Political Turmoil, Terrorism and Energy Competition in Africa

Political Turmoil, Terrorism and Energy Competition in Africa


Michalis Diakantonis

Economist and International Affairs Analyst


The African continent has always been a field of intense economic rivalries among different powerful states, which sought to have access to its natural resources. At the same time, Africa has been a source of strong transnational conflicts over border, economic, racial and religious issues and for this reason it has experienced extremely violent and bloody civil strives. The atmosphere of timeless violence, tension and instability appears to have continued in recent years, especially in countries belonging to the areas of Maghreb and Sahel. As will be analyzed in this article, local conflicts often cause wider geopolitical implications and they have been associated both with global energy competition and spread of terrorism from the Middle East to Africa.

The creation of separatist movements and struggle for democracy are common in Africa. The Arab Spring movement started from the North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia), expanded in the Middle East and returned strengthened in Egypt and Libya, leading to the overthrow of Mubarak and Gaddafi military regimes. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has won the elections and the new president Mohamed Morsi forced the retirement of many senior generals, in an attempt to reclaim political power from army. The concern that has been expressed now is whether the Egyptian parliament (which is dominated by Islamists) will demonstrate a moderate political character or it will take advantage of the popular support by launching radical Islamist reforms that will turn the country into a "Muslim monarchy." Such a development is undesirable for a country like Egypt, which has strong military forces and critical geopolitical position. In addition, an extreme-Islamic Egypt is likely to lead to the birth of terrorist groups that will develop partnerships with states such as Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, thus negating the perennial U.S efforts to eradicate terrorism.

In Libya, the initial optimism for the overthrow of Gaddafi has been replaced by deep concerns over the future unity of the country. Libya-as well as a number of other Arab states- doesn’t constitute a "real state" but a number of sects and tribes which were forced to live together within the boundaries delimited by the colonial powers. That means that a transformation into a single civil society never took place in the country and the sense of common ethnicity is lacking.[1] Libya is divided into three major provinces: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan and each of them is a source of tribes with different cultural background and interests. In March of 2012, a conference convened in Benghazi, with the participation of about 3000 tribesmen from the eastern province of Cyrenaica which produces about 70% of the country's oil. Participants claimed the establishment of a federal state with three autonomous provinces but both president of the Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil and the transitional prime minister, Abdurrahim El-Keib, rejected autonomy moves and they perceived the intention of the local warlords as an effort to seize the huge revenues coming from Libyan oil. As has been reported both by the Associated Press and the New York Times, separatist tendencies have been spotted, as armed groups have become a key point in Tripoli and they impose their will in government institutions.[2] Therefore it won’t be a surprise if Libya is being driven back to civil conflicts in the near future that will generate instability in the wider region.

The phenomenon of Libya’s dissolution can also be seen through the prism of the global energy competition. China, for example, seems to be one of the "losers" of the new geopolitical order in Libya. The country was exporting 10% of its oil to China and 85% to Europe before the beginning of the civil war[3]. The Libyan oil imports of China accounted for a small amount (about 3% of the total), but there were large Chinese investments in construction and telecommunication sectors which estimated to $17billion. Many facilities have been destroyed or suffered severe damages due to the war, leading about 36,000 Chinese laborers who worked in Libya back to their homeland.[4] Moreover, the National Transitional Council has decided to "freeze" the oil agreements of Gaddafi era, redesigning essentially the energy landscape of the country [5]. The companies that have been benefited from that fact come from countries that supported the dissidents, such as France, Britain and Italy. The Italian oil company ENI, which had the largest market share before the revolution, will significantly strengthen its position, while the Spanish Repsol, the Austrian OMV, the British BP and Vitol (the latter have supplied the rebels with oil), the Dutch-British Shell and the American Occidental, ConocoPhillips, Hess and Marathon will have dominant position in the new oil agreements. The French company Total will also be a strong player. An article in “Liberation” referred that the former Foreign Minister of France, Alain Juppe, has agreed to support the dissident forces by securing in return the 35% of Libya’s future oil reserves (which are thought to be the largest in the African continent). Representatives of the Libyan oil firm Agoco stated that there will be no problems with Western companies, but policy issues will arise with China, Russia and Brazil, as they haven’t supported the international intervention in Libya. This means practically that these countries’ companies, such as Russian Gazprom, Tatneft and Brazilian Petrobras and Odebrecht, will probably be excluded from future oil competitions. The Director of the Russian-Libyan business chamber, Aram Shegunts, stated that: “We have lost Libya completely. Our companies will lose everything there because NATO will prevent them from doing their business in Libya”[6]. Another result that has been caused by the reduction of Libyan oil production and it was combined with the embargo on Iranian oil exports, was the rise in the price of crude oil that led to the consequent increase of Arab countries’ revenues. However, recent data show an increase of Libyan oil production close to the pre-war levels[7] while the Chinese diplomacy seems to acting with skill so far, as it has  increased its share in Libyan oil exports for 2012 (140.000 barrels)[8].

