On 12 October, the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Nigeria posted a video on its Twitter account showing its leader, Enoch Adeboye, expressing solidarity with Israel while condemning the militant group Hamas’ attacks on Israeli territories on 7 October. This video received widespread criticism from netizens and an Islamic group, the Muslim Rights Concern. The Redeemed Christian Church of God, which claims to have 10 million members worldwide, symbolises unwavering support for Israel among Nigerian Christians. This stance sharply contrasts with the majority of Nigeria’s Muslim population, which accounts for at least half of the country’s population. These deep internal divisions have influenced the Nigerian government’s response to the renewed conflict between Israel and Hamas. Foreign minister Yusuf Tuggar has avoided taking a clear side. He expressed Nigeria’s deep concern about the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas and called for a “ceasefire” and a “peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue.”
Since the Hamas attack on Israeli kibbutzim on 7 October 2023, various African governments have adopted one of three positions. Nigeria has maintained a neutral stance, while some of its neighbouring countries like Ghana, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia have aligned with Israel. In contrast, most North African countries, except Morocco, have openly sided with the Palestinians.
Libya’s internationally recognised government dismissed Foreign Minister Najla Al-Mangoush in late August due to the government’s claim that she engaged in unauthorised and unsanctioned meetings with her Israeli counterpart to discuss the normalisation of ties. Libya and Israel lack formal diplomatic relations. In Northern Africa, Algeria stands as a prominent advocate of the pro-Palestinian cause. Algeria maintains full diplomatic relations with Palestine and has offered to host Palestinian football matches and cover all associated costs during the Gaza conflict. Algeria’s commitment to the Palestinian cause stems from its anti-colonial history and a principle of supporting groups it deems to be oppressed peoples. The country’s war of independence against France contributed to its scepticism of the West, leading it to view the Palestinian struggle through the prism of the colonised.
On the other hand, Morocco, Algeria’s arch-rival, prioritises geopolitics and national interests above prosaic expectations. As America has sought to pivot away from the Middle East to focus on the Asia-Pacific, a part of the Abraham Accords, engineered during the Trump administration, was the normalisation of ties between Rabat and Tel Aviv. As part of the normalisation agreement, Israel recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, a territory that has been a source of intense friction between Morocco and Algeria.
On 17 July 2023, the Israeli Prime Minister’s office announced that it has recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the territory, with a concurring statement from Morocco’s royal palace, which said that Israel’s position was expressed in a letter to King Mohammed VI from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that Israel is considering opening a consulate in Dakhla, the capital of the claimed Moroccan administrative region of Dakhla-Oued Ed-Dahab. Before the normalisation, Morocco and Israel had cooperated extensively on several issues, especially on the economy and security. Consequently, Morocco’s response to the Gaza crisis in the same month has been tempered due to these ties. This situation provides Algeria with diplomatic leverage as it supports the Polisario Front’s quest for the independence of Western Sahara.
For sub-Saharan Africa, however, the responses have been quite diverse. As mentioned earlier, Ghana, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zambia have aligned themselves with Tel Aviv in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel’s engagement with the continent has seen significant enhancement since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which led many African states to sever their ties with the young Israeli state and join the Arab states’ oil embargo. However, in the 21st century, a notable shift has occurred as several countries that had previously broken relations with Israel in 1973, during the Organisation of African Unity era, have rekindled ties. Currently, 44 of 54 African countries recognise Israel’s statehood, and close to 30 have established embassies or consulates in Tel Aviv.
These ties have been nurtured through economic and security relations. Spyware Diplomacy has also been an important tool which Israel has used to strengthen its relations with African countries. In late 2020, a report titled “Running in Circles: Uncovering the Clients of Cyberespionage Firm Circles,” published by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, identified several African countries, including Nigeria, Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Morocco, Zambia, and Zimbabwe as users of the Circles’ surveillance platforms which were employed to exploit flaws in telecommunication systems, enabling the interception of telephone calls, SMS messages and location services. Ghana, Rwanda and Morocco were implicated in the Pegasus Affair, a scandal over citizen surveillance by governments using the Pegasus Spyware that Israeli company NSO Group produces. Following this, it is understandable why these three states are reluctant to condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza.
