Tillerson on the edge of The Bermuda Triangle

Washington has to improvise , in a minefield.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just taken the daring initiative of entering sideways, from the West , the dangerous space where the multifaceted crisis of the Muslim world has impacted Eastern Africa . He is due to visit Ndjamena , Khartoum , Addis Ababa , Djibouti and Abuja . Did he make that decision himself or was he encouraged to do it ? The recent extension of the mandate as Under-Secretary of State for Africa of Mr Donald Yamamoto , for another six months, might have something to do with it . Of course this is ad interim ; but it seems so many things are ad interim in the Trump administration , perhaps even President Trump himself . So Washington has to improvise , in a minefield. In any case Don Yamamoto is a former Ambassador to Eritrea , Djibouti and Ethiopia and a remarkable specialist of the region . His probable suggestion to his boss is wise.

Since the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, things have been going from bad to worse and expectations which started with a sunrise program of “democratization of the region” under President George G. Bush , have shrunk down to a survival pattern in front of spreading war and terrorism . And lately the wave of problems have crossed the Red Sea in a variety of forms , ranging from the Emirati getting kicked out of Djibouti (and flip-flopping over to Berbera) , Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman holding hostage the top levels of his own hierarchy and demanding $100bn from them while getting Sudanese soldiers to come over and bolster his forces in Yemen (Beshir’s “thank you” note included inviting Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “rebuild” Suakin , something not appreciated in Riyad).

Now Prince bin Salman , always an energetic fellow , has fired and replaced a big chunk of the top level Saudi Army brass . Mr Tillerson is going to have a busy week . Ndjamena is relatively straightforward , congratulations to Idriss Deby for backing up the French in Sahel . And probably asking him whether he can do more . For that Mr Tillerson has to go to Paris , to coordinate with President Macron , who is right now the main help of the Chadian regime in their common war against growing Islamic terrorism in Sahel (the American diplomat last stop in Abuja will also most likely cover the same topic).

But Khartoum and Addis Ababa are on another orbit . There the problem is not how to fight an enemy , it is how to comfort a wobbly line of support . Beshir support the Saudi Crown Prince military endeavor in Yemen . But can he at the same time reconcile with Egypt , which is training Beja commandoes to threaten Eastern Sudan with Saudi financial help and play host to Erdogan who wants to threaten Saudi Arabia from the Sudanese coast ? The diplomatic and military lines look like they are over-crossing to the point of contradiction . And what about Ethiopia , a country that technically does not have a government since the Prime Minister’s resignation on February 15th ? Four days after this resignation the US Embassy issued a communiqué “strongly disagreeing with the Ethiopian Government’s decision to impose a State of Emergency that includes restrictions on fundamental rights”.

It had never before been the habit of US diplomats to criticize so bluntly a major Ethiopian Government decision . And this at a time when the Ethiopian Parliament , 100% EPRDF in theory , begins to waver on that very decision . At the same time , the ESL goes to Dubaï and signs an agreement to share (at a 19% level) the work and direction of the Harbour of Berbera at the very moment Ismail Omar Guelleh kicks out Dubaï Port Authority from Djibouti (22 February).

The lines of intelligibility in the region are reaching an incredible level of contradiction and Mr Tillerson does not come carrying a clarification glass . And he is not carrying a big stick either. Everybody wishes him well in his attempt at disentangling the toxic lines of regional interconnection the overflowing of the Arab Revolutions has created in Africa. But this seems a bit hard , given the fact that his mandate is weak , his interlocutors contradictory and the situation full of unanswered questions . For the time being , that Bermuda triangle will keep swallowing more moving objects flying into puzzling unknown dimensions.

Gerard Prunier is a long time expert on north East Africa and the great Lakes Region.