Trou­ble­some tran­si­tions

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS - BY PA­TRICK SMITH ed­i­to­rial@theafricare­port.com

Aweird global sym­me­try in geopol­i­tics pre­vailed on 20 Jan­uary. Just as the vain­glo­ri­ous Yahya Jam­meh was be­ing shooed from State House in Banjul by West African sol­diers in de­fence of democ­racy, Don­ald J. Trump was pre­par­ing for his swear­ing-in as US pres­i­dent. There are psy­cho­log­i­cal as well as tem­po­ral links be­tween the two events. Lead­ers with over-mighty opin­ions of them­selves rarely end well. Both men share a ten­u­ous un­der­stand­ing of sci­ence, whether of the med­i­cal or cli­mate va­ri­ety. Equally, their com­mon dis­dain for jour­nal­ists and at­tempts to strong-arm the me­dia have only height­ened pop­u­lar sus­pi­cions of them. Un­til a few weeks ago, it seemed point­less to ask about Trump’s Africa pol­icy. The con­ti­nent had not cropped up in any pol­icy dis­cus­sions dur­ing the cam­paign, ex­cept Trump’s con­tention that Hil­lary Clin­ton was neg­li­gent in pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity for diplo­mats in Libya be­fore they were killed in a ji­hadist at­tack. Even the fact that Egypt’s au­thor­i­tar­ian pres­i­dent, Ab­del Fat­tah al-sisi, was the first for­eign leader to con­grat­u­late Trump on his vic­tory hardly moved the dial. Days later, a few de­tails emerged. J. Peter Pham, di­rec­tor of the Africa Cen­ter at the At­lantic Coun­cil, was the fron­trun­ner to be­come the new as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for African af­fairs. Then Trump an­nounced Gen­eral Michael Flynn, who was dis­missed as head of the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency, would be his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser. Flynn has ap­pointed Marine Sergeant Robert Town­ley, a na­tional in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, to work with him on African se­cu­rity mat­ters. The two men take a ro­bust view, re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to the ap­proach of Egypt’s Sisi, on the need to face down Is­lamist groups in Africa and the Mid­dle East. Slowly, the pieces were com­ing to­gether. Then we learned that the rogue Libyan gen­eral Khal­ifa Haf­tar, whose Libyan Na­tional Army en­joys strong back­ing from Sisi and Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin, had sent an en­voy to Washington to re­quest as­sis­tance from the Trump team. Haf­tar, a long-time Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency as­set, is cur­rently try­ing to top­ple the Un-recog­nised gov­ern­ment in Tripoli and pick­ing fights with se­lected ji­hadist groups. We un­der­stand that Haf­tar’s en­voy met Flynn and the mes­sage was well re­ceived. From hav­ing no dis­cernible Africa pol­icy, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion could find it­self em­broiled in one of the con­ti­nent’s most in­tractable con­flicts. Ini­tially, Haf­tar may not need arms from the US – he just signed up to buy $2bn worth of weapons sys­tems from Rus­sia – as much as mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers, in­tel­li­gence and diplo­matic sup­port. Should the US un­der Trump aban­don its sup­port for the ad­mit­tedly shaky peace ne­go­ti­a­tions and throw its lot in with Haf­tar, an es­ca­la­tion in the war there looks in­evitable. Few Libyans think that the out­come would be a more co­her­ent state. Rather, the op­po­site is likely, a fur­ther splin­ter­ing of the coun­try into au­tonomous re­gions or statelets and an­other mass mi­gra­tion across the Sa­hel of ji­hadist forces set on wreak­ing havoc in the rest of Africa.

From hav­ing no Africa pol­icy, Trump looks set to be­come em­broiled in con­flict

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