By Mary Mutesi

When Iran launched its first direct military attack on Israel on Saturday 13th April 2024 with approximately 300 bomb-carrying drones, it was explicitly indicated an escalation of crisis in the Middle East.

The attack by Iran, however, was of no surprise since Iran had been threatening to attack Israel after an airstrike earlier that destroyed Iran’s consulate in Syria, killing 12 people, including two elite Iranian generals.

But, what does this crisis mean for the African continent and its people?

Well, like an old Ghanaian Proverb goes that: “If you notice your neighbor’s beard is on fire,
then you better get some water by yours”, Africa should carefully observe the ongoing crisis in the Middle East since it bears immediate, short term and long term effects on it.

African-Israeli relations have been on a balance with periods of diplomatic disinterest. However, over the years, Israel renewed its interest in the African continent and in 2009 then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda.

In 2016, we saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visiting several African countries, mainly in east Africa and he said that; “Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel,” declaring his new diplomatic initiative with African nations as one of his top priorities.

The Deputy Director General and Head of the Africa Division at Israel’s foreign ministry Mr. Yoram Elron, also said; “The reason why Africa is gaining so much importance in our foreign policy is its growing economic and political importance,” and “The other component is the instability of northern African countries that are of concern to us.”

Besides the political-diplomatic rhetoric, Israel has clear geostrategic interests in the Horn of Africa and East Africa, due to its proximity to the Red Sea entrance.

It also has an economic interest because of local emerging markets which are a source of raw materials as well, and these form real tensions in African economies because of the ongoing crisis.

In the area of Development, trade and cyber technologies, for decades, MASHAV, has run development programs in Africa. It also offered training in Israel for experts from different African countries interested in Israel’s expertise in agriculture, water management, irrigation and solar energy.

In addition to the development sector, military trade is an important area as Israeli military hardware and technologies for surveillance, data-collection and cyber warfare are highly sought-after in Africa.

In 2016-2018, Israel’s military exports to Africa amounted to $275 million (€223 million).

More strategic for Israel and Africa, is the Red Sea. One quarter of Israel’s maritime trade is handled in its port of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba, an inlet of the Red Sea.

Eilat is Israel’s back door, vital in case the Mediterranean coast is under threat. Israel has long seen the shoreline countries of the Red Sea; Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia; as pieces in the puzzle of its extended security frontier.

More so, Egypt shares the same concern. Revenues from the Suez Canal were $9.4 billion as of June 2023 and forms Egypt’s third largest foreign currency earner after remittances from Egyptians working in the Gulf States and tourism.

Neither Israel nor Egypt can afford a disruption to maritime security from Suez and Eilat to the Gulf of Aden.
As china, extends her influence on the African continent, the Red Sea is the buckle on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with China’s first overseas military base strictly speaking a “facility” in the port of Djibouti near the Bab al-Mandab, the narrow straits between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

More than 10 percent of world maritime trade is carried on 25,000 ships through these passages every year.

All these factors intensify the scramble for securing naval bases in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Djibouti is already host to the U.S.’s Camp Lemonnier along with French, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese facilities.

With the above and many more strategic interests, Africa cannot afford to watch Israel’s beard burning and fails to collect its own water!

The grand question is; does Africa have the capacity to safeguard her strategic interests just in case the Middle East crisis spills over?

The writer is a Ugandan lawyer and an international relations practitioner.

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