What is behind the renewed violence in Central African Republic?

CAR will struggle to break the cycle of violence without international commitment to end it

Militiamen of the armed group coalition Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) in the village of Niakari, which marks the front line with Central African army and its allies, north of Bangassou. On January 3, 2021, the city of Bangassou was attacked by hundreds of CPC militiamen, causing tens of thousands of people to flee into the bush and neighbouring DR Congo. Since the end of December 2020, the rebel coalition has taken control of the main roads and several of the country’s major cities. Photo: Alexis Huguet/AFP

On January 4, the incumbent president of Central African Republic (CAR), Faustin-Archange Touadéra, was re-elected for a second term after the country’s electoral commission announced he defeated 16 other candidates and garnered 53.9 percent of the vote, enough to render a runoff unnecessary.

DThe elections have generated an upsurge in violence triggered following the Constitutional Court’s rejection of former President François Bozizé’s candidacy on December 3. The court cited his failure to meet the constitution’s “good morality” requirement due to an international warrant and UN sanctions against him for his alleged involvement in assassinations, torture and other crimes during his tenure.

Following the announcement, Bozizé joined a coalition of armed groups, the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), some of whom were formerly part of the Séléka coalition which toppled him in 2013. They launched attacks on several towns outside of Bangui in an effort to force an election postponement and initiative a new round of peace talks.

Over the course of December, hundreds of civilians died, 30,000 were forced to flee into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while another 185,000  were internally displaced. Three UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSCA) peacekeepers lost their lives in the violence.

To help quell the violence, CAR requested additional military assistance from Rwanda and Russia. Both sent troops and supplies in support of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), while France carried out flyover missions in the days preceding elections. CAR prosecutors have launched an investigation into Bozizé, who is accused of plotting the alleged coup.

Violence has escalated further since the announcement of Touadéra’s victory, with most of the opposition calling for the election results to be annulled citing voting irregularities and the fact that instability prevented many from casting their ballot. On January 13, the CPC launched a coordinated attack on the outskirts of Bangui before being pushed back by MINUSCA in fighting which killed one Rwandan soldier and several CPC fighters.

The election, which is only the second in the country’s history, was supposed to be an important milestone. However, this new round of violence has laid bare the deep flaws in the peace process and threatens to undo the tentative progress made towards stability since the signing of the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in February 2019.

If urgent action is not taken by international and regional actors to both address flaws in the peace process as well as some of the country’s deep structural drivers of conflict, CAR could slip into civil war in the coming months.

A cycle of violence

Since gaining independence from France in 1960, CAR’s political history has been punctuated by military rule, rebellion, and multiple coups against a backdrop of state disintegration, deep interethnic cleavages, and high levels of inter-communal conflict. The violence which was seen before, during, and following the December election is not unique, it is instead merely the latest expression of this long-running conflict.

Former President Bozizé seized power in a 2003 coup before being removed in 2013 by the Séléka: a coalition of predominantly Muslim armed groups, at least some of whom represented communities in northern CAR, who have historically been politically and economically disenfranchised. Following the rebellion, an opposing association of local Christian and animist self-defence groups, the “Anti-balaka”, engaged in retaliatory attacks, which escalated to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population.

In the following years, the country was plagued by violence despite efforts to restore stability, including the deployment of a 12,800-strong UN peacekeeping force. After a two-year transition led by a temporary government, CAR returned to constitutional democracy with the election of Touadéra in February 2016.

The new president continued to engage in dialogue with former Séléka and Anti-balaka armed groups, who had by this time fragmented and reconfigured. In February 2019, the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation was signed between the government and the country’s 14 main armed groups.

Despite the political agreement, as well as the deployment of MINUSCA peacekeeping forces, the conflict has continued. The 2020 UN Panel of Experts’ assessment of the political agreement reported hundreds of violations and noted the continued exchange of accusations of reneged commitments by both the government and armed groups.

Since 2013, it is estimated that of the country’s population of roughly five million, about one in five people have been internally or externally displaced, thus creating the world’s highest humanitarian caseload per capita.

Outsourcing governance

There are a number of structural issues that keep CAR trapped within a cycle of conflict and underdevelopment. Multiple peace agreements have failed to address these deeper realities, and some have, at times, contributed to incentivising those who benefit from instability.

As outlined by Louisa Lombard, professor of anthropology at Yale University, rather than develop local government administration, French colonial officials leased CAR’s territories to private companies to run at their own profit or loss and to strike deals with local tribes to provide labour and security.

This system has effectively continued post-independence, whereby political elites in Bangui with little capacity, experience, or interest in extending governance beyond the capital, grant mining concessions to a range of international actors who rely on private military companies (PMCs) to facilitate transport and security without building out local government or infrastructure.

Basic services are mostly outsourced to the UN, European Union, and international NGOs and due to multiple coups, and in particular, Bozizé’s efforts to reduce the army to a presidential guard] to ward against coups, the state does not have a monopoly on the use of force in most of its territory.

Security has been privatised in a chaotic way by local leaders, clans, and militias, leaving communities to essentially fend for themselves. It has also provided ample opportunity for non-state actors to develop criminal enterprises in order to exploit the country’s vast natural resources.

Today, armed groups control most territory outside of the capital and there is little in the way of a social contract between citizen and state.

Militarisation of politics and peacemaking

In a closed political system, comprised of a small political elite in Bangui, violence has become a tried and tested route to power. Rebel leaders cycle between armed groups, which serve both as a vehicle for illicit criminal activity as well as helping to guarantee them a place on the political chessboard when the incitement of enough chaos forces the government into a political dialogue.

