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Africa’s new cold war

September 20, 2009

The competing spheres of influence that incited rampant conflict on the African continent in the post-independence era are reforming in a new political and security situation akin to that of the Cold War but with an entirely different set of ideological battles.

Israeli prime minister Avigdor Liberman recently made a high profile tour of strategic African countries including Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana with the hopes to expand Israel’s sphere of influence by promising trade and technical aid. But then anything the diplomatic tour could be read as a shopping trip for Israeli businesses and military interest that also paves the way for improving Israel’s image.

In many ways, Israel’s actions is a reclaiming of former policies of the 60’s and 70’s when Israel reached out to recently independent African nations early and often. Israel led many projects, gave significant aid, and educated African students. Cheikh Anta Diop, one of the great deans of African academics received support for his pioneering work. These policies largely originated with Prime Minister Golda Meir, Israel’s Iron Lady. She seemed to have a genuine desire to help Africa. She wrote: “Like them, we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yields of our crops, how to irrigate, how to raise poultry, how to live together, and how to defend ourselves.” Israel, like Africa could, “had been forced to find solutions to the kinds of problems that large, wealthy, powerful states had never encountered.”

But as is the case today, realpolitik necessitated building relationships in Africa in Israel’s early days.  Without the affirmed and tested support of the US, Israel needed as many votes in international forums such as the United Nations as possible to face the Arab challenge.

However, the contest today is much more like Russia and America’s contest. But now it is between Isreal and the Arab/Persian block. Iran’s global aspirations have been gaining momentum particularly in Africa. Iran has close ties to Sudan, Kenya, Zimbabwe and other African countries. “The Islamic Republic of Iran sees no limits for the expansion of ties with African countries,” Iranian president Ahmadinejad said in 2008 according to reporter Alex Bilda’s blog. “Iran has always sought to boost ties with African countries in all arenas,” Ahmadinejad added.

Even American friendly Senegal has been dealing a lot with the “axis-of-evil” country. From the Middle East Forum’s report on the expansion of Iranian influence:

President Abdoulaye Wade has traveled twice to Tehran to meet with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, first in 2006 and again in 2008.[45] During his most recent visit, he provided a backdrop for Khamenei to declare that developing unity between Islamic countries like Senegal and Iran can weaken “the great powers” like the United States.[46] It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a rhetorical flourish: on January 27, 2008, a week after Senegalese foreign minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio announced that he, too, would visit Tehran, Minister of Armed Forces Becaye Diop met with his Iranian counterpart to discuss expanding bilateral defense ties between the two states.[47]Senior Iranian officials have returned the visits. On July 22, 2007, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham–among the closest confidantes of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, respectively–departed for Dakar, where they met Wade and Senegalese prime minister Cheikh Hadjibou Soumaré. Shahroudi declared, “We believe it is our duty to expand ties with Islamic countries and use the capabilities and potentials [sic] of Muslim states to help the growth and spread of Islam.”[48] On March 12, 2008, Ahmadinejad left for a visit to the West African state.[49]

It was during Ahmadinejad’s visit to Senegal during the Summit Organization of Islamic Countries that I first noticed this game that the Muslim/Arab/Persian  world was playing in Africa. They had devoted a lot of resources to Senegal and made alot of concrete industrial and infrustructural improvements. Accordingly, Ahmadinejad was treated like a rock star, and I snapped this photo of him:

Ahmadinejad gets a rock star reception in Senegal, March 2008

Ahmadinejad gets a rock star reception in Senegal, March 2008

This is exactly what Israel wants to challenge with its latest foray into Africa. But it is not going without notice in the Arab world. In fact, its created a sense of heightened engagement. See the op-ed in the Egyptian Al-Ahram.

Israel’s ultra-right foreign minister believes he can sneak into the backyard of the Arab and Islamic world in order to deprive it of strategic depth. It is therefore essential that we expose the true nature of Israeli economic and military plans in Africa and expose their motives. The fact that Israel is physically present in occupied Palestine does not mean that the Zionist peril threatens Palestine and the Palestinians alone.

Let’s just hope the conflicting interests of the Arab/Israeli clash don’t prove as devastating as the clash between ideology.

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