On 24 October 2018, when “Davos in the Desert” had been seriously compromised by the Khashoggi murder, the Ethiopian Prime Minister gave the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Ben Salman a warm handshake at a time when such signs of sympathy were rare. A fortnight earlier, his Emirati ally had inaugurated the refurbishment of the harbour facilities at Berbera in Somaliland, a country with no internationally recognised legal existence and hence not a member of the UN. To protect itself diplomatically, Abu Dhabi had sent to the inauguration only Sultan Bin Sulayman, managing director of DP World, the parastatal Dubai company, which represented an investment but not official recognition. What are we to deduce from these two ambiguous gestures? That the Arab-Muslim quarrels have repercussions well beyond the Arab world, across all of Africa.
The crisis which began on 5 June 2017 pitting Saudi Arabia and its allies, on the one hand, against Qatar and its friends on the other, has always been viewed as a split within the Arab-Muslim world. For Saudi Arabia, that colossus with feet of clay, the “Arab Spring” was a threat and a warning. Like Nasserian socialism and Khomeini’s religious revolution in their day, the new rivalry between revolutionary Islam and liberal democracy in the Arab world since 2011 constitutes a two-pronged threat to the Saudi power structure and its theological conservatism, based on a clannish annexation of Sunni Salafist fundamentalism. Yet neither Qatar nor its de facto allies, Turkey and Iran, had the same interpretation of those events, and their partly ideological rivalry with Riyadh was to become a geopolitical one in which an increasing number of African territories have come to be implicated.
The First to Succumb: Sudan North and South
Khartoum sided with the Saudi military from the very start of Riyadh’s attack on Yemen in 2015, chiefly for financial reasons. Khartoum sent as an expeditionary force not its regular army but a militia drawn from certain Arab tribes—mainly Rizzeyqats, sub-clans originating in Mahariya—under the name of Rapid Support Forces (RSF). These do not answer to the Defence Ministry but to the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) which uses them as shock troops in Darfur where they have been accused of atrocities against the civilian population. The RSF have been operative only on the Northern front in Yemen where they have had little success against the Houthists and have sustained heavy losses. Khartoum is quite dissatisfied with this involvement, since Riyadh originally promised five billion dollars, whereas the amounts actually paid have been considerably less.
To try and up the ante, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bachir played host to the Turkish Chief of State Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on 24 and 25 December 2017. Now as it happens, Erdoğan had gone to the rescue of Qatar in June 2017 at a time when, having broken off relations with the emirate, Saudi Prince Mohamed Ben Salman was seriously considering overthrowing by force the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Ben Hamad Al-Thani. Erdoğan sent a small expeditionary force to Doha with orders to open fire if necessary. The effect on Riyadh was dissuasive. Since then Erdoğan has strengthened his alliance with Khartoum by obtaining what amounts to a retrocession to Turkey of the harbour city of Suakin, former capital of colonial Soudan at the time of Turkish-Egyptian rule and the Ottoman Empire. The two presidents visited the port together and Erdoğan promised his Sudanese counterpart to “rebuild the city.” For good measure, he hoisted the Turkish flag, which was neither to the liking of the Americans, involved in a face-off with Erdoğan’s army in Kurdish Syria, nor of the Saudis.
Now the fitna1 has even been extended to South Sudan, where the Libyan general Khalifa Haftar has been supplying logistic and financial aid to the Sudan Liberation Army – Minni Minawi (SLA-MM), a Darfurian guerilla formation commanded by Minni Arko Minnawi who advocates the forceful overthrow of the government in Khartoum. It is by way of the latter and his ally, Gibril Ibrahim with his Movement for Justice and Equality (MJE), that Khartoum is deeply involved in the spiralling conflict that has spread as far as the African Great Lakes. Indeed, the two Darfurian groups have sided with the government in the South Sudanese capital, Juba (Salva Kiir Mayardit’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, SPLM). In a web of diplomatic manoeuvres which is paradoxical, to say the least, both these Darfurian rebel groups support the SPLM government which is allied with Khartoum! Why? Because neither can survive without the aid of Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda regime which supports Salva Kiir and keeps the government in Juba alive. Which is why the recent “South Sudanese peace agreement” in September 2018 was signed in Khartoum and was aimed at a two-fold “uncoupling”: the Darfurians withdrew from the South and Museveni agreed to put an end to his aid to the anti-Khartoum rebels based in the Kordofan region.
