran said were civilian nuclear sites.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN nuclear inspectorate the IAEA, warned Iran to end the loose talk about developing a nuclear weapon, saying it was disturbing. Opponents of the regime, still powerful through civil resistance, will not mourn Raisi’s death due to his role in repressing the “woman, life, freedom” protests.

Older Iranians revile Raisi for his role as deputy prosecutor in Tehran in 1988 when, at the age of 28, he played a prominent role in a movement that killed as many as 30,000 political prisoners, mostly members of the People’s Mujahedin Organisation in Iran (MEK).

In 2019 he was chosen as head of the judiciary by Khamenei, a role he used to increase state hostage-taking and continue domestic repression through revolutionary courts.

Patrick Wintour is the Diplomatic Editor of the Guardian

Courtesy: The Guardian, London


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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi Dies in Helicopter Crash

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The hardline Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, has died in a helicopter crash in foggy weather in the mountains near the border with Azerbaijan. The charred wreckage of the aircraft, which crashed on Sunday carrying Raisi, as well as the foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and six other passengers and crew, was found early on Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions.

Fears had been growing for Raisi, a 63-year-old ultraconservative, after contact was lost with the helicopter on Sunday as it navigated fog-covered mountains in north-west Iran.

The helicopter carrying Ebrahim Raisi takes off near the border with Azerbaijan on Sunday. Photograph: Ali Hamed Haghdoust/AP

The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who holds ultimate power with a final say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear programme – said the country’s first vice-president, Mohammad Mokhber, would take over as interim president. The deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, was appointed as acting foreign minister.

“I announce five days of public mourning and offer my condolences to the dear people of Iran,” Khamenei said. Mokhber, like Raisi, is seen as close to Khamenei. Under Iran’s constitution, a new presidential election must be held within 50 days.

Iranian state media blamed bad weather for the crash and said it was complicating rescue efforts. Raisi’s convoy had included three helicopters, and the other two had “reached their destination safely”, Tasnim news agency reported.

The incident happened near Jolfa, a city on the border with Azerbaijan, about 375 miles (600km) north-west of the Iranian capital, Tehran. The president had been travelling in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The state-run IRNA news agency broadcast footage of an Iranian Red Crescent team walking up a slope in thick fog, as well as live footage of crowds of worshippers reciting prayers in the holy shrine of Imam Reza in the city of Mashhad, Raisi’s home town.

Rescue team members work at the crash site of a helicopter carrying Raisi in Varzaghan, in north-west Iran Photograph: Azin Haghighi/MOJ News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

More than 70 rescue teams using search dogs and drones were sent to the site, the Red Crescent said, and the chief of staff of Iran’s army ordered all the resources of the army and the elite Revolutionary Guards to be deployed.

Iran owns a number of helicopters but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain parts for them. Most of its military air fleet predates the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Countries in the region sent their well-wishes and offers of support, including Iraq and Qatar, but also Saudi Arabia, which has long been a regional foe. The Saudi foreign ministry was following reports about the crash with “great concern”, the country’s state news agency reported.

The US president, Joe Biden, had been briefed on the crash, an American official said on condition of anonymity.NThe Turkish president said he was saddened to hear of the crash. “I convey my best wishes to our neighbour, friend and brother Iranian people and government, and I hope to receive good news from Mr Raisi and his delegation as soon as possible,” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a post on the social media platform X.

The Iran-backed militant group Hamas, fighting Israeli forces in Gaza with Tehran’s support, issued a statement expressing sympathy to the Iranian people for “this immense loss”. Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group and the Houthi rebels in Yemen also issued statements praising Raisi and mourning his death.

Raisi was a hardliner who formerly led the country’s judiciary. He was viewed as a protege of Khamenei, and some analysts had suggested that he could replace the 85-year-old leader.

He won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, for which the turnout was the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s history. Raisi was under sanctions by the US in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

Under Raisi, Iran enriched uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampered international inspections. Iran has supplied arms to Russia in its war on Ukraine, and launched a substantial drone and missile attack on Israel. It continues to arm proxy groups in the Middle East, such as the Houthi rebels and Hezbollah.

Mass protests in the country have raged for years. The most recent involved the death in 2022 of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been detained for allegedly not wearing a hijab to the liking of authorities.

The months-long security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and more than 22,000 were detained.

Reuters contributed to this report


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INTERNATIONAL POLITICS

Red Notice: Putin is Nearby

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By Dr Chidi Amuta

Putin is nearby. Precisely, Russia’s ambitious global influencer of illiberal  order has docked next door. In Niger Republic to be exact. At the end of April, the military junta in Niger kicked out the American military advisers and tiny troop contingent from their country. Earlier, they had forced the U.S drone and surveillance base in Agadez to shut down. As part of a halfhearted diplomatic move to repair military relations with Niger, an American delegation went to hold talks with the regime in Niamey.

