The contours of Israel-Africa relations has witnessed new turns since the turn of the century. Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership of Israel in December 2022[i] and Israel’s induction into the African Union (AU) as an ‘observer’ state remained a contested issue during the Session of Heads of State of African Union (AU) Assembly held recently in 18-19 February 2023.[ii] In this context it is also important to discuss Israel’s engagements with Sub-Saharan Africa countries while noting the interests that encourage Israel to engage with a continent as diverse as Africa.
A brief overview of Israel Sub-Saharan Africa relations:
Israel has been working with Africa since its establishment in 1948. However, Israel’s partnership with Africa has been challenged by its relation with Arab countries in West Asia in general and the question of Palestine in particular. After the Yom Kippur war in 1973 only Malawi, Lesotho and Eswatini from Sub-Saharan Africa continued with their formal diplomatic relations with Israel.[iii] The scope for cooperation and resuming diplomatic ties opened after the Oslo Accords of 1993.[iv] The breakthrough came in later half of 2020 when Abraham Accords were signed and UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco established formal relations with Israel.[v] Although only Sudan from Sub-Saharan Africa was a direct signatory, the consequences were far reaching for both Israel and Sub-Saharan Africa. It warded off the pressure from the Arab world on these countries against establishing ties with Israel and at the same time gave them ground for legitimacy of their future ties.
The upward trajectory:
Israel’s relations with Sub-Saharan Africa countries have been improving rapidly. As of now Israel have diplomatic relations with more than 40 out of 48 Sub-Saharan Africa countries,[vi] the highest ever number. Nine of Israel’s 11 resident embassies in Africa are in the Sub-Saharan Africa.[vii] Resumption of diplomatic relations with formerly hostile establishments in the region has given a new impetus to Israel and Sub-Saharan Africa engagements.
The first African country to break relations with Israel during the Six Day War in 1967 was the Republic of Guinea. After almost five decades it resumed its diplomatic relations with Israel in July 2016 on a meeting at Paris.[viii] Chad severed ties in 1972 and re-established it in January 2019.[ix] Israel was instrumental in providing military assistance to Chad in the country’s fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Boko Haram. When it comes to Sudan, the relationship has experienced a paradigm shift as the two countries went from being foes to friends when Sudan became a party to the Abraham Accords and recognised Israel in October, 2020.[x] As for South Sudan, Israel was actively involved in the country’s breakaway from Sudan in providing arms and intelligence. Israel was also instrumental in the agreement between Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Government of Sudan and was among the first countries to formally recognise South Sudan after the 2011 referendum.[xi] As testimony to their close relationship, South Sudan’s first President Salva Mayardit’s first state visit was to Israel.[xii]
Israel has also improved bilateral relations with major and emerging economies of Sub-Saharan Africa such as Rwanda, Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia. The country has maintained close relationship with Rwanda and a number of its companies such as Elbit Systems[xiii] and Energiya Global[xiv] have substantial investments there. Israel’s diplomatic mission in Kigali was established in 2019 and direct flights between Tel Aviv and Kigali were inaugurated in the same year.[xv] The country has stepped up its commercial involvement with Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia.[xvi] Apart from it, Israel’s Foreign Ministry’s development cooperation agency Mashav has selected 25 children from 25 different countries of Africa to be treated in Israel for critical heart diseases.[xvii]
PM Benjamin Netanyahu has made frequent visits to Sub-Saharan Africa as part of his country’s drive to strengthen ties with the region. He became the first Israeli PM to visit Africa in 30 years when he landed in Uganda in July 2016. He stressed on Israel Uganda ties and also mentioned his brother who was killed there while leading a raid to rescue hostages from a hijacked airliner in Entebbe.[xviii] Netanyahu visited Uganda for the second time in 2020 to discuss agriculture, security, technology and trade among many issues.[xix] He flew to Kenya in 2017 soon after Uhuru Kenyatta was re-elected as President. There Netanyahu met 10 other African leaders.[xx]
Israel’s interests in Sub-Saharan Africa:
Israel has a diverse set of interests in Sub-Saharan Africa. While delivering his speech at ECOWAS Summit in Liberia in June 2017, when PM Netanyahu said that strengthening ties with Africa is one of the top priorities of Israel.[xxi] Its drive for increasing engagements with Sub-Saharan Africa is propelled by its economic and security interests.
Economic interests: Sub-Saharan Africa is the site for many of the emerging economies including Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.[xxii] IMF World Economic Outlook report has repeatedly portrayed Sub-Saharan Africa as a region of rapid economic growth.[xxiii] The region is experiencing immense technological as well as demographic changes. With its vast coastline facing Indian Ocean to the east and the Atlantic to the west, along with the availability of cheap labour makes the region a lucrative destination for offshore manufacturing. Moreover the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) came into force in May 30, 2019 makes the region the largest free trade area; all African countries except Eritrea are signatory to AfCFTA.[xxiv] Seeking cordial relations with African countries provides investment opportunities for Israeli companies. Israel is also seeking to be a shareholder in African Development Bank so as to facilitate the financing of its projects in the continent.