The state has a history of incentivising this behaviour by co-opting rebel leaders during political settlements in the interest of creating temporary peace, thereby rewarding those who make a living out of provoking insecurity. Most major peace agreements since 1997 have awarded government positions to rebel leaders.

The 2019 Political Agreement was no different. Like previous peace deals, it provided the leaders of signatory armed groups government posts. For example, three of them gained positions as “Special Military Advisors” to the prime minister to oversee the creation of Special Mixed Security Units (USMS) comprised of armed group combatants and Central African state forces.

After disagreements regarding the pay and titles of former combatants within the new USMS units, two of the three special military advisers – who are also leaders of the country’s two strongest armed groups – resigned, while the third used his status to continue the operations of his armed group and expand his territorial control.

Last month’s election was an attempt to move the country towards a more orderly political settlement, whereby leaders would represent a political base and have popular support to hold office. The armed groups can no longer be said to represent communities’ grievances and are widely despised by citizens. They are therefore reluctant to transform into legitimate political parties and by disrupting the elections, hope to return CAR to a state where, as political-military entrepreneurs, they can find themselves a seat at the table.

A playground for foreign actors

Adding complexity to finding a lasting political solution to the conflict in CAR are the large number of international and regional actors who have interests and influence in the country. Over the last 10 years, Chad, Angola, and most recently Sudan, have all played host to political negotiations between armed groups and the CAR government – each driven by their own geostrategic interests. The porous borders between the CAR and its neighbours have allowed for ethnic groups having strong cultural allegiance and economic ties outside of the country.

In recent years, Russia has stepped up efforts to support Touadéra’s government through the Wagner Group: a private security company closely connected to the Kremlin and often used by the Russian state as a proxy force when plausible deniability is necessary. The head of the Wagner Group in CAR was appointed national security adviser, affords President Touadéra personal protection services, and provides some training to FACA.

Russian interests in CAR seem to be both financial (acquiring access to diamonds, gold, and other mining contracts) and part of the country’s wider strategy in Africa, aimed at countering American influence and gaining greater African support for Russian initiatives at the UN.

France, which has historical ties with CAR, and contemporary economic and security interests in the country, continues to push back against Russian influence. Ahead of last month’s elections, rival French and Russian disinformation campaigns that sought to influence internet users in CAR emerged.

Facebook released a statement saying it had suspended over 100 accounts and pages for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” linked to CAR. One network was linked to “individuals associated with French military”, while another two had connections to “individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency” as well as Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group.

Charting a way forward

Escalating insecurity in CAR calls for a thorough review of the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in order to determine whether it remains a relevant road map for peace and stability. If armed groups continue to refuse to transform into legitimate actors and can simply instigate violence as a means of political manoeuvring with little repercussion, a negotiated political process seems unlikely to work in the long term.

At the very least, MINUSCA should be strengthened and their mandate revised so they can take a more aggressive posture against those armed groups that continue to act as spoilers to peace. A more concerted effort is also required to train, equip, and expand CAR’s armed forces to the point where state authority may be reinstalled across wider regions of the country.

The international community must also face the reality that without significant investment in the economic development of CAR, the country may not ever be able to rise out of the cycle of conflict and poverty. This will require international community and influential regional actors to raise the interests of CAR above their own and work together in a transparent manner to support sustainable peace efforts.

The African Union (AU) should use CAR’s recent election as a case study in developing a typology of online disinformation strategies and countermeasures, in order to counter future attempts by foreign actors to influence African elections through online disinformation campaigns.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Stephen is a security analyst with several years of experience working in both conflict and post-conflict settings in Africa, primarily on issues of peace and security; transitional justice and reconciliation; democratisation and governance; and preventing and countering violent extremism. He currently serves as head of the Human Security and Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa and is a co-editor of the Extremisms in Africa anthology series.Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa and is a co-editor of the Extremisms in Africa anthology series.

Largely on their own – again

Indigenous peoples: the struggle continues

COVID-19 is just the latest challenge that the San and other marginalised groups have had to face

On New Year’s Eve 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission discreetly alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to an outbreak of a cluster of pneumonia cases of “unknown etiology” in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in the Hubei Province of central China. No deaths were reported. Within days, the source of the outbreak had been identified as a novel strain of the coronavirus, and by the end of January the WHO confirmed that there were now 7,818 confirmed cases spread over 18 countries. Africa’s first coronavirus case was confirmed in Egypt on 14 February. Finally, on 11 March, the world learned that it was facing a global pandemic at the hands of this new virus, by now named COVID-19. As governments scrambled to digest the implications of this new threat, indigenous leaders were amongst the first to understand the potentially devastating consequences of such a pandemic, one which had never before been encountered and for which there was neither a vaccine nor an inbuilt human immune response.

A San woman outside the Botswana Bushmen resettlement town of New Xade, a few kilometres away from the Central Kalahari Grand Reserve (CKGR). Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP

In the centuries since their first contact with European settlers from the ‘old world’, they have had cause to remember and fear the invisible diseases that arrived from distant places. A series of smallpox (and other) epidemics of European origin are estimated to have killed between 70% and 90% of the Native American population between the late 15th century and the 1800s, and the Mexican population collapsed due to the smallpox and cocoliztli epidemics (a mysterious illness caused by high fevers and bleeding) that killed eight million and 15-17 million people respectively between 1520 and 1556. The population declined from 22 million to less than two million in two generations, and only recovered to pre-Hispanic levels in the 20th century.