The civil war in Libya has also caused turbulence in the neighboring Mali. The Tuareg, a nomadic Berber tribe that lives in northern Mali, northern Niger and southern Algeria and Libya, claim their cultural, economic and territorial autonomy for decades. During the civil war in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi supplied some Tuareg groups with weapons in order to help him in dealing with the dissidents. After the death of the Libyan leader, these groups returned to Mali and took chance of the political instability caused by the coup against President Amadou Toure. They invaded in the country and occupied the regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. These areas make up about 60% of the total area of ​​Mali, forming what the Tuareg call “The independent state of Azawad” (see below Map 1). On April 6th, the “National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad” officially proclaimed the independence of the new state but this action hasn’t been internationally recognized.


Map 1: Mali and provinces of Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao and Mopti which form the so-called state of Azawad

Map Source: Wikipedia


 Initially, the Tuareg have developed a partnership with the fanatic Islamic group of Ansar Dine but then they have been pushed into the background by the fierce ascendancy of radical Islamists, who have imposed the Shariah law and now control the north areas of the country. Ansar Dine actions include destruction of religious shrines, public beatings, amputations and stoning deaths which have caused a refugee wave of about 90.000 people towards eastern Mauritania. In addition, Ansar Dine seems to have links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and there are indications that some weapons that Tuareg supplied from the former Libyan regime have reached through smuggling into the hands of AQIM[9]. At the same time, AQIM's intention is to acquire a more "international" status, an objective that has pursued both through its formal merging with Al Qaeda in 2006 and its rhetoric about the Palestinian issue and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. AQIM's methodology has begun to differ from the past tactics, as now uses more suicide bombers and aims at "international" targets (e.g. embassies and United Nations missions). Experts on terrorism detect a trend of “Africanization” of AQIM, as its actions are focused in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. AQIM also has its own media group (Al-Andalus), through which is inviting the Muslims of Nigeria to reinforce the "brothers" of the Somalian group Al Shabaab.[10]

The political instability of Mali has an energy dimension too, as the Tuareg are operating on the northern border of neighboring Niger and particularly in the region of Agadez, where can be found some of the largest uranium reserves in the world[11]. The French company Areva had previously held a monopoly in uranium’s exploitation but now faces competition from Chinese, Canadian and Indian companies[12]. Τhe presence of Tuareg and Ansar Dine in the wider region of Mali brings concerns to the international community and there is a strong possibility for a future military intervention. The UN Security Council announced that will consider the request by West African countries for such an operation[13], as the religious violence, the famine and the danger of forming new terrorist groups compose a critical situation. The latest news on this subject report that France and U.S. are planning to send drones to Mali against al-Qaida-backed insurgents, while the governments of Niger, Burkina Faso and Togo are also intending to contribute with their own troopers[14].

The wider region of Sudan is another place of energy dispute. Sudan suffers decades of civil conflict as the Arab Muslim tribes in the North are in constant confrontation with the Animistic and Christian African residents of the South. Beyond the ethnic and religious issues there are significant economic differences, as in the south areas of the country lies about 80% of the total oil reserves of Sudan. Until recently, the oil revenues have been exploited by the north areas because only them have the refineries, the pipeline and the terminal that are necessary for oil’s exportation through the Red Sea. In 1983, a civil war broke out resulting in approximately 2.2 million deaths but in 2005 a peace agreement was reached between the two regions and it has granted autonomy to South Sudan. Finally, South Sudan decided its separation from Sudan through the referendum of 9/7/2011 becoming a new state entity (see Map 2 below).

Map 2: Oil Fields, Refineries and Pipelines in Sudan, South Sudan, Darfur and South Kordofan.

  Map Source: Guardian



The area of Sudan constitutes a geopolitical point of great importance for China, which is the largest investor in country’s oil sector and it is buying 40% of the region’s oil exports (6% of China’s total oil consumption) while it has also invested in construction projects (e.g. pipelines, refineries)[15]. Although Sudan's oil reserves were discovered in the 80’s by the U.S. firm Chevron, it was forbidden for American companies to operate in the country due to the embargo imposed by Washington for harboring terrorist groups. The country is regarded by many as the “Mecca of terrorism”, as it had previously hosted training camps for the Palestinian organizations “Abu Nidal” and “Hamas”, the Lebanese “Hezbollah” and it was also a refuge for the founder of Al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden and the infamous Venezuelan terrorist Carlos “the Jackal” who participated in the organization “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine”[16]. On October 24, the Israeli air force stroke and destroyed the Yarmouk military complex in Khartoum. The Times of Israel wrote that “Israel believes Sudan is a key transit point in the route that weapons take to the Islamic militant groups in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon” while the Sunday Times reported that due to a secret agreement between Iran and Sudan “the Iranians were building advanced Shahab ballistic missiles and rockets at a plant in the factory compound”[17].

