Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Israel in Africa: Guns, but no development

Israel has traditionally seen Africa as a strategic field in which to gain influence to pressure the Arabs. This policy appears to be still in full swing, writes Haitham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

The year had barely begun (14 January 2016) when Arab circles were surprised by statements by Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour that his country is open to considering establishing relations with Israel.

The statement was in response to a question at a seminar about Washington asking Khartoum to improve relations with Tel Aviv. “The idea can be considered,” responded Ghandour, asserting that relations with the US are not linked to relations with any other country.

It was a shocking statement after more than 25 years of a steadfast position by the regime of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir in the Middle East’s abstaining camp, and its former special relations with Iran before a recent shutdown under pressure from Gulf funds, as many purport.

This was not, however, the only positive statement in Africa regarding Israel. Last year, Israel opened embassies in three African countries: Zambia (socialist and close to Nasserist Egypt in the 1960s), after a rupture since the 1973 war; Rwanda, which never had diplomatic representation in Israel; and South Sudan, the world’s newest country following its secession from Sudan in 2011.

Thus, Israel has 11 embassies in Africa and 45 missions (ambasadors, non-resident ambassadors, and charges d’affaires) on the 54-country continent. The majority of the remaining nine countries where it does not have representation are Arab countries: Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Comoros Islands, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania and São Tomé and Príncipe.

Since Golda Meir became Israel’s foreign minister in the 1950s, Tel Aviv has followed a strategy of “encircling Arab states” by establishing special relations in their neighbourhood — Iran under Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi (before 1979), Turkey and African countries.

Meir’s job was not easy because of Egypt’s active role on the continent in the 1950s and 1960s, with the support of independence movements by the regime of late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. At the same time, it was not an absolute victory for Egypt. Meir was able to establish important ties with Ghana (the first Israeli embassy in Africa after independence in Accra in 1958), then Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Kenya.

Since the late 1950s until 1976, when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution labelling Zionism a form of racism, Africa was a battleground for a cold war between Egypt and Israel, similar to the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union, according to Joel Peters in his book Israel and Africa: The Problematic Friendship.

The website of Israel’s Foreign Ministry posted a photo of Meir with the leader of Kenyan independence, Jomo Kenyatta (father of incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta), without indicating if the late leader was visiting Israel or vice versa. The website claims that Tel Aviv was transferring its experience in “liberation from colonialism” to Africa between 1957-1960.

Kenya was not the only Nile Basin country. Emperor Haile Selassie was known as the Lion of Judah. Official propaganda at the time said he was the descendent of a historic marriage between King Solomon and Balqees, queen of Sheba, and that this “sacred” bloodline was passed down from one king to the next until Rastafari (the name of the late emperor of Ethiopia).

At the time, Ghana was under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, a close ally of Egypt under Nasser, who did not want to put his ally in a difficult position where Cairo would lose its relationship with the first non-Arab African state to declare independence. It was the same situation with the Nile source countries Ethiopia and Kenya.

Israeli-African relations progressed beyond political or proclaimed religious senitimentality. A 2014 report by the Amsterdam Institute for Peace Studies revealed that Tel Aviv and its military and security firms helped train several African armed forces, which continues until today. The report said that an unnamed firm based in Tel Aviv participated in training the presidential guard in Equatorial Guinea (a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world) in 2005.

The army and police in Uganda were also trained by Israel in combatting terrorism in 2010. This was part of efforts to facing terrorism by the radical group the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north (the group’s attacks have expanded to parts of South Sudan, and Central Africa). As well as attacks by Shebab Al-Mujahideen terrorist groups in Somalia. Uganda has been ruled by President Yoweri Musevini since 1986.

In Conakry, Guinea, Israeli forces trained troops loyal to coup leader General Moussa Camara in 2008, and Israeli experts did not leave until the coup failed in 2010. Nigeria’s navy was also trained in combatting smuggling at an Israeli military port in 2009.

Training is not the only or fundamental Israeli “service” provided. African countries bought Israeli weapons worth $316 million in 2015, according to Haaretz newspaper. The UN issued a report in 2014 stating that Israeli weapons ignite conflicts in Africa. Although heavy Israeli weapons are not common on the African continent (less than one per cent of heavy weapons in Africa come from Israel), light weapons are widely common in Africa, which is peppered with ethnic conflicts.

