Geopolitics

A Global Competition For Influence In Ethiopia

Islam making major inroads in the east African nation. China pumping millions into infrastructure and industry. An Italian reporter gauges changes in the former colony.

Ethiopian attendants receiving training at a railway station in Addis Ababa
Ethiopian attendants receiving training at a railway station in Addis Ababa
Enrico Caporale

ADDIS ABABA — On the flight from Rome to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, flight attendants hand out Chinese-language magazines. And in the city's Bole International Airport, the only cigarettes available are of the made-in-Chinese variety. Marlboros aren't an option.

Outside the airport, at the first traffic light, my taxi jockeys for position with a economy car driven by a man who appears to be Chinese. "Since they began arriving a few years ago I see them everywhere," my Ethiopian taxi driver complains. "We used to call white people ferenji, which means foreigner, but now we mainly use it for the Chinese. They built everything here: the African Union (AU) headquarters, the new light rail system, the Modjo-Hawassa highway, even the railway to Djibouti."

Here in Ethiopia, where the Italian Empire went to ruin in the ashes of World War II, China is building a new empire of its own.

Heading out from the capital of one of Africa's fastest-growing economies, another feature of the landscape catches the eye. A minaret soars over every urban center, community, or village that appears in the distance — many have even more than one. "Those are all financed by oil money," the driver explains. "For the last 20 years Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait have been building mosques here."

Money and influence

It doesn't take long upon arriving in Ethiopia to understand the forces at play. While China builds roads and highways in exchange for access to the country's lucrative natural resources, the monarchies of the Arabian Gulf establish their influence in rural areas by building mosques and spreading Sunni Islam.

Journalist and Africa expert Howard W. French says that Chinese "neocolonialism" began in Ethiopia about two decades ago, in 1996. That year, in a visit to Addis Ababa, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin proposed the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Upon his return to China, Zemin urged industrialists to invest in Africa. Since then the Chinese presence on the continent has grown and become ever more visible, with Chinese-built roads, railroads, and industrial hubs popping up across Africa.

Buckling under the pressure of a food crisis and an influx of refugees escaping long-running instability in the Horn of Africa, the Ethiopian government sold the country's best land to Chinese investors, who used it to produce grain for export.

The new railway linking Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti, 750 km away, grants the landlocked nation access to the sea and was built by the China Railway Group (CREC) and the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, a subsidiary of the China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC). The three-lane Modjo-Hawassa highway, at a cost of $700 million, is also being built by the Chinese, as was the $500 million light rail system that cuts through Addis Ababa's traffic. The two-line system is the first to be built in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some Ethiopians claim they have never seen so many people wearing the Islamic veil — Photo: William Palank

But Beijing isn't solely interested in business investments on the world's second-largest continent. China is building its first overseas military base in neighboring Djibouti, which will include an air force base, lodging for thousands of soldiers, and a deep-water port that can host large warships.

Investing in the future

The expropriation of land for these projects has run into intense opposition from local tribes in Ethiopia. Last summer, protests erupted across Oromia, the country's largest and most populous region, spurring a brutal crackdown that killed thousands and forced the regime to declare a state of emergency.

"The fear now is that protesters and farmers will see radical Islam as a source of hope against the Orthodox Christian elite that rules the capital," says a youth who asks to remain anonymous.

Other Ethiopians claim they have never seen so many imams and people wearing the Islamic veil as they do now. Ethiopia has ancient ties to Islam and was the site of the first ever hijra — the journey undertaken by the prophet Muhammad's earliest followers to escape persecution in Mecca. It is also home to Negash, the oldest Muslim settlement in Africa.

Experts claim that despite this long history, the Gulf monarchies embarked upon a targeted "Islamization" of the country after the fall of the Soviet Union and Ethiopia's communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. This was done by building mosques in Muslim-majority areas and spreading their version of the Sunni faith in Islamic schools.

"In 1991 Riyadh took 2,000 young Ethiopians to study the Koran in Saudi Arabia, sending them back as imams two years later," says an anonymous source. "That's when burqas and minarets began to appear everywhere, and the Gulf monarchies want to build two mosques for every community."