Darfur, a region in the western Sudan which has significant gold and uranium reserves and a massive underground water source, also constitutes an area of fierce ethnic tension[18]. During the First World War, Darfur was annexed to Sudan after a British initiative which gave the authority to the hands of the Arabic-speaking element[19]. The province of Southern Kordofan, an area of Sudan near the border with South Sudan which holds rich oil reserves, is also a disputed one. Southern Kordofan calls for independence from the North and possibly seeks a union with the South, as it has mostly African populations who had supported the “People's Liberation Front of South Sudan” during the civil war[20]. China, for its part, has developed collaboration with the Sudanese oil company Sudapet while the China National Petroleum Corporation has started oil explorations both in Darfur and Southern Kordofan. However, the separatist “Justice and Equality Movement” in Darfur threatens to attack on the foreign companies’ pipelines, arguing that oil revenues are used by the government of Sudan for buying weapons directed against the rebels and the local population[21].

The violence between Sudan and South Sudan has revived recently, cause of disagreements concerning the management of the oil revenues and the fate of the disputed border region of Abyei. In April, South Sudanese soldiers captured the oil-rich city of Heglig in Southern Kordofan. But soon the area re-captured by the military forces of Sudan which bombardized the border of South Sudan, damaging 50% of its oil fields[22]. Despite the fact that the leaders of the two countries signed a cooperation agreement on September 27 paving the way for the resumption of oil exports, the status of Abyei and several other disputed territories remains unsettled. South Sudan is now trying to reduce its dependence on its northern neighbor through the construction of a new pipeline that will deliver oil from the Kenyan port of Lamu (or Mombasa) to the Red Sea. This project, however, is expected to be completed at a minimum of 3 years[23]. The Chinese hope to gain profits from this development and they have already agreed to provide technical and financial assistance to the country in order to construct a new pipeline and a refinery. The indirect Chinese target, of course, is the future increase in the share of South Sudan’s oil exports[24].

Somalia is another place of geopolitical instability. The country, that has been facing a civil war since 1991, is divided into autonomous provinces which are under the control of various military and terrorist groups. The new-elected president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a moderate Islamist academic, must now confront the Islamic terrorist group Al Shabaab. The group operates mainly in the central and the southern regions of the country and has the ultimate goal of imposing the Islamic law throughout Somalia. The organization presented a progressive ideological and strategic coupling with Al Qaeda since 2008 which eventually became official in February 2012. This agreement was accompanied by a change in its operational activities, as it has increased its suicide attacks against Western humanitarian missions and United Nations’ soldiers. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a regional peacekeeping mission, numbers already 10,000 troops in the country, a figure that will reach to approximately 17,000 soldiers as a result of a Security Council resolution. Although Al Shabaab suffered serious losses on its human resources in August 2011, it was able to continue its action and carried out a bomb attack in the National Theatre of the country in April 2012. However, there seems to be an internal disagreement about whether the group should have a more “international” status or it should stay focused on “domestic” matters. Apparently, the collaboration with Al Qaeda was mainly a forced choice in order to increase its human and material resources rather than a conscious embrace of Al Qaeda’s ideological platform.[25] [26]

Noteworthy is the fact that the political turmoil in Somalia has provoked the military intervention of neighboring countries-such as Kenya and Ethiopia-which afraid that the terrorist attacks will negatively affect their tourist sectors, causing general instability to the region. Uganda is already involved with a large army force to AMISOM (facing retaliation attacks by Al Shabaab) while Kenya is also expected to send its own troops. Some Somalis see these actions as an external intervention in their country through which the neighboring states will create underpinnings to reap political and economic benefits in the near future. The same thoughts can be done for China[27] and Turkey[28] which provide humanitarian assistance to address the plague afflicting the country after the last year's drought. The interest of the developed countries on Somalia’s future is not recent, as dozens of reports both by international organizations and private companies showed that the Somali subsoil and coasts are rich in oil and natural gas reserves. The oil companies Conoco, Amoco (which later merged with BP), Chevron, Phillips and Shell had started researches in Somalia since 1986 and they expected large profits, but the ouster of president Siad Barre in 1991 and the civil war that followed canceled the Western business plans. Some believe that the 25,000 U.S. troops mission in Somalia in 1992 didn’t have only humanitarian motives but it sought to protect the U.S. investments in the country. This view is supported by politicians and corporate executives’ statements as also by the fact that the U.S. military was using the facilities of the U.S. oil company Conoco as temporary headquarters[29]. Despite the country’s political instability the interest from energy giants remains strong, particularly for the north-eastern region of Puntland, where the Australian Range Resources and the Canadian Africa Oil are already operating.  The statements of the Somali Prime Minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, after his meeting with Hillary Clinton and David Cameron gave the tone for the new investment plans: "There's room for everybody when this country gets back on its feet and is ready for investment... What we need is capital from countries like the UK to invest. If the private sector can come in and do the work, then we welcome them ...” [30]

