Posts Tagged ‘Niger’

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 3

August 22, 2021

So the parallels, superficial or less so, between Mali and Afghanistan, have a limited shelf life. This is illustrated very well by Lyammouri’s assessment, which I share, that we are not going to see gun-toting turbaned men at the presidential palace (called Koulouba) on the Colline de Pouvoir, along the road to the military base at Kati. In fact, Koulouba’s current occupant is the colonel from Kati who took power a year ago, Assimi Goïta. And he shows no signs of departing. Mali’s decadent political class – propped up by the West – that brought the country to its current lamentable state was not removed by a religious insurgency, as happened in Kabul this week; they were kicked out by a popular movement followed by a coup. And what the people now want most of all from this military-dominated government is a return to security. And this is where things get really complicated.

Because there is not one dominant Islamic insurgency. When discussing religious insurrectionism in Afghanistan, talks are generally restricted to one word: Taliban. (Whether this is fair or not I don’t know.) Mali is home to a dizzyingly large number of outfits with guns that often fight each other, like the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State franchises (JNIM and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) that have been at each others’ throats on and off for roughly two years. There are also any number of self-defined self-defence militias that attempt to secure their communities and then go out and attack other communities. Some of these attacks have been particularly bloody. We also have the old phenomenon of proxies. The Malian army has been working with them for decades and they have also been associated with Opération Barkhane in the border region with Niger and Bukina Faso, near the town of Ménaka.

But most of all, we have widespread and spreading banditry that can take the guise of any of these groups. It also happens that they throw away any and all pretence and just go after your stuff and your money. “Not a single road in and out of Gao is safe,” asserts a friend who lives there. And he cannot even properly describe the tit-for-tat killings going on there because he knows that some of these hired guns enjoy protection at the highest possible official level. And we just had the revelation of yet another scandal that implicates a private businessman and army personnel with the sale of arms to jihadist and/or self-defense units. Reports of hold-ups, break-ins, armed robberies and active gangs of highwaymen come in from all corners of the country. Mali is far less safe from folks with empty pockets, a propensity for crime – and, crucially, in possession of guns, mobile pones and motorbikes – than it was even three, four years ago.

If this is giving you vertigo, worry not. You are not the only one. Take a boat stroll on the calming waters of the eternal river.

Understand, then, that the simple “us” versus “them” scenario (“the single story”) that the media are so fond of and that is portrayed to be playing out in Afghanistan simply does not exist in Mali, which is why international media, by and large, igore this story. Too darn complicated.

The proliferation of armed groups – including those self-styled, self-professed and sometimes genuine jihadis – is the result of a collapsed state. State collapse did not happen overnight or in a blitz offensive by an insurrectionist army. It happened slowly, death by a thousand cuts, scandal after scandal after scandal. Bribes over here, reported by Malian journalists and blithely ignored by Mali’s so-called “partners” in development. (Thou shalt not speak ill of a donor darling.) The importation of unusable agriculture inputs with some well-connected traders getting rich and farmers left destitute and desperate. A drugs flight here. A deal with insurgents there. Kickbacks from lucrative negotiations for the release of Western hostages. Unvetted rebels like the one we met yesterday sent to diplomatic posts. And on and on it went. By the time, early 2012, that the MNLA made its ill-fated invasion and established its stillborn Azawad, the army had been demoralised to the point of immobility, the jihadists Algeria had tossed across its border ito Mali’s vast desert were already waiting in the wings as the state lay on its death bed. And yes, as always and everywhere, the poor and the vulnerable end up paying the highest price.

What is left of the state in Mali is kept in place by donor money and revenue from gold mines, all but one foreign-owned. It is kept safe principally by foreign troops that are on the way out. And in the meantime, it continues to rot from within. Nobody seems to care. The assault on the country by a bewildering array of armed groups continues and even though none of them will run this country (and certainly not under an Islamist extremist flag), the horror they visit on ordinary people continues unabated and goes unnoticed by the world at large. As if they do not even exist.

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 2

August 20, 2021

So, after foreign intervention and religious insurrectionism, there’s your third parallel between Afghanistan and Mali: a fatally weakened military. Both armies have been prone to demoralisation and bad practices, in spite of numerous and often intensive foreign interventions: training, drills, exercises, workshops…you name it.

