by PETER DOERRIE
Democratic Republic of Congo
The DRC will hold presidential elections in December and tensions run high in the country that is still in the process of emerging from decades of violence and civil war. Clashes between demonstrators and security forces with injured and dead happen on a regular basis in many parts of the country. The volatile east of the country, where the government still has only little control outside the larger cities, has experienced an escalation of violence, partly caused by a hasty relocation of newly trained army units into areas currently controlled by competing rebel factions. And as security in neighboring Burundi deteriorates, Burundian opposition forces based in the DRC have committed several brutal attacks against perceived supporters of the Burundian government.
If the current level of violence is only a stage in the run-up to the elections, or the opening act of a new phase of violence especially in the east, will be largely determined by the elections themselves and the behavior of the current authorities. Blatant attempts of election rigging and oppression of the political opposition as well as heavy-handed actions of the security forces are a sure way of alienating large parts of the society, which is already heavily critical of the incumbent Joseph Kabila in some areas. Sadly, this seems to be exactly what is happening at the moment, with the Kabila administration restricting the free movement of opposition candidates and allegations of manipulated voter registries making the rounds.
Ethiopia has been a strong ally to the U.S. since at least 2006, when Ethiopia invaded neighboring Somalia to remove the Islamic Court Union from power in the southern part of the country. Now, the relationship seems to have reached a new high, with a U.S. drone base in the Ethiopian town of Arba Minch going operational. U.S. officials stress that the Reaper drones are only equipped with surveillance gear, but together with the establishment of other new U.S. bases in the region, the move is a significant escalation of U.S. efforts to project military force to the volatile Horn of Africa region.
Gulf of Guinea
Piracy is on the rise not only in Somalia, but also in the Gulf of Guinea on Africa’s west coast. A ship carrying petroleum products has been captured off the coast of Nigeria. The goal of the pirates is usually not ransom (as it is in Somalia), but the cargo itself, which is looted from the ship after which the vessel and crew is usually released unharmed. Even though the countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea (one of the world’s most important oil production areas) are not comparable to the anarchic state of Somalia, the local authorities seem to be unable to curb the threat from freebooters.
Kenya and Somalia
In a surprising move, Kenya reacted to repeated cases of kidnapping on its border with Somalia with a full-blown invasion. The operation started on October 15 and involves ground troops as well as air raids. Kenya said its actions are targeted at the Somali militia Al Shabab, who they see as responsible for the recent string of kidnappings of Westerners, which threatens Kenya’s tourism industry. Al Shabab has denied all involvement in the crimes.
By choosing the military option, Kenya joins Ugandan and Burundian forces, which are stationed in Mogadishu as part of an African Union mission to support the Somali Transitional Federal Government. Although this coalition has made recent gains in its fight against militants and tribal militias, barely more than the capital itself is under their control, with Al Shabab still holding most of southern and middle Somalia. It is questionable if the ill-equipped and inexperienced Kenyan army can really deliver a satisfying outcome of the operation, which at the moment seems to be designed to create a buffer zone in Somali territory. A similar offensive was staged by Ethiopia in 2006 with U.S. support. The generally more experienced Ethiopian troops had to admit defeat in 2009 and retreat amid heavy losses.
Boko Haram, the islamic sect that opposes the central government of Nigeria in the North of the country, has staged another two attacks after the devastating bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja last September.
The first of these happened late on Friday in the northern town of Damaturu, where at least 50 people are said to have been killed by bombs and gunfire which lasted until late in the night. Only few further details on this attack are available at the moment, but it seems to have targeted churches and a police headquarters.
Earlier, four separate explosions ripped through Maiduguri, also in northern Nigeria. While one of the explosions was triggered by suicide bombers at an army base close to the town, the other three were IEDs which simultaneously targeted social gatherings in the town itself. Thankfully, only seven people were injured in the blasts.
The level of sophistication, which was already displayed in the U.N. attacks in Abuja, and the style of the bombings seem to give credit to allegations that Boko Haram is in contact with and receives training from Al Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM. The Nigerian state seems to be increasingly unable to handle the threat posed by Islamist extremists. While the reaction of the security forces will predictably be swift and violent, these measures have so far yielded little in the fight against extremism in Nigeria and are more likely than not to aggravate the problem rather than solve it.
Large-scale fighting has erupted in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states in the southern part of Sudan (which borders on the newly independent South Sudan). After government forces repelled an attack on Talodi by fighters of the Sudanese People Liberation Army North (SPLA-N) — dozens of fighters on both sides were killed — it has now moved to capture the rebel-held town of Kurmuk on the Ethiopian border. The SPLA-N has admitted to the defeat in both cases, but says it continues to control large parts of the territory in the two states.
As the SPLA-N is said to still get significant political and military support from its sister organization in South Sudan (which is now the official government in the newly created nation), the fighting has to be seen in the context of continued tensions between North and South Sudan. Despite the independence of the southern part of the country this year, important questions like the exact demarcation of the common border and the conditions of oil transfers from the South to the Red Sea are still unresolved. The Northern government also seems to be keen on sending the various other rebel movements on its territory the clear message that they should not take the independence of the South as an incentive.