In South Africa, the Khoi and San populations in what is now the Western Cape suffered a similar fate with two smallpox epidemics in 1713 and 1715. Said to have been brought to their shores in dirty linen sent to the laundry of the Dutch East India Company to be washed by Khoi washer women, smallpox raged through the peninsula, decimating the local tribes, driving them from their territories and destroying their social, cultural and political institutions – a calamity from which they have never recovered. While accurate estimates of the rate of population decline are impossible to determine, the devastation wrought by the epidemic was so severe that the Khoi believe that less than one tenth of their people survived, and that the names of entire tribes were wiped from history. From Aboriginal Australians to indigenous Amazonian peoples, this bitter history has repeated itself for hundreds of years. Two days after the WHO upgraded COVID-19 to the status of a global pandemic on 11 March, in the United States Navajo President Jonathan Nez issued a “stay-at-home” order.

By 17 March there were two cases, and by the end of the first week there were 50 cases. At its peak, in May, the Navajo nation was experiencing 104 new infections a day. That number had halved by June, however, and there are signs that they may have begun to flatten a curve, which at one point was amongst the steepest in the world. While they have received aid from the federal government, most of that money has not yet been spent and local officials attribute their success in stemming the tide of infections to the actions of the people themselves. The Navajo control an area of 70,000 km2 – larger than all but 10 US states, and have been able to institute a stringent lockdown, strict social distancing enforcement, widespread use of masks and, above all, a rigorous testing regime beyond what much of the rest of the country has been able to achieve. Overall, however, Native Americans are second only to African Americans for rates of infections and deaths resulting from COVID-19.

This is not a coincidence; Native Americans are among the most marginalised and impoverished communities in the US, disproportionately lacking proper running water, decent housing, access to decent healthcare, nutritious food and electricity. In addition, they suffer disproportionately from COVID-19 comorbidities such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension. The UN has warned that COVID-19 poses “a grave health threat to indigenous peoples around the world”. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs statement on COVID-19 and indigenous peoples, issued in April, highlights the lack of access to medical facilities by indigenous peoples, which, even when they do exist, are often very far away from where they live, are under-equipped and understaffed. This sounds all too familiar to Job Morris, a Naro San activist who leads the San Youth Network (SYNet), based in the village of D’Kar in Botswana, a 10 hour’s drive from the capital, Gaborone. Speaking over the telephone, he tells me that he is worried. If COVID-19 enters his community, he fears it could lead to a catastrophe from which his people might never recover.

For the past five months SYNet, an NGO started by a handful of young San activists in 2019, along with other San organisations, have been doing the best they can to prepare for COVID-19, but it is an uphill battle, and one in which they have very few allies and even fewer resources. Apart from a few pamphlets and messages relayed to the nation on television and by radio, they have received no help from the Botswana government. Morris has applied for funding from a number of international donors and philanthropic foundations, many of whom have put out calls for “emergency Covid funding proposals”, but months down the line, all he has received are requests for more and further documentation. In any event, none of the numerous donor organisations in southern Africa are willing to provide funds for the things that they really need: infrastructure, protective equipment, the cost of acquiring vehicles that would permit them to reach the more remote parts of the country where the “Basarwa”, as they are called in Botswana, reside.

A vanishingly small number of donor foundations in southern Africa focus on the rights and needs of indigenous peoples, and those that do, have, along with most of the donor community, diverted the bulk of their resources towards the current “emergency Covid response”, none of which has reached Morris and his organisation. SYNet has taken matters into their own hands and has raised funding through crowdsourcing platforms and from individual donations. This has allowed them to buy and distribute PPE such as sanitisers and masks in their communities, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to the needs of the community. In addition to purchasing and distributing PPE, they have worked with other San NGOs to produce health messages in the native tongues of their communities, and are exploring ways in which they can use digital technologies to spread health and safety messages crafted with the realities of San life in mind. The realities, as is the case in many indigenous communities, are that people have little to no access to clean water.

San culture is very communal, and it is not uncommon for several generations of a family to live together in one or two small dwellings. In a culture that values sharing and “gifting” of anything of value, including eating utensils, a virus that is spread through contact poses a unique challenge. There has been a spike in cases of tuberculosis in their communities, Morris says, and this is compounding the existing health deficits present in these communities, from diabetes, hypertension and chronic hunger. Fortunately, at time of writing, there were no known cases of COVID-19 in their communities. Morris attributes this to the fact that Botswana instituted a wide-ranging lockdown, banning the sale of alcohol, closing borders, prohibiting internal travel and banning public gatherings. Another important factor is that San communities live in remote parts of the country, seldom reached by outsiders, thus curbing the spread of the virus from the more populous centres such as Gaborone and Francistown.

As is the case with the Navajo, however, medical facilities are largely inaccessible to the San community, and even when people do manage to get to a clinic, they find them understaffed and under-equipped. There has been virtually no testing for COVID-19 in any of the San communities Morris works in. A similar scenario is playing out in the Kalahari, where Ivan Vaalbooi comes from. The founder of a local San NGO, the Elsie Vaalbooi Development Organisation, Vaalbooi is a long-time activist in his community, the Khomani San. Here, too, government relief has been unforthcoming, but for Vaalbooi and his community this is nothing new. The Khomani San were the beneficiaries of South Africa’s first land restitution in the post-apartheid era, when the government of Nelson Mandela handed over eight farms to the community. This has, however, not proven to be the panacea that the longsuffering San had hoped for. They own the farms privately, so government has taken the view that they must be responsible for the provision of their own services. Thus the Khomani do not receive running water, sanitation or electricity from local or national government. When COVID-19 ends, Vaalbooi says, his community will still be faced with these problems. They have not experienced any infections that he is aware of,