The official website of the Malian Armed Forces

There is an excellent article in International Affairs (behind a paywall, unfortunately but you can at least read the abstract) on army “reforms” in Mali. They are supposed to take place and they could theoretically contribute towards returning the FAMa to their (historical) glory. In measured prose, the author lays out the non-dilemma: everyone knows the reforms are not working, everyone continues to pretend they do and in so doing they keep a lucrative and utterly pointless exercise up and running, while the situation remains as it is. To be fair, Mali’s army has a strong reputation among the population and is seen as a source of pride, which is why the military removal of the discredited political class hat presided over the demise of the FAMa was met with such widespread approval. However, the colonels now in charge must deliver on security and this has – so far – proved Mission Impossible, not in the last place because of this man.

From his latest video

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Iyad ag Ghaly, a colourful character with a chequered history that brought him in contact with the Libyan leader Gaddafi when the latter was busy financing rebellions across the continent. Ag Ghaly is said to have participated in some of the Great Libyan Leader’s armed incursions into neigbouring Chad. But he was also and already occupied with the struggle for an independent homeland for his people, the Tuaregs: Azawad. This brought him into contact with music and the mythical band Tinariwen, which aligned itself with the Tuareg cause, mostly through music. Ag Ghaly gave them money for musical instruments but he was never part of the band as some French media have suggested.

At this point, he was in Tripoli and led the life of the true rebel leader: drinking, dancing, clubbing, chasing girls. But that changed when after the Second Tuareg Rebellion in the 1990s (which ended with the famous foreign-sponsored Flame of Peace in Timbuktu, March 1996) he was integrated into Mali’s central government structures in Bamako and sent to the north of the country to help negotiate the liberation of Westerners taken hostage by ordinary criminals who would later re-emerge as…jihadists. Ag Ghaly knew most of these characters already.

It was at this point that he embarked on a slow but sure process of radicalisation, which was crowned by his encounters in Saudi Arabia (where he got a post as a diplomat) with the Pakistani zealots of Jamaat al-Tabligh. He returned from the Middle East a proper zealot and ready to…start another short-lived Tuareg rebellion. Opportunism is ag Ghaly’s middle name and it still remains to be seen whether the religious principles he has adopted are as resilient as his laser-precise instinct for survival.

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In sum, you have (and the list is not even exhaustive): religious radicalisation, the immensely complex and intricate Tuareg family and clan politics, Bamako politics, the Algerian secret service, the Algerian military, the criminally stupid operation that removed Gaddafi, more failed rebellions, money, alignment with former criminals from Algeria turning to jihad, the death or disappearance of some of these… and in all this the constant factor is ag Ghaly’s extremely adroit manoeuvring that made him, over time, the most prominent jihad chief in the country and the region. In the second decade of this century he became the nominal head of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Support Group for Islam and Muslims or JNIM), an Al Qaeda franchise that incorporates among others the MUJAO already mentioned and a hyper-active outfit called the Front for the Liberation of Macina, led by a fanatical priest from the centre of Mali, Amadou Koufa.

“Our time has come,” intones ag Ghaly in a video released six days before the Taliban victory. In his message he praises the bloody jihadist expansion in Mali and beyond, which has led to thousands of deaths and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and neighbours. He adds that he cannot be stopped and demands the departure of France, a notion that goes down very well with some radical circles in Bamako. I have covered some of their demonstrations and talked to the organisers.

Like his friend and ideological ally imam Mahmoud Dicko, Iyad ag Ghaly opportunistically combines a relish for Islamic rule and a dislike for Western-style democracy and mixes this into a potent highly conservative ideological cocktail. But, as the researcher and analyst Rida Lyammouri of the Rabat-based Policy Center for the New South argues, none of the armed Islamist extremist groups out there in the vast savannas have the rear bases, the numbers, the capacity or the popularity to rule. This is why they do not lay siege to the capital but terrorise poor defenceless villagers. And they do so with utterly depressing frequency: 15 soldiers dead in Mali, 80 soldiers and civilians dead according to latest count on August 20 in Burkina Faso, 137 dead in Niger – month after month after month. Ordinary women and men, working their land, going to market, sent to an invisible moving frontline, and mostly trying to mind their own business and wanting to be left in peace.

