Posts Tagged ‘‘Arab Spring’’

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 1

August 19, 2021

The August 16 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has – supposedly – sent shockwaves through Mali. In fact, what was more on Malians’ mind was the first anniversary, the next day, of the coup d’état that ended a failed experiment in democracy that lasted a decade longer than America’s “longest war”.

Sure, in the many “grins” (pronounce this in French), the nighttime talking circles around cups of tea you see everywhere, the Taliban takeover will have come up for debate. But the subject will then have been followed by discussion about last year’s military takeover, the corrupt leftovers from the previous political era, the chances of Mali’s national soccer squad in the next African Championship…

We have been here before. When the “Arab Spring” happened (a historically illiterate moniker if ever there was one) we were told that “Africa” – yes, it’s always the ENTIRE continent – was waiting its turn, patiently, to have a stab at democracy, too. Never mind that popular movements against unpopular autocrats have been part of the political landscape since the 1960s and earlier, from South Africa to Burkina Faso (twice) by way of Zanzibar and…Mali, 1991.

So, Mali and Afghanistan, then. Are there no parallels between the two? Of course there are. But they need careful examination, rather than the hurried hackery of the easy comparison. Both countries have religious insurgencies on their hands, even though methods and status are widely different. The similarity is that Western powers have used the might of their military to blunder their way in and out of these situations, leaving some success in their wake and a lot of damage. The US Army, the French Opération Barkhane – both of which are in the process of being dismantled after 20 years and 8 years respectively – have been employed to tackle issues that were either non-existent or tagged on the original mission for good measure. In many parts of the receiving countries, they will largely be remembered for drone strikes on wedding parties.

The US invasion was the result of 9/11; the French invasion was the result of an armed jihadist outfit crossing a red line and threatening Bamako, the capital city. The US got its attacker in the end; the French chased away the menace. Both suffered mission creep and engaged in things they should have left to the people living there. The pretence that you can bomb a country into becoming a nation, for instance. Now, presidents Biden and Macron must paper over the multiple cracks left behind by their policy wonks with the kind of smooth rhetoric both are very good at.

The French and US operations tagged lots of partners along, from NATO to the EU to individual states including my country, The Netherlands and, of course, the bewildering alphabet soup of NGOs wanting a piece of the action. Their presence illustrated more than anything else the intimate links, pioneered by France in Biafra, between the civilising mission that NGOs have become to personify and brutal military action. Mali became the scene of MINUSMA, the UN multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission, one of the deadliest UN operations in the history of the organisation. MINUSMA has clear nation building pretenses, even though there is no peace to keep or enforce, nothing to stabilise and the dying is mainly done by African troops, in the best colonial traditions.

When it comes to pretenses, the other protagonists are pretty serious about one thing and here’s a second parallel between the two countries: the religious insurgents in Central Asia and the Sahel have as their goal to establish Sharia Law in the areas they control. Now that the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan, their brutal rule from 1996 to 2001 is the obvious reference and the first signs do not look good. Jihadist vandalism in places like Bâmiân and Timbuktu leaves no illusions of how Islamic extremists treat the culture and traditions of the areas they occupy or colonise. Let alone the people…

The original attraction of jihadist rule is that it restores order. This happened, for instance, when one such group (called MUJAO, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) removed the thieving looting unruly rebels of the Tuareg rebels of the MNLA from the remote town of Gao in 2012. But the new Islamist order soon solidified into asphyxiating oppression – and the people of Gao took to the streets again. Any imposition of Sharia Law in Mali will prove deeply unpopular and I do not get the impression that the idea is universally shared in Afghanistan either.

Are they lurking on the other side? This is the Djoliba; it runs through Bamako and past Ségou, Timbuktu and Gao. In Ségou, they are said to be “just behind the river”. I never saw them. In Timbuktu and Gao they are hiding among the population. Mali’s sole artery has become a dangerous place, a haven for bandits instead of a prospering waterway.

Sure, Malians profess support for Sharia Law and applaud the Taliban takeover – on that most modern of communication vehicles: social media. Facebook messages are blindly copied and shared. None of this sharing makes you any the wiser about what a country run by the Taliban actually looks and feels like. The pro-Taliban position in the capitals around the Sahel is much better explained by a profound and widespread detestation of everything Western, in particular, France. Opération Barkhane is seen as an occupying force, although not necessarily by the people living in the North. They know, from experience, that the presence of foreign troops is some guarantee that Mali’s national army will behave itself.

Mali’s army, FAMa, is an inheritor of a long and proud military tradition that has been thrown to the dogs during the democratic era, when successive presidents sought and succeeded to divide and corrupt it. This is not to say that there have not been excesses before; the ultra-violent suppression of the first Tuareg insurrection after Independence (1963-64) has left deep scars in the soul of a nascent nation, which have never received proper treatment. But the rapid decay in morale and resources – the direct cause for the 2012 and the 2020 coups – happened during the era of democracy, while the international donor community held its nose, looked the other way and praised the country to the heavens while pretending nothing was amiss as the rot set in.

part 2 tomorrow.

Nine days in July, 1938

July 25, 2020

Part 4 and end – Lesbos and the shadow of Evian

The al-Assad family that has been ruling Syria since 1971 fits right in with a long list of venal and corrupt families who are prone to using extreme violence to keep their power and – more importantly – their business interests intact. From the Kim dynasty in North Korea through to the Obiangs in Equatorial Guinea, the now deposed Duvalier clan in Haiti, the Gnassingbes in Togo or the terrorism-spreading House of Saud, they all share one overriding characteristic, whch is that they consider the countries they rule as their private property, to be distributed and looted as they see fit. One of the most bewildering scenes of the last decade is the blind support lent to the Assad government by some deeply misguided – or bought – elements of the Left, who would do well to read this from an ideologically impeccable source.