The hole in Africa’s heart

Africa’s ‘lawless third’: duty of care

Swathes of the continent are home to people whose efforts at self-rule or traditional ways of life have challenged state attempts to deal with COVID-19

Left: Nurse on the frontline in the Sahel, Niger, April 2020 Photo: anna.psiaki

The lack of access to healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic experienced by millions of Africans as a result of living in ungoverned, under-serviced, rebel-controlled, or poorly supported alternatively administered regions, raises a unique set of problems for governments, donor agencies, and healthcare professionals combating the novel coronavirus. The sheer scale and persistence of this problem has caused many decision makers at country and international levels to turn a blind eye to it – with the unfortunate result being the avoidance of the duty of care in this troublesome so-called “lawless third” of the continent, about 34% of the continental land mass incorporating all of Libya, half of Algeria, much of the Sahara and Sahel, northern Nigeria, the Horn and a crescent of the African Forest Belt.

However, the people living in these zones deserve equitable access to universal healthcare including adequate COVID-19 testing and treatment. These conditions are far more widespread in Africa than is usually acknowledged by the authorities, though concentrated in the Sahara, Sahel, and Forest Belt regions. As such, they are deeply marked by traditional modes of nomadic livelihood that clash directly with state attempts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Nevertheless, there have been a variety of responses to the challenge posed by the pandemic in these regions, some of them remarkably positive. Regions that fall entirely outside the ambit of governments’ abilities to respond to the virus largely embrace those that fall under the control of separatist groups or rebels.

Regions that are under-serviced fall into three, sometimes interlinked, categories: those difficult to reach because of their remoteness or rugged terrain; poor rural areas, which under-resourced governments battle to serve, even under normal conditions; and those from which state services, including healthcare, are deliberately withheld or restricted because their populations are viewed as hostile to the central state. However, notable cases of viable alternative healthcare administrations are those of two states with contested legitimacy: the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which occupies the eastern third of the Moroccan-ruled territory of Western Sahara, and Somaliland, a Horn of Africa republic that seceded from the north of Somalia.

Governments direct few resources, including healthcare, to remote and rural provinces because of their sparse and nomadic populations. But very low average population densities should not be taken as an indication that people do not gather, socialise and interact in significant numbers in certain zones of the Sahara and Sahel. Notably, people cluster and move around bodies of water like Lake Chad (two million people within a 100 km radius of the lake’s centre, and 13 million within a 300 km radius) and along the Nile River (a density of up to 1,165 people/km² along the river’s lower course through Egypt), as well as along the ancient trade routes that traverse the region. Of relevance to COVID-19 is the potential for viral transmission at these points and along these routes.

Also, some rural population distributions are counter-intuitive: for example, the Ouargla province of Algeria and the Tombouctou province of Mali – both remote Saharan desert regions – have high focal population distributions, meaning their rural populations are densely clustered in small settlements, ideal for COVID-19 transmission given that these settlements are linked by poorly monitored/controlled nomadic travel. The African Forest Belt – home to many rebel groups – though mostly sparsely populated, also boasts zones of dense population.

Examples include the strife-torn Lake Kivu basin in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which has a density of over 400 people/km²: while government only controls half of the North Kivu province bordering the lake’s western shore, the rest is controlled by a patchwork of numerous guerrilla groups. Sparseness of law enforcement, resource allocation, and healthcare access has enabled rebel groups to operate with relative impunity and gives them an opportunity to legitimise themselves by offering the populace alternative services, including healthcare. But this is a rarity: insurgencies usually disrupt and overstress already fragile healthcare infrastructure. An example is northeastern Nigeria, which already had inadequate clinics and too few healthcare workers before the jihadist Boko Haram insurgency began in 2009.

This general picture of lawlessness or fragmented authority imposes some unique circumstances under which the COVID-19 pandemic has been faced across many parts of Africa, but there are instances of stable yet alternate (and thus often unrecognised) territorial authorities with aspirations to formal government and state status. At either extremity of this supposedly “stateless” third of the continent lie the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (administered by a government recognised by 40 out of 193 UN member states, 20 of which are AU members) and Somaliland (administered by a government recognised by only three UN member states, two of them AU members).

Regardless of whether the international community recognises these states, in reality they are only “unadministered” in the view of the central governments in Rabat and Mogadishu which lay claim to them; in most other respects, they fall under conventional functioning administrations, which provide healthcare to their citizens. Where diplomatic recognition does count, however, is whether these contested territories are able to access adequate COVID-19 testing, and donor or funding partner healthcare support. Pandemic statistics reported by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) derive from recognised governments only.

In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) has no official coverage of either territory by its Regional Office for Africa (AFRO). Within SADR’s zone, on 19 March, the Sahrawi government announced its implementation of COVID-19 countermeasures, including the closure of borders with friendly neighbours Algeria and Mauritania. It also created quarantine areas, and the imposition of a “stay-in-your-tent” lockdown policy. On the one hand, this indicates a seriousness by the Sahrawi authorities to exercise their duty of care, but the remoteness and relative poverty of their territory meant that when these measures were implemented, healthcare workers had “just 600 pairs of gloves and 2,000 masks for a population of between 180,000 and 200,000 people”, according to a Euronews report on 20 April.

The only reliable reporting appears to be by the UN mission in the region, MINURSO, which “maintains constant liaison with the Moroccan government, POLISARIO and Algerian government to share information and coordinate action”. Its last report, dated 5 June 2020, states: “There have been no new cases in the Tindouf Governorate (of Algeria) since 10 May and still no cases to date in the Sahrawi refugee camps or in the Territory East of the Berm”, the embankment that marks the border with Algeria. “The lone death from COVID-19 in Tindouf Governorate remains the only fatal case in MINURSO’s area of operations.” The report, however, gave no number of positive cases for the SADR-occupied portion of Western Sahara.

