The great Greek historian, Thucydides, set out a principle he thought dictated relations between strong and weak nations during his time. He said, “The strong do what they will and the weak what they must.” The question is whether this dictum still holds true even for nations such as Sri Lanka.
Today, our country is caught in a geopolitical struggle between the United States and China for dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. Many of our leaders insist that, Sri Lanka should be “neutral” and/or “non-aligned” in this situation. However, the question is whether a weak nation (“weak” defined in a technical sense i.e. military strength, industrial capacity, etc. and not a normative sense) can remain so when powerful nations have decided it is in their interest to gain a degree of control over such nations.
Photo courtesy France24
In this article, I briefly discuss recent events in Mozambique and Ethiopia and draw out certain lessons about, a) the rise of Islamist extremism in Africa and b) the characteristic challenges faced by weak nations caught in the middle of the geopolitical rivalries of powerful nations. It would be useful to Sri Lanka in its present circumstances. To my knowledge, there is very little comparative analysis of these matters in local academic journals and newspapers and it is in the public interest to start such a discussion.
I argue that, there should be a new “school of thought” on foreign policy in our country: away from the seeming obsession with Sri Lanka’s relationship with the powerful nations and instead towards an intense engagement with nations similarly circumstanced to our own, an engagement designed to address the specific threats both internal as well as external that can be exploited by the powerful nations in order to achieve their ends here.
In mid-August 2020, Islamic State-linked insurgents seized a key port in Northern Mozambique stunning many observers. Northern Mozambique is rich in natural gas, with nearly $60 bn in offshore oil projects already carried out by international energy giants. There has been an insurgency in this area since 2017, but never before an attack of the scale and sophistication as the one in August.
The New York Times, in an article in November 2020 sumed up the implications as follows: “The militants’ success is also a sign of a worrisome trend: As the Islamic State’s influence wanes in the Middle East, it is surging in pockets of Africa with brazen offshoots gaining ground in western, central and now the southern corner of the continent.” (“With Village Beheadings, IS Intensifies attacks in Mozambique,” New York Times, November 11, 2020.)
Ethiopia has been in the news this past month because of the civil war in the north between Tygrayan forces and Government troops. Ethiopia is a federal state with 10 provinces divided along ethnic lines. The Tygrayan people comprise roughly 6% of the Ethiopian population but they controlled the government for three decades until 2018 through coalition politics. In 2018, this situation changed with the election of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister.
Mr. Abiy, a former lieutenant colonel in the Ethiopian Army, is a member of the Oroyo tribe. The Oroyos comprise roughly 45% of the Ethiopian population and is the largest ethnic group in the country. Many African observers see his ascension as the long-sought return of the Oroyo people to their rightful place at the head table in the politics of Ethiopia. In the pre-Abiy era, Ethiopia was a staunch ally of the United States. Thomas C. Mountain, the well-known commentator on African affairs, has summarized the traditional relationship between Ethiopia and the US as follows:
“Internationally, US foreign policy is based on using local “police” to do its dirty work…in East Africa it is mainly Ethiopia. On the behest of the USA Ethiopia attempted to invade and destroy Eritrea in 1998 – 2000, invaded Somalia and in 2006 destroyed the first government Mogadishu had seen in 15 years and is presently actively supporting the “rebels” putatively led by Reik Machar in South Sudan. Without Ethiopia and its largest best equipped army in Africa, the US will be in a very difficult position. (Ron Jacobs, “Africa, China and the West: An Exchange with Thomas Mountain,” www.tesfanews.net , 22st August 2015)
However, under Mr. Abiy, Ethiopia has tended to steer a nationalist-oriented course both in its foreign relations as well as domestic policies. In 2018, Ethiopia signed a peace deal with Eritrea. At home, the PM has focused among other things on increasing central-government control over the provinces.
Of particular relevance to Sri Lanka is what happened following the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. The invasion unified the Somalis against the invaders which strengthened the hand of the Islamists even further. Finally, in 2008, the US reportedly brokered a peace deal which saw the Ethiopians withdrawing in exchange for the Somalis installing a “moderate” government in power. Sheik Sharif Ahmed, who had headed the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was installed as President.
Some analysts have argued that, the US exploited this opportunity and gained crucial concessions including permission to use Somalia as a base for AFRICOM, the US’s innovative new military command for Africa.
There are three crucial lessons for Sri Lanka in the events discussed above. First, the IS is now entrenched in Africa. Somalia is already a bastion of IS-linked militants. If the events in Mozambique are an indication, more or less the entire east coast of the continent has now come under the sway of Islamic State fighters. That means only a stretch of ocean now separates our country from these folks.
The 2019 Easter Sunday bombings have showed that Islamist extremism has taken root in Sri Lanka. It is reasonable to suppose that, if relations among the ethnic groups in this country particularly the Sinhalese and the Muslims deteriorate and the Muslims come to feel they are being cornered, this country will become a magnet for IS recruiters if it is not already.
Therefore, our foreign policy must provide the means for our leaders to understand the root causes that fuel Islamist extremism in Africa, especially East Africa, so that they can assist the leaders of those nations battle the IS in their respective countries before it spreads to our shores.
Second, if there is a surge in Islamist extremism in this country, it might be possible for a powerful nation under the pretext of “fighting terror” to get one of its allies to intervene directly in this country as was done in Somalia using Ethiopia.
Third, the events in Tigray remind us that increased devolution of power to the provinces can be very dangerous in a country that is caught up in the geopolitical rivalries of powerful nations because it would appear that one of the best ways to obstruct a nationalist or populist government is to encourage or support a “rebellion” in one of the provinces especially if such province is controlled by an ethnic minority.
Rather than a seeming obsession with the stance that Sri Lanka should adopt towards the powerful nations, Sri Lankan foreign policy should focus, first, on identifying the likely ways that powerful nations can intervene in our country and second, help forge the necessary links with nations similarly circumstanced to our own and use their knowledge and experience in mitigating the threats to our country.