Will they ever learn…?

August 14, 2021

These are the pitfalls of writing a wrapup of an entire continent in a single piece…. From yesterday’s Guardian, no less…

…in which the Sahel, a region twice the size of Germany, France and Spain combined is reduced to a single paragraph, where hardly anything is accurate. Here it is.


“In the Sahel, the economic impact of the pandemic has further weakened administrations that were already struggling to find resources for security forces, and has aggravated tensions between communities that have helped Islamic extremists make inroads in recent years. Across the region, as elsewhere on the continent, trade routes have been blocked, investments abandoned, and the flow of the remittances from overseas workers and the diaspora on which millions depend for everything from school fees to food has been significantly reduced. Overseas aid is also likely to be reduced. Local and national elections have been postponed due to the virus, raising tensions and causing instability.”

Oh dear, this is looking grim. It is almost universally…er, how do I put this politely…massively exaggerated? Not as close to the truth as it hopes to be? Distorted? Yup. All of the above. Let’s have a look, then.

One: the violence. The impact of the pandemic in the areas where the fighting is happening is…nil. Sure, there has been more police repression in the cities as a result of Covid measures being introduced but villages do not get attacked because there is a pandemic but because the State is absent. To the best of my knowledge, none of the major cities have seen terorist attacks since 2016, I’d say, with the last major one on the coast. And these tensions predate the pandemic by half a decade or longer. Besides, it is becoming clearer that a lot of what the villagers suffer is the result of ordinary banditry, nothing to do with Islamic extremism. Jihadists are absolutely a factor and a presence and they have an uncanny aptitude to home in, laser-like, onto existing tensions and exploiting them. Of that, there is no doubt but the impact and influence of ‘the fools of god’, as they are known here, must not be exaggerated. And it must certainly not be reduced to the only story to be told about the Sahel, as far too many media do.

Two: trade. Sure, the trade routes may have been hampered because the borders have been closed but they were never blocked. The coastal countries that closed their borders to the landlocked Sahel made it clear that this would not affect vital supplies like food and medicine. This is why there was never an empty shelve in any shop or supermarket. To see that you must go to Brexit Britain. Trade may have been reduced in some areas as it was made difficult for traders to transport their wares in person. But they took to using tried and tested smuggling routes to get their stuff from one place to another.

Three: have elections been postponed? Not to my knowledge… Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea (not in the Sahel, I agree) held highly controversial elections last year. Niger elected a new president and in Bukina Faso we wil not have elections because none have been scheduled. The two exeptions are Chad and Mali. This is because there were two coups (Mali) and a (mind you: just re-elected!!!) president was killed in battle and then replaced by his son (Chad), another well-established tradition although sometimes the son is so deeply detested that the people put a stop to it, as they did in Senegal in 2012 and arguably in Mali last year.

Investments, remittances and aid have indeed been significantly reduced. But this is the effect of measures taken in countries that have been much worse affected by the pandemic than has the continent of Africa, exceptions duly noted. And here also we must be precise. The issue of remittances will have had the largest impact by a country mile. Family members sending money back home keep entire towns alive and thriving, from Louga in Senegal to Kayes in Mali and the many villages across this vast region.

As for investments, one should be told where these were supposed to go, so we can assess the impact. For instance, a lot of investment in Mali and Burkina Faso goes into mining, which tends to have a detrimental effect on the environment and the surrounding communities, while the employment it creates is negligible. And regarding aid… Suffice here to repeat, once again, that were it to stop today hardly anyone here would notice, with the exception of the well-heeled but tiny middle class this industry has spawned. You would see a few fewer FourWheelDrives out on the streets and the roads but I am sure people will quickly find better things to do with their time than sit in endless workshops that cost the earth and achieve nothing.

In a famous TED talk, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – and The Guardian worships the ground she walks on – warned against what she termed “the single story”, gross simplifications of complex places and peoples. Perhaps the Guardian could heed her advice and stop pontificating about an entire continent in pieces like these, just like we are currently being spared the dreadful spectre of writers poducing 300 to 700 page bricks about this continent. And to the best of my knowledge this is only done to “Africa”. Why is that? Someone produce a 700-word paper on that, please.