On the extreme east of the continent, the widely unrecognised state of Somaliland, which in 1991 broke away from Somalia – itself without a fully functional or authoritative government and state since then – has likewise posed a problem for tracking the progress of the virus, and for attempts to combat it. The internationally recognised government of Somalia in Mogadishu announced the first positive COVID-19 case on 16 March and suspended international flights in response, later followed by the suspension of domestic flights. It also tried to prevent the importation of khat (the leaf chewed for its mildly narcotic effects) as a means to limit socialising amongst people.

But Mogadishu’s grip on authority is tenuous at best. By mid- August last year it could only claim to control the capital and some of the larger cities of the south. The result has been that the official government is unable to enforce any travel restrictions by road. Also, the situation is bedevilled by drought, locust storms, flash floods, traditional contestation between six major clans, and some 2,6 million people internally displaced due to conflict. Somaliland reported its first two positive novel coronavirus cases on 31 March 2020, six days after closing its land borders and ordering incoming airline crews and passengers to be quarantined for two weeks. On 26 March, it had diverted all developmental funding into combating the pandemic.

*Accountability International is aware that the statistics that are presented to the Africa CDC or other regional/continental/global organisations on which we base our scorecard grading (for COVID-19) are not without some problems and can thus not always be taken at face value. Firstly, on a country-by- country basis, we need to have an understanding of the robustness of each country’s reporting mechanisms (are they adequately funded, comprehensive, and statistically sound?). Next, we need to recognise that in rare cases, the temptation of governments to improve their public image by under-reporting the impact of the pandemic may prove too strong: this is clearly the case with Tanzania that dangerously ceased reporting on 9 May 2020, but there may be other less obvious examples that involve under-reporting rather than a total refusal to provide data. Lastly, a pre-existing lack of data, particularly on key populations, undermines an adequate understanding of the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable and marginalised.*

Khat establishments were closed, mosques issued with social distancing guidelines, social gatherings outlawed, and 574 prisoners pardoned and released, but the crucial lifeline of flights to Ethiopia was maintained. To date, the Africa CDC’s figures have not differentiated between separatist Somaliland and Somalia (including Puntland), with 2,860 positive cases of whom 90 had died as of 25 June 2020, although it appears Mogadishu is counting Somaliland in its reporting to the Africa CDC and WHO. Somaliland separately reported on the same date a total of 681 cases of whom 28 had died. On 15 July, Somalia reported 3,083 cases of whom 93 had died, with Somaliland the following day reporting 807 cases of whom 29 had died.

Lacking its own testing facilities, the breakaway state has been sending abroad to get test results. COVID-19 aid is being sent via Mogadishu – which politically and practically undermines Hargeisa (the Somaliland capital): in late April, the European Union (EU) donated €27 million to Somalia, of which €10 million was officially earmarked for Somaliland. Yet it was subsequently reported that Somaliland had been entirely cut out of the aid. On 23 June, Hargeisa announced the lifting of all anti-COVID-19 measures – though social distancing and the quarantining of virus-positive people entering the country remained in force.

The government did not give reasons for reopening the country, but it is likely that it could no longer bear an economic shutdown without external aid. Lastly, we must deal with the fact that some regions in many African countries are deliberately under serviced by central governments because of their perceived hostility to the incumbent political leadership. Such pre-existing ethnicised healthcare access inequalities are only amplified under COVID-19. For example, in Burundi, the aftermath of the genocidal civil war between a Tutsi-dominated army and Hutu rebel groups from 1993-2005 has seen the authorities enforce 60% Hutu/40% Tutsi ethnic quotas on the staffing of foreign NGOs, including in the healthcare sector.

Human Rights Watch noted: “On 1 October 2018, authorities suspended the activities of foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for three months to force them to re-register, including new documentation stating the ethnicity of their Burundian employees.” The disruption put many healthcare projects months behind schedule, while some NGOs, wary of how the ethnicity data might be misused, exited the country entirely – all of which has undermined Burundi’s COVID-19 response. On 12 May 2020, the Burundian government declared persona non grata the WHO’s country director and some of its health experts who were critical of underreporting of data on the pandemic.

On 10 June, President Pierre Nkurunziza, who had refused to take strong measures against COIVID-19, died of a heart attack rumoured to have been brought on by the virus. Denial of healthcare in remote borderlands is most often practised against migrants, refugees and other non-citizens, even under COVID-19 quarantine. An example of this is from Ethiopia, where a Reliefweb update on the pandemic warned that “Internally Displaced persons (IDPs) living in congested and unsanitary collective centres, spontaneous and planned sites, rental accommodations or shared shelters with relatives in host communities are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.”

Complicating the issue is that most undocumented migrants, including asylum seekers, cross international borders often knowing nothing about the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that just over half of all migrants attempting the dangerous crossing into the Gulf states from Somalia via war-torn Yemen had not heard of COVID-19. An urgent starting point is for all armed groups – state or rebel – to allow international healthcare agencies to do their work in remote and conflict torn areas unhindered. In addition, the international community needs to immediately put human lives above diplomatic considerations and provide direct assistance to SADR, Somaliland, and any other contested regions where the rulers of which, regardless of their official status, have demonstrated their administrative capacity and resolve to fight the pandemic.