Israel’s widely recognised prowess in agriculture has helped its cause—at a time when many African countries battle drought, floods and extreme weather phenomena at increasing frequencies. A fifth of Africa’s population is undernourished. That engagement yielded fruits when, in 2021, Israel was granted observer status in the African Union, a move that chairperson Moussa Mahamat unilaterally carried out against the wishes of a handful of countries, especially South Africa. Israel’s observer status was suspended this year over a diplomatic incident that involved accreditation issues.
South Africa’s opposition to Israel can be traced to its history of apartheid. During the era of apartheid, when the African National Congress (ANC) led the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, it forged strong alliances with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. This period saw the development of a close partnership between figures like Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat. Beyond merely empathising with the struggles of oppressed peoples, the ANC held an unfavourable view of Israel. It is important to note that Israel, in concert with the West, maintained relations with the apartheid governments. Presently, ANC politicians in government have escalated their criticism of Israel by characterising it as an apartheid state, primarily in response to its treatment of Palestinians. It is, therefore, little surprise that President Cyril Ramaphosa attended the pro-Palestinian Cairo Summit for Peace on 21 October. South Africa’s position, which sharply differs from the West’s, also closely follows its warm ties with Russia and China, which has precluded it from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In recent years, Israel has taken active steps to nurture diplomatic, economic and security connections with a variety of African countries. Its principal goals have centred on expanding its market presence and forming vital strategic partnerships. Israel operates as a trading partner, exporting machinery, electronics, chemicals, and agricultural goods while concurrently importing raw materials and food products from its African counterparts.
In 2021, the total trade value between Israel and sub-Saharan Africa reached approximately $1.2 billion. Notably, Israel’s exports accounted for $750 million, whereas imports amounted to $450 million. However, it’s essential to highlight a significant decrease from the preceding year, when the aggregate trade value stood at $1.6 billion, with exports totalling $1 billion and imports registering at $600 million. This decline can be largely attributed to the disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of the trade volume accounted for that year, the largest share, comprising nearly two-thirds, was conducted with South Africa. Following closely, Nigeria’s trade with Israel resulted in goods valued at $129 million. Nigeria, a significant oil source, is Israel’s most substantial trading partner in West Africa. This dynamic trade relationship is estimated to yield between $200 million to $250 million annually. Still in West Africa, Ghana has a rich relationship with Israel centred on machinery, plastics and chemical exports. Conversely, Ghana primarily imports cocoa beans, wood products and fruits. Notably, in 1956, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. This long-standing relationship has undergone significant evolution. In 1953, Israel’s exports to Ghana were less than $6,000. However, by 1957, this figure had grown to $135,000. Fast forward to 2019, Israel’s trade with Ghana reached approximately $29 million, with exports constituting about 83% ($24 million) of this total. Prominent export items included chemicals and metals, while imports from Ghana comprised about 17% ($5 million), including commodities like cocoa and fruits. It is noteworthy that Ghana’s non-traditional exports to Israel have experienced a notable decline, dropping from $49 million in 2015 to $4 million in 2019.
Kenya has emerged as Israel’s close ally in East Africa, characterised by a robust exchange of various products. Israel exports machinery, plastics, chemical items, fertilisers, pharmaceutical items and high-tech products to Kenya. In return, Kenya reciprocates with products like cut flowers, coffee, tea, fish, fruits, nuts, straw products, and vegetable preparations. Over time, bilateral trade between Kenya and Israel has shown consistent growth. For instance, in 2018, Kenya’s exports to Israel exceeded $9.3 million while imports reached $45.3 million, resulting in a trade balance favouring Israel with a surplus of $36.7 million. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Kenya ranks fourth among Israel’s trade partners in Sub-Saharan Africa, with Israeli exports to Kenya valued at $43.2 million and imports totalling $13 million.