I have been loath to use the term ‘Arab Spring’, as it is historically illiterate. The term ‘Spring’ refers to one episode in Eastern European history, which happened in Prague 1968 and was crushed under Soviet tanks. The term also suggests that the people rising up against autocratic and corrupt governments like that of Ben Ali in Tunisia (yes, another one of those clans) were following some kind of script. This is the same arrant nonsense that compelled a Dutch editor to ask me whether the popular uprising in Burkina Faso that chased Blaise Compaoré (and his clans, yes) from power in October 2014 was somehow inspired by the Arab Spring. No it wasn’t: it was inspired by the people being royally fed up with a corrupt dynasty, supported by France, that refused to leave the scene. And if there were any inspiration, it surely would be a similar uprising in neighbouring Mali, which had dethroned the military dictator Moussa Traore, in 1991. Or indeed, in Burkina Faso itself where the people had chased away an incompetent head of state…as early as 1966.

So, something similar started in Syria in 2011. One BBC reporter who covered those very early protests, commented that the Assad dictatorship was “very very well constructed” and that the people oppossing it were “very very brave”. As Assad’s extreme repression intensified and Syria descended into civil war, millions started leaving the country. Soon, the EU’s Evian Paradigm would hit the buffers.

Lesbos, Greece. Picture accompanying an article by Ingeborg Beugel, retrieved from De Groene Amsterdammer.

There is just one country between Syria and the outer limits of the European Union. And when Turkey held some three million Syrian refugees within its borders by 2014 something had to give. At least, that was clear to all, except for the Brusels bureaucrats, still busy preparing deals with murders and butchers south and east of the Mediterranean to Keep ‘Em There. ‘Nobody saw this coming,’ Polman cites Kati Piri, a Member of the European Parliament. Until the proverbial dam burst, in 2015.

One of the many points this book makes so eloquently is that the refugee issue is always described as humanitarian, an active denial of the local, regional and international politics causing the existence of refugees. This absolves distant rich actors of all responsibility: we just give a little money to create a safe space or a camp somewhere and then we publish nice pictures of grateful refugees eating the crumbs from our table. Another point the book makes very well concerns the rule regarding countries that are first port of call for arriving refugees: the rule, rigorously followed, says that those countries must process the arrivals. What this means in practice is the total absence of any European solidarity when it comes to receiving refugees. As the uniquely insensitive Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte puts it: well, you know, those countries that live next to refugee crises just have bad luck.

In short, the Keep ‘Em There dogma remains firmly in place once refugees have crossed an external EU border. When they came to Greece in ever larger numbers it was not the EU’s problem – nope: it was Greece’s. Next thing we know: this, the overcrowded camps where desperate people are stored, places my good friend and colleague Ingeborg Beugel, who reports on Camp Moria and other places always and consistently describes as The Horror Camps. Towards the end of the book, Polman takes us to Lesbos, and describes the scenes she finds there: bewildered refugees asking questions about where to go, volunteers blowing bubbles to amuse the refugee children, the masses of life vests on the beach, the utter squalor in the camps and the maddening bureaucratic blockades refugees face when they want to move on.

With one and only one exception, when the German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally deblocked the situation as the whole of southeastern Europe and the rest were slamming their borders shut. In a short-lived gesture that nearly ended her political life she allowed Syrian refugees through and into Germany. But the idea that the ‘burden’ (barely equivalent to the annual intake of a single Dutch amusement park, Polman drily notes) would be equally shared among fellow European member states proved illusory. The borders slammed shut again. And the next thing we saw was the infamous deal with Turkey, discussed in the last instalment…and real violence against refugees trying to land on Europe’s shores. So much for the much-vaunted European values of democracy and humanism. After all, death already is an accepted instrument, employed very effectively to Keep ‘Em Away. The migration route across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe is the deadliest in the world and may have claimed as many as  30,000 lives since the EU came into being in 1993.

Is there a solution to all of this? There are hints in Polman’s book here and there, like Spain’s decision in 2005 to give residence permits to 600,000 migrants who had been in the country for longer than three years and without a criminal record, which led to hysterical reactions elsewhere on the old and ageing continent. The number is, of course, insignificant, as Polman keeps emphasizing. This is a major contribution of this book: wide-ranging and meticulously researched it provides perspective, facts and history instead of hysterics. It also has an extensive Glossary to explain the complicated and sometimes crass terminology being used regarding migration and the movement of refugees. It chronicles the shameful history of deliberate failure, since Evian.

But the biggest contribution of Nobody Wants Them is that it buries forever the myth that European politicians somehow buckle under populist pressure and develop their anti-migrant and anti-refugee policies. This is complete nonsense: Polman’s unearthing of the Evian Conference clearly demonstrates that this has been standard policy for almost nine decades. But the standard policy is untenable, living as we do in a world with obscene inequalities, with wars that are fought using arms that land huge profits in Europe (and indeed the US, Russia and China), which then closes its eyes for the consequences, with aid money that is used to ensure that the migration routes from poor nations becomes even more deadly than they already are…the list goes on.

The Evian Paradigm may be alive and well. It is also obsolete. Given the challenges ahead – including demographics, chronic instability and climate change – it is high time to do better. Much better.