Lastly, African administrations and their international supporters must pay significant attention to the most vulnerable population groups languishing in poor, remote, and under-serviced areas across the continent, key populations most threatened by the novel coronavirus. Only by adhering to universal healthcare commitments can we advance equitable access to all, establishing a legacy of robust care well after the current crisis is over.

This is an edited version of an original paper authored by Michael Schmidt (Hammerl Arts Rights Transfer), with graphics conceptualisation by Phillipa Tucker (Accountability International), and graphics by Thomas Heap (HokaHey!). Republished with the kind permission of Accountability International and Hammerl Arts Rights Transfer.


Michael Schmidt is a human rights rapporteur, best-selling non-fiction author, and investigative journalist based in Johannesburg. His human rights work covers the global arts rights justice sector – providing protections for creatives ranging from intellectual property rights to emergency relocations for those in danger – and access to healthcare for vulnerable and populations across Africa.

Between a rock and a hard place

The Sahel: Africa’s Great Green Wall

The African Union’s ambitious plans to revitalise the Sahel region face daunting challenges, including financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic

Acacia trees planted in Senegal’s Louga region, as part of the Great Green Wall Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP

It is a project that doesn’t lack ambition. The African Union’s Great Green Wall Initiative (GGWI) aims to create a new living world wonder, an 8,000 km tree line across the 21 countries in the Sahel region of Africa. A project this size needs the funding to match and so far, more than $8 billion has been pledged. But conflicts, capacity, direction and ensuring capital remain huge challenges standing in the way of the GGWI. This has led the initiative to refocus away from merely planting trees to developing climate-resilient communities that will be protected from droughts, famine, conflict and migration, restoring degraded land to provide food, jobs and other products that people can use to make a living.

“Planting trees just to restore the land is not the right methodology and this is why we’re looking at income generation as a key aspect,” said Camilla Nordheim-Larsen, programme coordinator at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). “The communities need to have a reason to take care of these trees, whether it’s to use or sell products coming from  the trees or an agro-forestry project, or being able to sell carbon credits, for example,” she says, explaining the GGWI’s new direction.

The project’s aims, however, are vast in terms of land restoration, carbon offsetting, beneficiaries, and the number of trees planted by the end of this decade, with progress on many targets stalled and hovering around the 15 to 18% mark. Completion within the decade is ambitious, but Nordheim-Larsen remains confident the initiative can achieve its  goals  on time, which under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is 2030.

Nordheim-Larsen’s optimism is based on her belief that a significant increase in investment, from a variety of different sources, both public and private, could make a drastic difference to the funding gap and help to upscale projects. However, Elvis Tangem, coordinator for the GGWI at the African Union Commission, is less optimistic about that date, which he sees as a UN rather than African Union (AU) target.

“Most of the programmes of the UN are based on the SDGs [for 2030], but for the African Union we have Agenda 2063,” Tangem says. “As far as achieving it by 2030, it’s very, very unlikely. We did an extrapolation and we looked at the possibility of attaining that objective by 2030, but we had to be restoring almost 2.5 million hectares of land a year, which is not possible… with the financial and resources situation [as it is] we cannot say it can be achieved in the next 10 years. When you look at Agenda 2063 it’s more realistic, as we’re talking about restoring less than one million hectares of land a year.”

The GGWI is led by the AU, with the World Bank, UN, European Union and Global Environmental Facility (GEF) as its main funders. Another revenue stream UNCCD is trying to tap is private funders and it supports projects that make the GGWI self-funding by producing products that can be sold on international markets such as oil from the moringa tree, baobab and superfoods type of products, and shea butter. Tangem claims there are as many as 27 products and commodities that could be sold on international markets in the GGWI to benefit communities, in addition to eco-tourism.

Although exploitation of such commodities and eco-tourism, along with addressing climate change, are all issues that may seem to be more of a focus of the western or developed world rather than the countries of the Sahel, Nordheim-Larsen is keen to emphasise the initiative is not being donor-led but was started in the region; the project ultimately builds on the vision of late Burkina Faso President Tomas Sankara.

A 3D movie about the Great Green Wall at the Chad stand at the COP21 UN conference on climate change in Paris, 2015 Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP

“It started with African leaders and was adopted by African leaders in 2007 [after the idea was conceived in 2005] with no push from donors. We’ve come much later to try and support the initiative,” she says. Now, though, the main concern facing the GGWI is funding and searching for different revenue streams, the most significant of which would be carbon offsetting. “The potential carbon sequestration that this project could generate would have global benefits,” adds Nordheim-Larsen.

“There’s been interest from many companies in terms of offsetting projects in the region. At the moment there’s not a lot, but there’s some with the potential to be upscaled, both agroforestry and in the renewable energy sector.” Those companies include carbon polluting giants such as BP and Shell, who are believed to be very interested in offsetting through the GGWI, which could offset up to 500 gigatonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, says Tangem. But private financial interest is not limited to the globe’s big polluters.

“During UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ climate change summit in September [2019], we had serious engagement with companies like Timberland, who were ready to invest a good chunk of their corporate social responsibility funds in the Great Green Wall,” he adds. The recent coronavirus pandemic, though, has already begun to have an impact on this funding of the GGWI, as Tangem explains: “We successfully raised €1 million for the locust issue in the Horn of Africa, but because of Covid that money was diverted into supporting these countries to buy facemasks and sanitisers.”

This has not been a one-off issue as following last September’s UN Climate Summit in New York, the Great Green Wall has made engagements with both the public and private sector in the pursuit of additional funding that Tangem claims were successful. “We had many other pledges from private-sector partners, big and small, but many of them have withdrawn because they need to take care of their workers and help their investors during this Covid time when everything is shut down. But we are very confident that between 12 and 15 months down the line we will come back and have the support because these engagements are there,” he says.