The case of Nigeria presents similarities to that of Somalia. The country is the most-populated in Africa and has rich oil reserves (12th largest producer worldwide) that make Nigeria the fifth largest supplier of U.S. imported crude oil (9% of U.S. total  for 2011). However, 90% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day[31], facing "primitive" living conditions and intense religious and racial violence. The Muslims in the North -which is the poorest part of the country-, are at odds with the Christian-populated and oil rich South while the democratic institutions have been restored only after 1999 following decades of military rule and successive coups.

Big multinational oil companies are operating in the energy sector of the country, such as the Dutch-British Shell (which has the largest market share), American Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, Texaco (which merged with Chevron), the Italian Agip and the French Total. Although the richest oil fields have been located in the delta of the Niger river, the local population suffers from shortages of electricity and water while 70% of people live on less than $1 a day. In addition, the local residents are suffering from the environmental pollution caused by foreign oil companies, especially Shell[32]. This situation resulted in the formation of armed rebel groups since the early 90’s -like the “Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta”- which claim economic autonomy and compensation for the serious environmental damage of the region. These groups’ actions include sabotage in oil pipelines, armed attacks and kidnappings of foreign workers that cause the reduction or the stoppage of the ordinary oil production. It has also been reported that both the Nigerian army and the foreign oil companies-through their private security squads-carried out reprisal actions against the local population.[33] [34] The dire economic situation of the country deteriorates further because of high corruption and oil smuggling. Despite that Nigeria has rich oil reserves it imports oil from abroad due to the absence of refineries. The country’s oil imports exceed the level of domestic consumption, which means that some smugglers re-export redundant oil while simultaneously taking money from state subsidies.[35] For this reason, the IMF decided to cut oil subsidies in order to save about $7.5 billion that will be used for domestic investments. This decision has caused a sharp reaction by the poorest sections of the population leading finally to a partial restoration of subsidies. The only solution for Nigeria seems to be the construction of state-owned refineries, an aim that is being promoted after a deal with China State Construction Engineering Corporation.[36]An agreement was concluded in 2010 but the construction has not progressed due to the political unrest and the mass violence in the country. This fact, however, doesn’t discourage China which wishes to extend its activities in the drilling sector, claiming a share from the western companies in order to increase its energy independence. The existence of terrorism exacerbates the political and economic problems of Nigeria. The Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, which was founded in early 2000, wants to impose Shariah law in Nigeria and it is increasing its activities by exploiting the religious rivalry in the country. After the death of its leader in 2009, the group reorganized and made hits against government and police buildings, churches, even schools, causing dozens of victims. Although Boko Haram’s merging with the Al Qaeda is not official yet, both the rhetoric and the methodology used in its recent actions give signs of cooperation with other terrorist organizations. There are strong clues that Boko Haram’s members are being trained and receiving material assistance from the Somali “Al Shabaab” and “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM). Since “Al Shabaab” is receiving human and material resources by “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP) we can conclude that the Islamic terrorism is relocated from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to the African continent. On the one hand, this development was the result of the weakening of Al Qaeda since the death of Osama bin Laden while on the other hand signals an overall effort of these groups to attract new members. The African continent can offer this opportunity due to the religious fundamentalism and the poverty that prevails in most countries. A final concern derives from the fact that these organizations attract new members not only from the African countries but also from Africans living in the U.S., UK and Northern Europe.[37]

In conclusion, the inability of African countries to form stable government schemes, the high rate of corruption, the intensification of religious and racial differences and the lack of infrastructure, are causing the continuation of Africa’s political and economic instability. This situation, which undoubtedly has many roots in the Western imperialist policies of the past, is being exploited by extremist Islamic groups which seek to attract new members for their jihad and to raise their political and economic gains. These organizations have developed a high level of collaboration with Al Qaeda offshoots, targeting to an upgraded profile and to a more diversificated tactical methodology. Furthermore, the underdevelopment of Africa is a first class opportunity for Western and Chinese companies which seek to expand their businesses and increase their profits. Although that China has faced some problems due to the destabilization of Libya and Sudan, it has succeeded through a clever diplomacy to gain access to more African regions, mainly in their energy and construction sectors. Given the fact that China imports 30% of its oil from Africa, the U.S. imports nearly 50% of its crude from foreign countries and that the new oil resources have become rare and more expensive to be extracted, it is inevitable to meet a competitive energy war in the near future. It is our historical obligation to conduct this competition in a way that secures the political and economic autonomy of the African countries.








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