Security interests: Sub-Saharan Africa directly relates to Israel’s national security. Mombasa in Kenya was the site for the bombing of an Israeli owned hotel as well as an attack on a passenger Israeli plane in 2002.[xxv] Moreover, Hezbollah has been active in Sub-Saharan Africa. Having safe refuge in Sudan and through smuggling of diamond and drugs and supporting former regimes of Mobutu Sese Seko in Democratic Republic of Congo and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Hezbollah plied up money to run its terrorist operations in West Asia specially targeting Israel.[xxvi] Iran seeks to target Israel from multiple fronts by directly supporting and using Hezbollah. It had also used Sudan allegedly as a site to work with Al-Qaeda against Israel. Thus it becomes inevitable for Israel to engage with the governments of Sub-Saharan Africa countries for its own national security. Israel is much interested in Africa’s evolving security regionalism and Netanyahu’s address in ECOWAS summit in Liberia can also be seen in this context as ECOWAS is not just an economic grouping of West Africa but one of the most sophisticated peace and security mechanisms on the continent. It is an integral component of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) of the AU.
What does Africa stand to gain from Israel?
As for Africa, Israel has become an appealing partner partly due to the general political change in West Asia and also due to its growth over the years as a leading state in agricultural and water management technologies. Israel is known for being very innovative in intelligence and security arena. The country is a forerunner in R&D and has a high concentration of start-ups. Israel also has the highest patent-to-population ratio.[xxvii] Sub-Saharan Africa countries have more to gain in economic and technological and security fronts than political from Israel. As a continent on the rise, Africa needs as much investment and technological know-how as anything else. Israel being a global technological hub and having firms to invest would make it a good partner for Africa especially for its food and energy security, given that Israel is a lead when it comes to agriculture technology. It can boost its food and energy security by working with Israel given that Israel is a leader when it comes to agricultural technology.
Many African states are already actively working with Israel in this regard. Recently Nigeria sent 200 farmers for capacity building to Israel and Morocco.[xxviii] Following the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between ECOWAS and Israel, Israeli renewable energy firm Energiya Global agreed to invent $20 m in Liberia and to further invest $1 billion in ECOWAS countries to develop energy infrastructure.[xxix] Energiya Global also created Sub-Saharan Africa’s first commercial scale solar field in Rwanda and many other fields are in progress.[xxx] Moreover, a number of Israeli companies working in telecommunication sector have particularly focused on Africa. Mention could be made of the IAI and MER group which have opened its subsidiaries in many Sub-Saharan Africa countries.[xxxi] Nigeria has elaborate security engagements with Israel. According to Stockholm International Peace Research report 2011, Nigeria is a leading importer of Israeli weapons and accounts for nearly half of Israel’s security exports to Sub-Saharan Africa.[xxxii] The country seeks Israel’s expertise in dealing with Boko Haram. Cameroon’s long serving President Paul Biya has led extensive security and intelligence arrangements with Israel.[xxxiii] By bringing in partners like Israel, they can avoid being a pawn between the rivalry of a few major powers which is very much going on in Africa now.
Israel and Sub-Saharan Africa’s engagements are poised to increase in the coming years. As evident Israel’s technological clout and Sub-Saharan Africa’s need for investment, coupled with Israel’s improving relations with Arab countries sets the necessary grounds for it. However, there are still challenges to be overcome for Israel and Africa.
*Parag Das is a Research Intern at the Indian Council of World Affairs
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
[i] Reuters: Israel's Netanyahu returns with hard-right cabinet set to expand settlements, December 29, 2022, available at https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/netanyahu-set-retake-power-head-far-right-government-2022-12-29/ (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[ii] AfricaNews: AU justifies the expulsion of Israeli delegation from its summit, 20 February 2023, available at https://www.africanews.com/2023/02/20/au-justifies-the-expulsion-of-israeli-delegation-from-its-summit// (accessed on February 22, 2023).
[iii] French Institute of International Relations: Israel-Africa Relations: What Can We Learn from the Netanyahu Decade?, November 2020, available at https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/auge_israel_africa_relations_2021.pdf (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[v] United States Department of State: the Abraham Accords, available at https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/ (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[vi] Institut Montaigne: Israel-Africa Relations, new Challenges and Opportunities, 6 April 2022, available at https://www.institutmontaigne.org/en/analysis/israel-africa-relations-new-challenges-and-opportunities (accessed on January 30, 2023)
[vii] EmbassyPages: Israel - Embassies & Consulates, available at https://www.embassypages.com/israel (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[viii] The Times of Israel: after 49 years, Israel renews diplomatic ties with Guinea, July 20, 2016, available at https://www.timesofisrael.com/after-49-years-israel-renewes-diplomatic-ties-with-guinea/ (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[ix] Reuters: Israel and Chad revive diplomatic relations, call for closer security ties, January 20 2019, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chad-israel-rapprochement-idUSKCN1PE0OQ (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[x] U.S. Department of State - United States Department of State, available at https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/TIPR-GPA-upload-07222021.pdf (accesses on January 30, 2023).