Almost on the same day, officials of the junta were reportedly showing a Russian military advance party around what used to be the American military base. The intent was obvious. The Russians were in the process of being handed the keys of what used to be a US base or at least preparing the grounds for an active security relationship with Moscow. Though the janitors are yet to hand over the keys of the former US base to the Russians, the signals are clear.

Earlier on, the military junta in Niger had chased away the French ambassador to the country, thus ending centuries of French influence in the country. Of course, the military dictators were towing the same line as their colleagues in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. A rushed end to French presence and influence in these former French colonies has since become the central foreign policy doctrine of the new autocrats in what used to be Francophone West Africa.

Official Moscow is still predictably silent on its intentions. But what is clear is Moscow’s preparations to replace the West, specifically the United State and France as the strategic influence in Niger Republic and its environs. And with the exit of both French and American military presence in Niger, the door has been thrown wide open for their replacement by Russia. Of course Russia’s interest in Africa especially West and Central Africa has never been disguised in recent times.

Prior to the demise of the bullish Yevgeny Prigozyn and the decline of his Wagner mercenary force, Russian commercial and security presence in these parts of Africa had been quite pronounced but diplomatically muted. Now what began as an expeditionary mercenary commercial interest is about to graduate into a full blown strategic military and security presence and interest from Moscow.

The presence of US troops and the drone base coupled with the presence of a French protection force in West Africa remained  for a long time part of the international arrangement to keep jihadist terrorists from drifting towards the south of West Africa. Countries like Nigeria were prime beneficiaries of the US presence in Niger. It was more importantly part of an international strategic engagement to barricade the region from a rampaging Jihadist onslaught from the Sahel.

This logic of containment and protection remained the major plank of Western influence remained valid until the rapid reduction of French presence and influence in the region by new military regimes. It all began with Mali which had earlier evicted French diplomats from Bamako. This was followed by the withdrawal of French protection troops from Mali and subsequently the other major West African former French territories now under military dictatorship: Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger and possibly Chad.

There a historical context to Russia’s residual appeal in parts  of Africa. Instructively, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world was gripped by anxiety. On March 2nd, the UN General Assembly voted on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Of the 54 African member states, 28 voted against Russia while 17 abstained and 8 refused to show up. Towards Russia or more precisely the old Soviet Union, some nostalgia among an ageing generation of elite.

Many of these older African elite recall the days of the Cold War and the old USSR’s identification with Africa’s causes especially anti colonialism and anti Apartheid. Ideological nostalgia towards the Red Empire is strongest in places like Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa where political parties that pioneered the independence and anti racist struggles were backed by the old Soviet Union.

At the present time, Russian influence in Africa remains sporadic and uncoordinated but cannot be ignored as a significant part of the strategic future of the continent. In 2019, the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi was attended by 43 African countries. It was a forum for Mr. Putin to critique the West’s policies towards Africa.

Nonetheless, Russia’s trade with Africa is only 2% of Africa’s goods trade with the rest of the world. A Russian bank VEB now under Western sanctions is a shareholder in the African Development Bank. Even then, Russia’s economic and military interest and roles in some African fragile states remains considerable. Russia is the largest arms supplier to African countries, a net extractor of mineral and other resources and a prop for fragile even if unpopular regimes. But with all its noisy presence in world affairs, Russia remains an unlikely agent of economic benefit for African countries.

The Russian economy is about the size of that of Italy. So, Russia is not in a position to act as an attractive agent of development in Africa. Russia is still a relatively poor country. Its companies playing in the African economic theatre are most extractive industry interlopers and state sponsored thieving entities. Russian infrastructure companies are still not interested in contracts in African countries. African tourist and business travel interests in Russia is next to zero. So, by and large any renewed Russian interest in parts of Africa will remain a matter of limited mutual convenience. Security assistance in return for opportunities for Russian rogue companies to come in and make some quick cash while the Russian state increases its foothold  and authoritarian leverage against the Western liberal order.

For Nigeria, the implications of the exit of two major Western powers from our immediate northern frontier are many and far reaching. Nigeria’s exposure in this regard are threefold. First, the security safe corridor  against jihadist terrorist expansion from the Sahel is instantly closed. Without American drones, intelligence and French troops on the ground, Nigeria is exposed. Our national security is further compromised. The jihadists are now free to roam free from centres in Niger into the troubled northern parts of Nigeria.