Fortress Brussels

January 28, 2018

A few years ago I saw something strange. A boat. In the water. Ok, that’s normal but this was strange: it was a patrol boat of the Spanish Guardia Civil, flying a Spanish flag, in the Port of…no, not Barcelona or Malaga or Cordoba or Bilbao or any other seaport of that magnificent country. It was in the Port of Dakar.

What the devil is a Spanish police patrol boat doing in the territorial waters of Senegal? Turned out that it was just another manifestation of the intense and heroic efforts by the European Union and its member states to keep as many Africans out of their Fortress as possible. The same efforts that put Brussels in bed with autocrat-run Turkey and one of the nominal governments of Libya, destroyed thanks to the heroic efforts of no fewer than the three former administrations of France, the UK and the USA. Another part of this Fortress Europe strategy is the blackmailing of countries like Mali and Niger: we will give you aid if you stop your people from coming here. Niger’s people smugglers now must trace far more dangerous routes than before, thanks to government crackdowns, sponsored by the EU. Brussel’s aim is to ensure more people die on their way to the Mediterranean Sea than on their way to a southern European shore.

It’s all a far cry from the start of the EU, a collaborative effort around (re)building industry and achieving food self-sufficiency. At roughly the same time the Geneva Convention on Refugees was adopted, a suitably clear and concise document. This was, of course, also the time of the Cold War. The refugees that made it into Western Europe came, mostly, from the “enemy” camp. Hungarians were welcome in 1956, when they fled the Soviet assault on their country; one of those refugee families would later produce a president – Nicholas Sarkozy. In “our own” camp, Portuguese conscientious objectors ran away from their country, run by a fascist dictatorship, because they did not want to fight Portugal’s colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guiné-Bissau. And there was a broadly-based welcome for people from Latin America on the run from US-installed military dictatorships. All in the 1970s.

Ségou, on the river. Dreadful place, innit?

It’s almost 30 years since the end of the Cold War. “We” won and now “we” are touting ourselves as the best society the world has ever seen. It follows, therefore, that Everybody Wants To Come Here and “we” must be selective about who “we” let in.

The only people being selective here are the “we” in this last paragraph. Selective of the facts. Speaking from the region I know a few things about, West Africa, the truth of the matter is that the vast, overriding, overwhelming majority of people…does not move. And if they do, they tend to go to other parts of the continent, or to China, the Gulf States…and yes, Europe. The picture of migration worldwide is decidedly mixed. However: the idea that Europe is some kind of a massive people magnet reminds me of that infamous French colonial drawing, where The Light (from Paris, of course) illuminated the entire Dark Continent – or at least the bits that had been visited by migrating French army boots. In short – it is an over-estimation of one’s worth and borders on the delusional. Seen from here, you don’t look all that great. And that’s before we even take a closer look at how you have been behaving to your own people of late.

This will not be a review, short of saying that what you see here is the cover of the most riveting piece of political reporting since Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. It is also a damning indictment of how EU bigwigs treat the poorer members of their community – and how petty, vindictive and downright brutal they get when these members turn out to have ideas of their own. Fear and Loathing, indeed.

I visited Thessaloniki in 2012 for a world music trade fair called WOMEX. It was wonderful. But even then the austerity programs were kicking in and the people responded by staging the largest street demonstration I had seen since the epic 1981 marches against those US cruise missiles. A sea of red flags. Similar happened in austerity-hit Portugal. Varoufakis recounts in detail how the EU/IMF “rescue package” was part of a bailout plan to save…not Greece, but French and German banks that had taken irresponsible risks and found themselves overexposed. Politicians in EU member states sold another bailout of financially irresponsible banksters by inventing the story that this was all about…saving Greece. In short, they lied. Most mainstream media slavishly copied the lies without doing their job, something that happens with depressing frequency.