According to the Amsterdam report, Galil rifles and Uzi and Negev machine guns are very common on the continent, as seen in a picture of Cameroon presdiential guards published in 2009 (which has been ruled by Paul Biya since 1979). The Djibouti police bought them in 2006 and the Burundi police recently used them to confront mass protests against the election of President Piere Nkurunziza.

The National Guard in Equatorial Guinea is armed with the popular Uzi machine guns, and it is unknown if the regime used them to confiscate land from small farmers.

Between 2005 and 2011, nine African countries bought weapons from Israel, including Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Lisotho, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Uganda and South Africa. According to Haaretz, Israel’s military production authority has 12 offices around the world, including three in Africa — more than in any other continent.

Israel ranks 11th in weapons exports at $7 billion in 2015. Since the start of the millennium, the lowest sales of Israeli weapons was in 2003 at $3 billion, and the highest were in 2012 at $7.5 billion. The largest deal was with oil-rich Angola at $1 billion in 2006, but it did not go through. The largest contract that was successful was with Nigeria worth $500 million in the same year.

The Israeli activist Iti Mike demanded that the Israeli Ministry of Defence reveal all Israeli weapons sales, especially since the law bans the government from selling weapons to countries with poor human rights records.

According to the Israeli LAB Centre, working against arms sales, Tel Aviv is aggressively expanding in its trade and development of weapons capable of war crimes. Kenyan eyewitnesses said that Israeli weapons such as Galil rifles were used by snipers in clashes in late 2008 and early 2009, when incumbent President Kenyatta was accused of committing crimes against humanity before becoming president. He was acquitted by the International Criminal Court in 2015.

In Kenya, which Haaretz described as a forward base for Israel in Africa, a British government report said that an Israeli company is leading a consortium of public and private firms to create a system to digitally record cell phones. After the terrorist attack by the Somali Shebab Al-Mujahideen on Westgate Mall in 2014, Kenya chose the unnamed Israeli company to install a system of identity cards for all citizens based on biodata. This will cost $145 million and span six years and will include all citizens, including underage children, in order, ostensibly, to avoid similar terorrist attacks.

At the same time, Israel has intervened in the domestic affairs of African regimes. Israel supported the separtist Anyanya movement in South Sudan during the first civil war (1955-1972). According to the memoirs of the movement’s leader at the time, Jospeh Lagu (who became vice-president to late President Gaafer Numeiri after the Addis Ababa peace accord between the North and South), dozens of the movement’s officers were trained in Israel and Tel Aviv gave them light weapons used in urban warfare in equatorial jungles.

In Nigeria, Israel supported the secessionist movement in the oil-rich region of Biafra (1967-1970) and gave them weapons. It also supported Portugal, which was angered by Nigeria’s support of Portuguese colonies fighting for independence at the time.

The governments of Nigeria and Sudan during the two wars committed atrocities against the people of Biafra (about one million people were ascertained killed, while others say the figure is three million), while in South Sudan more than two million people were killed during the civil wars between North and South.

The regime of Numeiri was also involved in relocating Ethiopian Jews (Falasha) from their country to Israel, known as Operation Moussa in 1984 and Operation Sheba in 1985. Israel claimed that it was trying to save the Falasha from famine in Ethiopia and the end of the dictatorship of the late Mengistu Haile Mariam, when one million people died.

Until today, the Falasha suffer racial discrimination because of their skin colour and ethnic origins, and there is religious doubt about whether they are truly Jews.

In Uganda, Israeli Special Ops carried out an operation that breached the country’s sovereignty, known as Operation Entebbe Airport, in 1976, during the rule of dictator Idi Amin. A Palestinian group had hijacked a French airliner and landed it in Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where Amin supported the Palestinians. Two weeks later, the group released all non-Jewish hostages. In response, Israeli Special Ops carried out a rescue operation that saw the deaths of several hostages.

Despite Israel’s security and military presence in Africa, African countries have not recevied much in economic or technical assistance. Tel Aviv has not participated in any major infrastructure projects (dams, railways, power stations), projects that have been monopolised in many part of Africa by China since the late 1960s.

Recently, it was revealed that Israel provided the apartheid regime in South Africa with nuclear technology in the 1960s, which highlights dimensions of the relationship between Tel Aviv and Pretoria.

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