Secondly, the military presence of Russia in Niger and other parts of what used to be French West Africa immediately signals a decline of Western influence in the region and its replacement with an antithetical Russian influence. Russian security presence and strategic influence in an area now under military dictatorship effectively means the shrinking of the frontiers of freedom and democratic rule and its replacement with an authoritarian influence. Russian is not known to be a patron of democracy and freedom anywhere in the world. It cannot possibly export what it does not have at home.

Hidden under the above two meanings is a clear and present threat to Western influence in West Africa. The timing of this development in world history is fortuitous. We are in an era where the Cold War has been replaced by an increasing hemispheric war of nerves and rhetoric between Western democracies as we have come to know them and a rising authoritarian counter force. The counter force is being guaranteed by the growing influence and fortunes of China.  Russia, North Korea, Iran and other client states of the same ilk are taking shelter under China’s bloated bank accounts to keep the West uncomfortable.

Nigeria’s political response to the developments in Niger have shown little of an enlightened national self interest. At the time the coupists toppled Niger’s democratic government, Nigeria was in a position to prevent the coup and its nasty consequences. Former president Buhari had a close personal relationship with the democratic leadership in Niger.

Even after Buhari’s tenure, his successor Mr. Tinubu woefully failed to use his position as the new Chairman of ECOWAS to neutralize the coup in Niger. Nigeria was in an eminent position to use its economic and military preponderance in the region to stifle the Niger coupists. We failed.

A few tepid diplomatic threats and fickle sanctions failed to deter the dictatorship in Niamey. The junta got stronger, compared notes with those in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. They got stronger together and became a threat to ECOWAS from which they threatened a pullout. ECOWAS solidarity was broken. The bloc buckled. Its military weakness was on open display as they could neither effect an ultimatum to use force if necessary. Individual member nations reached out to the Niger and other dictators and made individual deals.

Nigeria’s resolve was broken. We shamefully restored electricity supply to Niger, lifted our limited and effete sanctions. And now the Niger junta has dug in and has admitted a potential destabilizing force into our immediate northern frontier. By creating room for the exit of the West from Niger and the tacit admission of Russian influence into the region, Nigeria has shot itself in the foot.

There is something more frightening in our political response to this development. The possibility that the United States and France could decide to pitch tent in Nigeria by negotiating military basing footholds here is far fetched. But even then, it is being opposed vehemently by some politicians instead of being welcomed enthusiastically.

In Nigerian political circles, the debate has been as to whether Nigeria should allow France and the United States to establish military bases in its territory. As is typical in our lazy politics of sectarianism, regionalism and divisiveness, the most eloquent voices of opposition to possible Western military bases in Nigeria have come from northern political voices. This is not only sad but also not backed by any iota of strategic insight and knowledge of basic national interests.

Ironically, the North is the region immediately exposed to the consequences of the withdrawal of Western forces from Niger. It has become the epicenter of national insecurity and instability of the kind associated with increasing jihadist activities. It is the home base of banditry. It is a free market for the spread of small and medium arms from the theatres of trouble in the Sahel, Northern Africa and the Middle East. It is the area where schools are being sacked and farming disrupted. It is the source of herdsmen turned into killers, armed robbers and kidnappers.

More pointedly, there is nothing that says that should Nigeria consider it strategically wise, Western military bases in the country must be located in any particular zone of the country. Such bases can be located anywhere in the country. And they often have collateral economic benefits to the host communities as in places like Djibouti, South Korea and Germany where US military bases are part of the local economic life.

In the world of modern technology, possible Western military bases can be located anywhere in the country. Advanced intelligence gathering and surveillance systems now allow major world powers to gather intelligence, order operations and manage military outcomes from virtually anywhere. The drones that decimated Al Queda in Afghanistan and Pakistan emanated from drone command bases in the deserts of far away Nevada. Donald Trump ordered the drone assassination of Iran’s General Soliman at Baghdad airport from the comfort of the Oval Office in far away Washington.

The long term strategic and overall national interest of Nigeria are better served if we rise above petty regional narrow views of the developments unfolding in our Northern frontier. First, we need to protect the nation from the spread of jihadist insurgency and terrorism. We need to remain enlisted in the international effort to defeat Jihadist terrorism decisively. We need to protect freedom and democratic rule as a heritage after more than four decades of military dictatorship in our history. Consequentially, we need to act in concert with the rest of the free world to discourage Russia’s active promotion and tacit marketing of authoritarianism and anti democratic ideas around the world.

Incidentally, among the salesmen of authoritarianism in the world, Russia is handicapped. Unlike China, Russia is neither an agent of economic development nor a model of cultural inclusiveness and universalism. Few free and happy people want to make Moscow their preferred holiday or business travel destination.

Dr. Amuta, a Nigerian journalist, intellectual and literary critic, was previously a senior lecturer in literature and communications at the universities of Ife and Port Harcourt.


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