[xi] The Times of Israel: Israel's role in South Sudan under scrutiny amid violence, September 10, 2016, available at https://www.timesofisrael.com/israels-role-in-south-sudan-under-scrutiny-amid-violence/ (accessed on January 30, 2023)
[xii] Reuters: South Sudan President visits Israel, December 20 2011, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/israel-southsudan-idAFL6E7NK29J20111220 (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[xiii] Dombe & Kogosowski: Elbit establishes technology center in Rwanda, November 30, 2020, available at https://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/46820 (accessed on February 1, 2023).
[xiv] Blackburn: Israel's Energiya Global to solar power 8 percent of Rwanda, February 23, 2014, available at https://www.israel21c.org/israels-energiya-global-to-solar-power-8-percent-of-rwanda/ (accessed on February 1, 2023).
[xv] MINAFFET: Israel inaugurates its new embassy in Kigali, April 1 2019, available at https://www.minaffet.gov.rw/updates/news-details/israel-inaugurates-its-new-embassy-in-kigali (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[xvi] Africa Portal: Israel's ties with Africa: A Focus on Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, July 31, 2018, available at https://www.africaportal.org/publications/israels-ties-africa-focus-ethiopia-kenya-nigeria-and-south-africa/ (accessed on January 30, 2023)
[xvii] MFA, Israel, New program to bring 25 children from 25 different African countries, January 25, 2022, available at https://www.gov.il/en/Departments/news/program-to-bring-25-children-from-25-different-african-countries-for-life-saving-heart-treatment-25-jan-2022 (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[xviii] The New York Times: Benjamin Netanyahu Traces Path to Power Back to Entebbe, and Lost Brother, July 4, 2016, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/05/world/middleeast/netanyahu-entebbe-israel-africa-terrorism-brother-yoni.html (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[xix] The Independent: Israel's Netanyahu in 2nd official visit to Uganda, February 3, 2020, available at https://www.independent.co.ug/netanyahu-in-2nd-official-visit-to-uganda/ (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[xx] The Standard: Israeli PM Netanyahu flies in, fails to attend Uhuru's inauguration, available at https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001261556/israeli-pm-netanyahu-flies-in-fails-to-attend-uhuru-s-inauguration (accessed on January 30, 2023).
[xxi] Prime Minister’s Office Israel: PM Netanyahu at ECOWAS, June 4, 2017, available at https://www.gov.il/en/departments/news/speechecowas040617 (accessed on January 31, 2023).
[xxii] World Economic Forum: 6 of the world's ten fastest-growing economies are in Africa, August 6, 2019, available at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/afcfta-proof-that-africa-heading-for-substantial-growth/ (accessed on January 31, 2023).
[xxiii] IMF: World Economic Outlook Update, January 31,2023, available at https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2023/01/31/world-economic-outlook-update-january-2023#:~:text=Global%20inflation%20is%20expected%20to,since%20the%20October%202022%20WEO (accessed on February 2, 2023).
[xxiv] AfCFTA Home, available at https://au-afcfta.org/ (accessed on January 32, 2023)
[xxv] The Guardian: At least 12 killed in Kenya hotel blast, November 28, 2002, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/nov/28/israel.kenya (accessed on January 31, 2023).
[xxvi] Jason Warner and Carol Jean Gallo (2014), the troubled bridge of Third World dialogue, Iran-Africa Relations, in Tim Murithi (ed.) Handbook of Africa's international relations (pp 400-405) London, Routledge.
[xxvii] Caylee Talpert: An Initiative of the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan, available at https://nextbillion.net/israeli-innovation-meets-rwandan-entrepreneurship/ (accessed on February 1, 2023).
[xxviii] Further Africa: Nigeria to send farmers for capacity building in Morocco and Israel, May 10, 2022, available at https://furtherafrica.com/2022/05/10/nigeria-to-send-farmers-for-capacity-building-in-morocco-and-israel/ (accessed on January 31, 2023).
[xxix] Leichman: $1 billion Israeli renewable energy commitment to Africa, June 13, 2017, available at https://www.israel21c.org/1-billion-israeli-renewable-energy-commitment-to-africa/ (accessed on January 31, 2023).
[xxx] EnergiyaGlobal: East Africa's First Utility-Scale Solar Field Launched, February 9, 2015, available at https://energiyaglobal.com/east-africas-first-utility-scale-solar-field-launched/ (accessed on January 31, 2023).
[xxxi] Africa Intelligence: Africa gives Israeli firms IAI, Elbit and Mer a back door into the worldwide UN base security market, November 9, 2020, available at https://www.africaintelligence.com/west-africa/2020/11/09/africa-gives-israeli-firms-iai-elbit-and-mer-a-back-door-into-the-worldwide-un-base-security-market,109619407-ge0 (accessed on January 31, 2023).
[xxxii] SIPRI: Israeli arms transfers to sub-Saharan Africa, Octobar 2011, available at https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/files/misc/SIPRIBP1110.pdf (accessed on February 7, 2023).
[xxxiii] TheAfricaReport: Cameroon: Israel looks after Paul Biya's security with elite forces, February 5, 2022, available at https://www.theafricareport.com/22979/cameroon-israel-looks-after-paul-biyas-security-with-elite-forces/ (accessed on January 31, 2023).