Besides the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the GGWI has faced several other problems, as can be expected with a project of this size, the most serious of which is security. Extremists, traffickers and terrorist organisations are all operating in various countries of the Sahel where the GGWI has been working, forcing them to retreat. “Burkina Faso, for instance, was one of our best and most successful practices, but we had to abandon about 60% [of our work] because of the security issues. We abandoned most of the areas that were being intervened in Mali, such as Timbuktu.

These are key areas but we had to abandon [them] because of security issues. In Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad as well,” says Tangem. These are all issues that simply weren’t there, certainly on this scale, in 2005 when the programme started. In addition, Somalia forms a large part  of the initiative’s strategy, but the GGWI is unable to operate there because of extremist organisation Al-Shabaab. Not only are these groups having a disastrous impact on the ground on the GGWI’s ability to carry out its programmes, but they have also discouraged funders, says Tangem, although he also points out that countries that are more secure have demonstrated more long-lasting results.

Ethiopia, for instance, has managed to restore 15 million hectares of degraded land. One other challenge facing the GGWI is a need to upscale domestic investment and unlock further finances from the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDFC), as it cannot rely solely on development aid, something about which both Tangem and Nordheim-Larsen agree. But, as Tangem points out, he accepts there is a domestic shortfall in funding, while many of the fund’s beneficiary countries are dealing with more pressing short-term issues than land restoration. The security issues detailed are the most pressing of these, though as Covid-19 continues to eat into the budgets of GGWI’s biggest funders, such as the World Bank and EU, it may well, at least in the short-term, fall to second behind financing.

Workers water the Widu tree nursery in Senegal’s Louga region, 2011 Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP


Joe Walsh is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He primarily writes about the environment, energy and the green economy, as well as politics and society for British publications including Environmental Finance, the New Statesman and The New European.


Vast, vital and often criminalised

Charcoal: the grey trade

If forests are properly managed and harvested, charcoal could be a renewable energy source that does not destroy the environment

Congolese charcoal dealers push their bicycles up the hill as they transport their produce to the market in Sake, North Kivu, in democratic republic of Congo’s Goma province on December 3, 2011. Much of the charcoal in Goma is produced from trees in the Virunga National Park, which is used for cooking and heating by the millions of people living in this troubled region. A sack of chalrcoal sells for approximately the equivalent of USD20 in the market. AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Charcoal is one of the most important commodities in sub-Saharan Africa. In southern and East Africa, the tall, stiff sacks of charcoal propped up by the side of road are one of the most ubiquitous sights when driving along even remote rural roads; likewise, the evening smell of any town is always partially composed of the smoke of charcoal fires. According to the most recent estimates by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Africa produces nearly 60% of the world’s annual charcoal supply, most of it for domestic use by as much as 80% of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban consumers.

The road-side sacks speak to its vital role as a rural employer; the evening smells to the huge reliance of urban dwellers on charcoal as their primary energy source. The charcoal economy is vast, vital, and often criminalised and corrupt. Its negative impacts are well-known: it contributes to lung disease and forest degradation, and sometimes to deforestation. It has been taxed by Al-Shabaab, and attempts to ensure access to woodlands for charcoal have led to the killing of forest rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by local militias.

For most people, charcoal is either so ordinary it’s invisible, or it is seen as so dangerous that it must be demonised. But this is really a “grey” trade, straddling the legal and the illegal, the legitimate and the illegitimate, and it is too important to remain in this inbetween space. To make charcoal, wood, usually harvested from nearby forests, is burned over several days in an artisanal kiln. Most charcoal producers are poor and often illiterate rural people, who produce charcoal on their own homestead. The process is extremely inefficient – as little as 10-15% of the wood used in this method is actually marketable as charcoal; the rest goes to waste.

From these “backyard” kilns, charcoal is collected and transported to towns and cities, and sometimes across regional borders. The highest-quality charcoal, made from particular tree species, may also be exported off the continent. Along the way, the charcoal trade involves a large range of people: loaders, truck owners, truck drivers, small transporters, creditors, wholesalers, retailers, stove makers, stove retailers, tool retailers, and charcoal exporters. Seen like this, the industry provides income to millions across the region – if not tens of millions. According to a report by the World Bank published in 2018, in rural areas of Mozambique, the industry generates jobs for 136,000 to 214,000 people.

In 2018, Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry estimated that the charcoal trade was the largest informal-sector employer, employing 700,000 people, who in turn were believed to be supporting 2.3-2.5 million people. The charcoal value chain ties the fate of the rural poor to the quality of life of millions of urban residents. For the households in towns and cities who consume most charcoal, it is a cheap and efficient energy source. Other energy sources, when they are available, are simply not as affordable. Combine this reality with the fact that, according to the UN, Africa’s urban population is the fastest growing in the world.

Charcoal vendors in Zimbabwe stand beside their wares in Harare, 2019 Photo: Jekesai Njikiz ana / AFP

According to a meeting held by a UN expert group on urbanisation and migration in 2018, urbanisation in east and southern African countries is expected to increase by 74.3% and 43.6% respectively by 2050. While many hope that investment in energy infrastructure – renewable or not – will reduce the urban reliance on charcoal, this seems extremely unlikely to happen soon. Dr Casey Ryan, who researches charcoal production and land-use change at the University of Edinburgh, points out that even if investments come to fruition in the region’s capital cities, most urban growth in Africa is happening in so-called secondary cities: “So, all those cities, which are growing very fast, are mostly going to run on charcoal – and they’re also quite far down the queue for, say, piped gas or electricity, investments which are normally focused on the capital,” he told Africa in Fact.