When the bailout did not work – and Varoufakis extensively explains why this is so – they did it again. And lied about it – again. The engine room of this elaborate deceit is a thing called the Eurogroup, a gathering of Europe’s finance ministers, accountable to no-one. Even though it is – sortalike – formalised in the Lisbon Treaty I would not hesitate to call the whole structure de facto illegal and a flagrant violation of the EU’s founding principles. The president of this informal group of financial terrorists was, between 2013 and January 2018, a Dutch politician by the name of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who emerges as a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. He clashed frequently with Varoufakis, on the basis of politics disguised as policy. The Eurogroup consists of people who like to present themselves as technocrats but are in fact hard-headed ideologues, tightly moulded in the TINA frame (There Is No Alternative) of no debt relief, screw your people, cause misery, keep taking the poison and keep lying to your national electorates why “we” are strangling one of our member states to death. Read the book for the details, fascinating and shocking in equal measure.

But the point of it all is this.

Varoufakis argues, forcefully, that extreme austerity imposed by external financial terrorists causes widespread misery and pushes people over the edge. And then, society shifts towards political polarisation. The sea of red flags in Thessaloniki was one example of this but it can also take on more sinister tones. The counterpoint to resurgent socialism is the worrisome rise of fascism, not the cotton candy variety of lightweight intellectuals like the late Pim Fortuyn and the still very alive Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands, not even the clownish two-trick pony Geert Wilders no, this is the violent, iron-clad boots variety of Golden Dawn, who have committed murder. The focal point of this resurgent extremism? You guessed it: migration. Increased hardship frequently goes hand in hand with blaming “foreigners” for problems they had no hand in creating.

Why people move (my photo, taken at a market near Tenado, Burkina Faso)

It is this kind of extremism, fomented by bad policies emanating from disconnected “technocrats” that Varoufakis warns against. Fortress Brussels ignores this at its peril. But this is not about Brexit, that unilateral folly of very English self-sabotage. Brexit addresses none of these issues. It is an unwelcome and time-consuming inconvenience for the EU, it will be grotesquely damaging to what is left of the United Kingdom, and it is most likely to be temporary (at least until Scottish independence…).

No, this goes much deeper and concerns entrenched dogma that must be urgently challenged. The damage that the Washington Consensus did to the nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia has been incalculable and it would be a fine day to see the perpetrators of this crime held accountable in a court of law. Now that the Washington Consensus has moved to Brussels, the damage is being done to countries on Europe’s southern flank, the same region made to cope, on the cheap, with a mixture of refugees looking for safety and others looking for opportunities.

The only answer thus far has been to reinforce the Fortress. The Mediterranean has become increasingly militarised and the EU has extended its border operation southwards, as far as Senegal and Niger. Like the imposed austerity, this is an Extremely Dumb and Colossally Expensive Idea. Cheaper and more intelligent answers exist: debt rescheduling/forgiveness and providing stimuli to the economy in the case of near-bankrupt states; the re-instatement of the – sneakily abolished – 1951 Geneva Convention in the case of refugees; the creation of avenues for legal, circular migration for the “problem” of people moving to Europe. Once again, for the hard of hearing, people generally do not willingly exchange their place in the sun for a precarious existence in Europe’s cold, dark, grey, hostile and sometimes even murderous streets. For the vast majority of the people outside looking in, you don’t look all that great.

Les Grandes Personnes de Boromo, at the opening carnival of the – very aptly named – Festival Rendez-vous chez nous, Ouagadougou 2017. Pic: me.

Fortress Brussels has been rattled but not enough. There have been a few stabs at the bubble of self-delusion, hypocrisy and lies that surrounds the policies of austerity and the militarisation of the borders but it has not yet burst. However, burst it must. The betrayal of Europe’s foundational principles has been ugly, continuing down the same path leads to an outcome that is both ghastly and familiar. This is no exaggeration. As the ideological technocrats continue to do their destructive “work”, as chunks of societies splinter and become uncontrollable extremist fragments, as the narrative about people moving to Europe becomes ever more toxic, as identity politics takes the place of progressive discourse, as Fortress Brussels continues to push dumb and expensive ideas instead of the much cheaper and far more intelligent – and available! – alternatives, Europe risks, in all seriousness, a return to the situation the EU was constructed to prevent. By its own hand.