Israel likewise shares a strategic partnership with Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. The trade relationship involves exports of machinery, iron and steel products, and electrical equipment from Israel, while Ethiopia predominantly imports oily seeds, coffee and leather products. In 2022, the value of imports from Ethiopia to Israel witnessed a moderate increase, amounting to $69.4 million compared to $64.3 million in the preceding year. However, it’s worth mentioning that there has been an overall decline in the value of imports from Ethiopia when compared to the figures from 2019.
In Central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a vital source of minerals for Israel, especially in terms of copper and cobalt. Israeli companies are actively involved in mining projects in the DRC. In 2022, Israel’s exports to the DRC were estimated to be worth around $7.44 million.
These trade dynamics reveal that, for the most part, political factors have limited influence on Israel’s interactions with African countries. Instead, fluctuations in trade values are primarily determined by economic factors rather than being solely driven by political considerations or reactions to the Middle East situation. However, it’s essential to note that South Africa is an exception, where political factors play a more significant role. Additionally, a notable economic aspect arises from religious tourism. Pilgrims from various African countries visit Israel for religious reasons, primarily related to Christianity. This contributes to the economy through the revenue generated from tourists’ expenditures, including expenses like airfare, accommodation, guided tours and the purchase of religious memorabilia.
Moreover, the recent shift toward anti-Israel positions adopted by some African governments and citizens in traditionally pro-Israel states is a notable change from the situation a decade ago. This shift is driven by growing anti-US and anti-Western sentiments, particularly due to perceived blanket support for Israel, which many criticised for its perceived heavy-handedness in Palestinian territories. For many, this support is viewed as hypocritical, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine, which the West has characterised as a conflict between a powerful, oppressive neighbour and a smaller, weaker state.
The Global South, which Africa belongs to, has largely expressed discontent with the US-led global order, with most of its youth population (all of whom have no experience of the anti-colonial struggles of the previous century) favouring anti-Western talking points on global issues. On 17 October, the Financial Times reported that Western support for Israel is undermining its global leadership, with a senior diplomat lamenting America’s lost battle (over Ukraine) in the Global South. The Financial Times also pointed out that numerous developing countries have historically backed the Palestinian cause, viewing it as a matter of self-determination and a stance against the predominant influence of the United States, Israel’s key supporter.
For Israel, its place in Africa will remain contested. The remaining favourable view it enjoys in some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa is primarily rooted in the support from Christian evangelical and protestant movements, which align with Israel’s right to exist with Jerusalem as its capital. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by then-US President Donald Trump in December 2017 further boosted his popularity among African Christians, consequently benefiting Israel. Nigerian Christians and their Muslim counterparts stand on different sides of the spectrum on this issue, and these divisions have influenced Nigeria’s response since its return to democracy and are likely to persist, even with a president like Bola Tinubu, who is perceived as having stronger alignment with the West on many regional and global issues.
Given the complex and interconnected nature of the world, the Israel-Gaza conflict is not just a distant or abstract issue for Africa. Its diplomatic, humanitarian, economic and security implications are real and tangible. The instability in the Middle East, especially in the context of energy resources, often affects global oil prices. African countries are not only energy consumers but also producers, making them vulnerable to economic impacts from price fluctuations. Also, unstable times can lead to wavering international investments in Africa, affecting infrastructure development and economic growth. Critically, extremist groups, most of whom share ideological and financial ties with their Middle Eastern counterparts, can exploit the conflict as a rallying point, leading to increased radicalisation, particularly in Africa’s Sahel region, as they mostly thrive in regions grappling with socio-economic and political challenges.
African countries must exercise careful and deliberate diplomacy to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by this conflict. African leaders must engage robustly and proactively to address the complex impacts of the Israel-Gaza conflict. This must be done in a way that prioritises the interests of African countries while also contributing to lasting peace and stability in the continent.