However, the current dynamics of charcoal production result in environmental degradation, threatening biodiversity and carbon sinks, and some profits from the industry accrue to corrupt and violent groups. The DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique all show alarming rates of loss of forest cover. Charcoal is not the only culprit: deforestation is also happening as land is cleared for farming, and through logging for timber. But charcoal is a significant contributor to this phenomenon, often in a dynamic relationship to other causes of deforestation.

Charcoal production is currently often locked into a damaging cycle with rural poverty, as extended droughts and low agricultural productivity push many away from farming and towards charcoal production, which in turn degrades the environment for agriculture further. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way: wood fuels are renewable resources which, if properly managed, can regenerate through the planting of new trees. Their impact on carbon emission is more complex: scientists are split on whether wood-based fuels are carbon neutral or not.

Simply stated, the positive case rests on the idea that newly planted trees absorb carbon dioxide, making up for the emissions caused through burning them. While Europe has come under fire for counting wood fuel used in wood- chip fuelled energy plants as carbon neutral, charcoal production in Africa is much more artisanal and does not necessarily result in large-scale conversion of forest to, say, agricultural land. If trees were selectively harvested, or replanted, forests would fare much better. Much of this calculation ultimately rests on the exact nature of the forest use, fuel production, fuel consumption, and their regulation.

The most extreme impact of the charcoal trade occurs in places where governance is contested, or where there is large-scale criminalisation of the sector. This is the case in the Virunga region of the DRC, where profits from the charcoal trade – amongst other things – flow to militias like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), leading to violent, lethal conflict over access to national parks. Effectively regulating the charcoal industry involves balancing competing interests in preserving forests and sustainable resource use, rural livelihoods and the needs of urban consumers. Yet, in sub-Saharan Africa, policies regulating the charcoal trade, if present at all, are typically paper tigers.

Charcoal vendors in Zimbabwe stand beside their wares in Harare, 2019 Photo: Jekesai Njikiz ana / AFP

When faced with criticism about forest degradation and the charcoal trade, states often talk big, but act little. Most states already have laws stipulating a licensing regime for charcoal production, which are intended to keep environmental degradation to a minimum while allowing production to take place. But weak state capability (especially in rural areas), corruption, and the way these things square up against the vital role that charcoal production plays in rural economies, mean that these laws are often barely enforced. The result is that most charcoal production, transport, and sale becomes informal and often illicit, and transporters become a prime source of petty bribes for police.

This is often to the benefit of large entrepreneurs who have “captured” a large slice of the urban market, often by buying state protection. Such clumsy, ineffective, and even insincere, attempts at regulation have the effect of making a massive industry largely illicit. The World Bank’s research in Mozambique, for example, estimated that only about 5% of the charcoal sector was operating under formal regulation. Other researchers have estimated that 80% of production in Tanzania is illicit. While weak regulation fails both at protecting the environment or upholding the interests of rural producers or urban consumers, the use of outright bans is even more destructive.

In Kenya, for example, the production and sale of charcoal is currently under a blanket ban, despite the fact that it remains vital to the basic needs of millions of Kenyan citizens. Other countries also periodically place total bans on the trade when pressure to curb forest degradation becomes intense, but then cannot meaningfully impose the regulation. Ten years ago, research by the World Bank on  East African charcoal value  chains  demonstrated  that bans can make criminality and corruption  in  the industry worse. Urban consumers simply cannot find alternatives to charcoal, as other fuels are far more expensive or unavailable.

Bans mean that a vital industry has to be conducted entirely clandestinely, increasing corruption and state collusion, and transporters pass these costs onto the consumer, driving up prices, which remain high even after bans are lifted. Yet to this day, bans continue to be a popular government reaction. Likewise, academics Esther Marijnen and Judith Verweijen, writing about their research for the London School of Economics, have challenged the idea that strict law enforcement can ever be a solution to the FLDR’s profits from the charcoal trade using trees from the Virunga National Park, as local inhabitants have no other sources of income, and the demand  from the nearby city of Goma is unceasing.

“With little collaboration from the population, can operations to dislodge armed groups from production areas be successful?” these authors ask. “With no alternative livelihoods, will further impoverishing offenders with arrest work as a deterrent?” There is, however, scope for intervention and reform. Researchers such as Mary Njenga from the World Agroforestry Centre argue persuasively that, if forests are properly managed and harvested, charcoal can be a renewable energy source that does not entail environmental destruction. Technical and value chain interventions, Njenga argues, have already been identified in improving the efficiency both of the kilns that are used to produce charcoal and in the stoves that burn it.

A woman sells charcoal in Asosa, Ethiopia, 2019 Photo: Eduardo Soteras / AFP

But regularising the charcoal economy will also be political. It will require tackling interests that benefit from the current (corrupt and poorly regulated) status quo, including powerful entrepreneurs who control profits in urban markets and resist state regulation of the sector. To regularise the trade in a way that is fair and supportive of the poorest, such measures will also have to take into account the realities of rural livelihoods and address highly contentious issues such as access to land. It is in these measures, perhaps counter-intuitively, where the most sustainable intervention will be found in even highly violent situations.


Simone Haysom is a South African writer and researcher, currently based in Geneva. She is the author of The last words of Rowan du Preez : murder and conspiracy on the Cape Flats, published by Jonathan Ball. Her research covers the political economy of crime and corruption in southern and East Africa.
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