African Union Ousts Israeli Diplomat
Old enmities resurface as Netanyahu’s efforts for a diplomatic reset in Africa are tested.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Nigeria prepares for a close election, Turkey’s African allies come to its aid, and a dangerous cyclone approaches southern Africa.
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What Is the Future of Africa’s Ties With Israel?
Israel’s senior delegate to the African Union summit in Ethiopia was unceremoniously removed Saturday, causing a diplomatic uproar. There had been tensions brewing over how Israel was granted observer status to the AU despite a long-standing stance by African member states to support Palestine.
A widely viewed video appears to show a security guard approaching the Israeli delegation during the opening ceremony in Addis Ababa. There was a discussion, and Sharon Bar-li, the Israeli foreign ministry’s deputy director-general for Africa, is then seen to leave alongside a security guard.
Israel has blamed South Africa and Algeria for the incident. “Israel views seriously the incident in which the deputy for Africa, Ambassador Sharon Bar-li, was removed from the African Union hall despite her status as an accredited observer with access badges,” foreign ministry spokesperson Lior Hayat is quoted by the Times of Israel as saying.
“It is sad to see that the African Union has been taken hostage by a small number of extremist countries such as Algeria and South Africa, driven by hatred and controlled by Iran,” Hayat added.
Some of the animosity has deep roots. Israel has a long and tumultuous diplomatic history in Africa. In the early years after the country was founded, Israeli leaders steeped in socialist Zionism, such as Golda Meir, cultivated close ties with newly independent African states while often condemning apartheid in South Africa. After the 1967 Six-Day War, many African governments began to sour on Israel—increasingly viewing it as a colonial occupying power—and gravitate toward oil-rich Arab states, leading to increasingly hard-nosed realism among Israeli leaders across the political spectrum.
This realignment came to a head after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel began to pursue closer diplomatic and defense ties with apartheid South Africa. It marked the beginning of a long and lucrative alliance that included extensive arms sales to the apartheid regime in Pretoria and lasted until the early 1990s—a relationship that is still resented by South Africa’s government today.
The Organisation of African Unity, which preceded the AU, formally denounced Israel in 1975 for its treatment of the Palestinians and called for members to support their struggle. Palestine gained observer status at the AU in 2002, when Israel’s status was revoked. However, in 2021, Israel was granted observer status through a unilateral decision by the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, who was accused of not consulting member countries.
A committee was set up to review the dispute. South Africa and Algeria demanded that the accreditation be withdrawn. It “is even more shocking in a year in which the oppressed people of Palestine were hounded by destructive bombardments and continued illegal settlements of the land,” the South African government said in a statement at the time. “South Africa firmly believes that as long as Israel is not willing to negotiate a peace plan without preconditions, it should not have observer status” in the AU.
Israel rebuilt ties with many African nations after the end of the Cold War. In recent years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has aimed to form closer ties with other African countries and attempted to push for African states to establish embassies—controversially—in Jerusalem. He has had limited success, including normalization of ties with Morocco and a similar process in Sudan. This month, Chadian President Mahamat Déby opened the country’s first embassy in Tel Aviv, despite pressure to have it in Jerusalem.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, Feb. 22, to Sunday, Feb. 26: U.S. first lady Jill Biden visits Namibia and Kenya.
Friday, Feb. 24: Djibouti holds parliamentary elections.
Saturday, Feb. 25: Nigerians vote in elections for the House of Representatives, Senate, and president.
Monday, Feb. 27: South Africa’s naval exercises with Russia and China are scheduled to end.
The United Nations Security Council discusses the U.N. mission in Libya.
What We’re Watching
Nigeria currency chaos. A decision by the Central Bank of Nigeria to redesign the country’s currency, the naira, ahead of general elections this month has led to a currency shortage and protests in key cities across the country. The central bank did not release enough new naira notes to replace old notes deposited by Nigerians across the country, and banks have limited cash withdrawals. Banks in Ogun state were torched on Monday as people struggled to pay for goods in markets and at gas stations.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to disregard a Supreme Court ruling suspending a Feb. 10 deadline to replace higher-value 200-, 500- and 1,000-naira notes has caused divisions within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). After the court directive, Buhari gave a state broadcast that old 200-naira notes could still be used until April 10 but old higher-value notes would cease to be legal tender. At least 10 states are suing the federal government. The APC governor of Kaduna state, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, has said his local government will continue to accept the old notes and accused Buhari of flouting democratic standards by “showing open contempt” for the Supreme Court ruling.