From Libya to Ethiopia, More Paradoxical Alliances
The deployment of the forces of the anti-Houthist and anti-Qatari alliance is also a fait accompli in Eritrea, where they have a base of operations in the port of Assab and hence the capacity to extend their field of action as far as Berbera in Somaliland. Now, the Houthists have already stated that any incursion of Emirati troops would make Berbera a target for their military operations. For the moment, this is an empty threat, but the Sanaa government has received delivery of Iranian missiles—already launched against Saudi Arabia — which has set a precedent. At the same time the Emiratis are advancing further along the African coast since they have also signed another agreement with the de facto rulers of Puntland, an autonomous region of Somalia, concerning the port of Bosaso on the Indian Ocean2. Further south, in Mogadishu, the Turks have built a large base with accommodations for several thousand men3 and harbour facilities.
As for the internationally recognised government of Somalia, presided over by President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo,” it has abandoned its initial alliance with Qatar to fall in line with the other Horn States and side with Riyadh in keeping with the pattern set by Eritrea and Ethiopia. However, this reversal is far from complete and all the Qatari and Emirati agents within the Somalian secret police—and the country’s tiny army—are still fighting it out in episodes worthy of an adventure novel.
Another conjunction between the Gulf and the Horn of Africa is the way in which Egyptian fears that the forthcoming impoundment of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile may seriously reduce the country’s hydraulic resources, have thrown it into the arms of Eritrea, with a push from the Emirates. In reaction to Erdoğan’s visit to Suakin and his “appropriation” of that location, Egyptian military forces arrived discreetly in Eritrea early in 2018 and took up a position on the North Sudanese frontier at the intersection of the three countries – Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Small in number but , these units are there to protect both the activists of the anti-Ethiopian alliance created by Eritrea and those of the anti-Sudanese East Front, recruited among the Beja clans.
All of this happened soon after peace had been made on 9 July 2018 between Asmara and Addis Abeba, when the two countries officially decided to stop supporting their neighbour’s rebel groups. At the July 2018 summit of the African Union (AU), Sudan and Egypt did their best to minimize their divergences, which in fact boil down to the issue of the rate of flow of the waters of the Nile, but this could not conceal the victory of Ethiopia which can go on building the GERD. However, western Eritrea is far from being the only area of confrontation between Cairo and Khartoum since they are backing two enemy camps in the Libyan civil war, where Khartoum supports Fayez Serraj’s “official” government in Tripoli, while Cairo provides (unofficial) aid to general Khalifa Haftar’s Bengazzi-based regime.4
Beyond the Horn
However, while the Horn of Africa constitutes an all but traditional hinterland for the Arab Peninsula, the importance of the current fitna has continued—and still continues—to extend the area affected by what could be translated from the Arabic as a “radical quarrel.” Already, in June 2017, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Senegal had broken off diplomatic relations with Doha, following the example of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain5. While at the same, other African countries—such as Sierra Leone or Ghana—have opened embassies in Qatar. Financially motivated diplomacy? No doubt, but not exclusively, as becomes obvious when we analyse the positions adopted by the members of the military mini-coalition headed by France and dubbed “G5 Sahel” at its first meeting in November 2017. While Mali and Burkina Fasso refuse for the moment to break with Doha6 the most virulent severance was announced by Chadian president Idriss Deby for directly political reasons : his most dangerous enemy, Timam Erdimi, resides in Doha under Qatari protection.
So the great fitna is no longer simply a conflict between established regimes and Islamist rebels, it now encompasses, by way of the “princes’ camp” (the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates) the issue of the modernisation—or non-modernisation—of the Muslim world. And beyond its frontiers, the issue of who will be the allies of this modernisation. The extension of the fitna has been globalised, including in ways which must be seen as paradoxical to say the least, a political struggle which has been carried as far away as the Great Lakes. Thus, what began in June 2017 as a strategic disagreement among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, has taken over en bloc a huge share of the African continent, has practically taken it hostage. A fact of which some external players, such as France flanked by its G5, scarcely seem to have noticed.
1This term designates a political and theological quarrel which endangers Islam and applies most appropriately to the Gulf crisis.
2Unlike Somaliland, Puntland has never declared itself independent and remains nominally subject to the authority of Mogadishu, even if this is actually an administrative fiction.
3Few have actually arrived there, but the huge terrorist attack on 14 October 2017 in Mogadishu (535 dead) was aimed at the Turkish base.
4In special cases, the Egyptian air force has launched strikes in support of General Haftar’s ground troops.
5Dakar reversed this decision in September.
6The Saudis, who have already contributed 100 million dollars to the G5 (and will be asked for more) are insisting on a radical break.