Monday, 21 February 2011

Confidential Agenda 22 February

Côte d’Ivoire/South Africa/Nigeria: Zuma's warship in the Gulf of Guinea
The South African government has been making reassuring noises about the presence of its warship, the SAS Drakensberg, in the Gulf of Guinea. According to the Nigerian government, however, President Jacob Zuma is throwing his weight around over Côte d'Ivoire and should stick to his own region. Abuja may escalate the dispute this week.

Jambe Gebeho, the Secretary General of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), claimed that the Drakensberg had at one point docked in Abidjan, but South Africa denies it and our correspondent hasn't seen the warship. The Drakensberg had been cruising in mid-Atlantic, acting as an escort for the Cape to Rio yacht race, when it was redeployed to the Gulf of Guinea to offer 'possible assistance to South African diplomats, designated personnel and other South African citizens in Ivory Coast,' according to the South African Naval Defence Force.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and President Zuma are on opposite sides of the Laurent Gbagbo dispute. Zuma has questioned the validity of the Ivorian elections while Jonathan had been prepared to contemplate the use of force to allow President-elect Alassane Dramane Ouattara to take office (see this week’s issue of Africa Confidential). More irksome to Nigeria, though, is the South African military presence in West Africa.

The Drakensberg is described in the latest official statement as a 'non-combatant support vessel'; most reference sources list it as a 'combat support ship'. Whatever the title, it is not capable of credible offensive action. Even with its full complement of two helicopters on board, it could do no more than defend itself as it carries nothing heavier than a 20 mm cannon. Naval experts say this ship is most suitable for an evacuation. The Drakensberg could be standing by to rescue stranded nationals – although Côte d'Ivoire is not exactly bursting with South Africans – or to host a conference of the visiting African Union head of states panel or maybe to remove Mr and Mrs Gbagbo plus dependants.

Last weekend, Zuma was due to meet the other members of the AU panel on Côte d'Ivoire, followed by a personal visit to Abidjan later in the week. Zuma's swagger (see current AC) is playing well at home and dispatching warships to distant latitudes cannot hurt his image. He should not be too surprised, though, if the Nigerian navy turns up off Cape Town.

Malawi: Bingu's birthday bashed
President Bingu wa Mutharika may soon be sharing his birthday celebrations with all of Malawi, if things go according to plan. Mutharika's 77th is on 24 February and there will be a mass gathering to celebrate it at the Civo stadium in Lilongwe with music, a friendly football match, and other events on 25 February, as it is a Friday. Having recently called on Malawians not to emulate Egypt (see current AC), the President will no doubt welcome the opportunity to demonstrate how much love Malawians have for their leader with a massive showing at the party.

The 14 May birthday of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi's leader from Independence in 1964 until 1994, is also a national holiday; Banda had designated it so himself. President Bakili Muluzi’s government abolished it in 1994 but Parliament reinstated Kamuzu Day in 2007. The plan to make Mutharika's birthday a holiday was leaked to the Nyasa Times, perhaps to test public reaction. If any of the comments on Malawi's online media are representative, the idea is not too popular.

Nigeria/Gambia/Iran: Gambian-Iranian imbroglio playing out in Lagos
Hopes of courtroom revelations were dashed this week with the adjournment of the trial of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Azim Aghajani in the Federal High Court in Lagos until 7 March. State Security Service lawyers got the Abuja court proceedings against Aghajani and his co-defendant, Nigerian Ali Usman Abbas Jega, annulled. They then re-indicted him to appear in Lagos.

Both men are pleading not guilty to charges of smuggling 13 containers of infantry weapons and artillery into Nigeria that were ultimately bound for Gambia. Several reports claim that the United States had a hand in the affair. If true, the USA probably had the shipment under surveillance as it sailed out of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf and, once it had reached Apapa port, called the SSS. Isolating Iran is a key US foreign policy goal.

Aghajani's defence is that the arms shipment was a 'normal business transaction' between Iran and Gambia, but President Yahya Jammeh has broken off diplomatic relations with Iran, which had been very cordial for four years, over the affair. Also the weapons were concealed under ceramic construction tiles and the bills of lading did not say 'weapons'.

Aghajani is apparently a member of the Al Quds force, the covert arm of the Revolutionary Guards with special responsibility for overseas operations. Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, the supposed commander of Al Quds operations in Africa, escaped arrest by holing up in the Iranian Embassy in Abuja. The then Iranian Foreign Minister, Manuchehr Mottaki, made a special trip to Abuja to fetch Tabatabaei, who was then permitted to fly home. What Mottaki did to persuade Nigeria to let Tabatabaei go and why he had to come in person is another mystery.
Mottaki took the lead in expanding relations with Gambia in 2007 and has made most of the public pronouncements about their meetings. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sacked him on 13 December for unknown reasons.

The Iranians said this was the third of four intended shipments. If all the shipments were a similar size, that would make an eventual total of 52 containers stuffed with rifles, 107 mm shells, rocket-propelled grenades, ammo to match, and 23 mm Armour-Piercing Incendiary Tracer ammunition. Military experts say such arms would suit a conventional infantry force rather than terrorists or guerrillas. Speculation about the final destination of the weapons has been rife, with the dormant Casamance separatists touted as possible recipients. Some Casamance separatists were recently put on trial in Gambia charged with possession of weapons.

South Africa/United States: Another Walmart in the BRIC
A promise by South Africa's Minister for Economic Development Ebrahim Patel to set up a panel to review the effect of Walmart's entry into the local market and ominous threats about trade union recognition have not deterred the United States company from closing in on the acquisition of local retailer Massmart (See Confidential Agenda week ending 12 December 2010). The Competition Commission said no obstacles should be put in the way of Walmart, which is notorious for not recognising trades unions in its global operations.

Approval from the Competition Commission should be forthcoming but its open hearings are producing a courtroom-style drama. The unions are insisting that Walmart honour the current framework for negotiations with Massmart. Walmart has promised to do so but the unions still seem wary about working conditions, employment terms – and about the company sourcing its products in China rather than locally. Walmart is interested in Massmart not only for its 265 stores in South Africa but also for its outlets in 15 other African countries. The Congress of South African Trade Unions has threatened all manner of mass action if the Walmart deal goes through. Cosatu has staked a great deal on opposing the deal and the atmosphere remains tense, but no one seriously expects the take-over to fail.

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