Nigeria’s economy is largely cash-based because electronic payments and digital transfers take hours due to electricity outages and poor internet connectivity and rural areas have few or no bank branches. Protests have broken out across the South, including in Ibadan, Benin City, Delta state, and the commercial capital Lagos. There are warnings from ballot observers that the fallout will lead to further insecurity.
Burkina Faso-France relations. Burkina Faso’s military junta has announced that the French military operation in the country has ceased. In January, Burkina Faso gave France a month to withdraw its 400 special forces who were helping to combat Islamist insurgencies. French foreign policy across Francophone Africa has become increasingly unpopular with the public, with repeated demands for French officials and members of its army to leave.
France has sought to blame these tensions on Russian disinformation and propaganda, however, and Russian contractors such as the Wagner Group have exploited the tensions to gain security contracts.
Cyclone threatens southern Africa. Cyclone Freddy, a large storm with sustained winds of approximately 140 miles per hour—equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane—struck Madagascar on Tuesday and is on track to hit the eastern coast of Mozambique north of the capital, Maputo, on Thursday. It caused minor damage in Mauritius but is expected to cause landslides and displacement in Madagascar before weakening and continuing to Mozambique’s coast. The BBC estimates that 600,000 people in Mozambique could be affected. In March 2019, Cyclone Idai caused devastation in Mozambique and surrounding countries, killing more than 1,500 people.
This Week in Disaster Diplomacy
Turkey-Africa cooperation. African countries have sent rescue teams in response to the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6. Since he rose to power in 2003, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cultivated a relationship with the continent and steadily expanded Ankara’s African footprint. His administration marked 2005 as “the year of Africa,” and Turkey’s investments on the continent include a mosque in Ghana, an Olympic pool in Senegal, and an army base in Somalia training 10,000 local troops.
Burundi sent a “specialized natural disaster intervention team in solidarity with the brotherly people of Turkey,” Burundian Foreign Minister Albert Shingiro said in a tweet. In addition, Libya, Algeria, South Africa, Sudan, and Tunisia have all sent teams to aid in search and rescue efforts in Turkey, and Egypt announced that it has sent military planes carrying emergency medical aid.
Erdogan has sought to emulate China’s relationship with the continent through summits and forums, with the last Turkey-Africa summit being in December 2021.
Chart of the Week
A record 93.5 million people are registered to vote in Nigeria on Feb. 25 in what will be Africa’s biggest democratic election. Top among voters’ priorities are the country’s economy and escalating insecurity.
Several polls have predicted that Labour Party candidate Peter Obi will win, largely supported by young voters. Obi is a former governor of southeastern Anambra state and was the vice presidential nominee for the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party in the 2019 elections. He is regarded as being largely untainted by corruption allegations compared with the other front-runners.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• What Putin Got Right by Stephen M. Walt
• Russia Has Already Lost in the Long Run by Brent Peabody
• The Drone War in Ukraine Is Cheap, Deadly, and Made in China by Faine Greenwood
What We’re Reading
Europe’s polluting cars. Gideon Sarpong in iWatch Africa examines how traders of European used cars and spare parts are taking advantage of Ghana’s weak regulations to sell end-of-life vehicles that raise environmental pollution levels. In a 2020 study, around 80 percent of vehicles exported to West African countries from the Netherlands, for example, were found to be below the European Union’s emissions standards. Ghana has failed to implement legislation passed in 2020 that aimed to ban the import of vehicles older than 10 years.
The rise of the African bourgeoisie. In Africa Is a Country, William Shoki makes the case that the middle class is driving politics in Africa. With a focus on Peter Obi’s success in the Nigerian election campaign and South Africa’s fading ruling party, he argues that a “dynamic worth getting to grips with is taking shape in African politics, namely the outsized influence of the middle class in setting the political agenda and laying the discursive environment. … With the working class down and out, it is arguably the middle class that will play the more decisive role in politics going forward.”
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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