While China focuses on business interests, the Arab states seek to indoctrinate ordinary Ethiopians. Ethiopia has one of the highest population growth rates in Africa and is projected to reach 210 million people in 2060, up from the current 99 million. Their goals and tactics vary. But Beijing and the Arabian Gulf both see Ethiopia, whose global importance will only continue to grow, as an area full of promise.

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New Delhi, India: Fumigation Against Dengue Fever In New Delhi

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 வணக்கம்*

Welcome to Thursday, where America's top general reacts to China's test of a hypersonic weapon system, Russia is forced to reimpose lockdown measures and Venice's historic gondola race is hit by a doping scandal. French daily Les Echos also offers a cautionary tale of fraud in the crypto economy.

[*Vaṇakkam, Tamil - India, Sri Lanka, Singapore]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Top U.S. general says Chinese weapon nearly a "Sputnik moment": China recently conducted a "very concerning" test of a hypersonic weapon system as part of its push to expand space and military technologies, Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg News. America's top military officer said that this was akin to the Soviet Union's stunning launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, 1957, which sparked the Cold War space race. Milley also called the test of the weapon "a very significant technological event" that is just one element of China's military capabilities.

Brexit: France seizes British trawler: A British trawler has been seized by France while fishing in French waters without a license, amid escalating conflict over post-Brexit fishing rights. France's Minister for Europe said it will adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards Britain and block access to virtually all of its boats until it awards licenses to French fishermen.

COVID update: Russia confirmed a new record of coronavirus deaths, forcing officials to reimpose some lockdown measures, including a nationwide workplace shutdown in the first week of November. Germany also saw its numbers spike, with more than 28,000 new infections yesterday, adding to worries about restrictions this winter there and elsewhere in Europe. Singapore, meanwhile, reported the biggest surge in the city-state since the coronavirus pandemic began. Positive news on the vaccine front, as U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck granted royalty-free license for a COVID-19 antiviral pill to help protect people in the developing world.

Iran nuclear talks to resume: Iran's top nuclear negotiator said multilateral talks in Vienna with world powers about its nuclear development program will resume before the end of November. The announcement comes after the U.S. warned efforts to revive the deal were in "critical phase."

First U.S. passport with "X" gender marker: The U.S. State Department has issued its first American passport with an "X" gender marker. It is designed to give nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming people a marker other than male or female on their travel document. Several other countries, including Canada, Argentina and Nepal, already offer the same option.

China limits construction of super skyscrapers: China has restricted smaller cities in the country from building extremely tall skyscrapers, as part of a larger bid to crack down on wasteful vanity projects by local governments. Earlier this year the country issued a ban on "ugly architecture."

Doping scandal hits Venice's gondola race: For the first time in the history of the Venice Historical Regatta, a participant has tested positive to marijuana in a doping test: Gondolier Renato Busetto, who finished the race in second place, will be suspended for 13 months.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"End of the ice age," titles German-language Luxembourgish daily Luxemburger Wort, writing about how the ice melting in the Arctic opens up new economic opportunities with a new passage for countries like Russia and China but with potentially devastating effects for the environment. The issue of the Arctic is one of the topics that will be discussed at the COP26 Climate Change Conference which kicks off in Glasgow on Sunday.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$87 billion

A new United Nations report found that extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones, floods and droughts have caused India an average annual loss of about $87 billion in 2020. India is among the countries which suffered the most from weather hazards this year along with China and Japan.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Air Next: How a crypto scam collapsed on a single spelling mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy from Laurence Boisseau in Paris-based daily Les Echos.

📲 The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system. Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation.

📝 On Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, the CEO admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

⚠️ What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond". Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


📣 VERBATIM

"A weapon was handed to Mr. Baldwin. The weapon is functional, and fired a live round."

— Following the Oct. 21 on-set shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, Sante Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza told a press conference that the "facts are clear" about the final moments before Hutchins was shot. The investigation continues to determine what led up to that moment, and any possible criminal responsibility related to how the "prop" gun that actor Alec Baldwin fired was loaded.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Share with us your favorite gondola memories or worst crypto scams — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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