West Africa: piracy’s new frontier?

News is emerging that an oil tanker has been hijacked off the Nigerian coast. This appears to be part of a growing trend, and one that was predicted in these pages four years ago (even a blind pig sometimes finds a truffle). Back in December 2008 I wrote of the attractions of West Africa as a venue for piracy, suggesting that its coast ‘has many of the elements that make Somalia a good spot for a bit of buccaneering – rank poverty, lots of underemployed young men, unstable governments, endemic corruption and favourable geography.’ If ships start going the long way round the Horn of Africa to avoid the East African coast, I added, ‘they might be in for a nasty surprise when they reach the opposite side of the continent.’

A few months later I posted this map published by the International Maritime Bureau, showing the global distribution of pirate attacks in the first part of 2009:

You need only compare this with the IMB’s latest 2012 map to see how rapidly the industry has expanded in West Africa:

The Enemy at the Gates

On a beach in Málaga the other day I asked a Senegalese handbag seller if the collapse of Spain’s economy, whose effect on business has made life increasingly difficult for the many African hawkers who work the sands of the Costa del Sol, had prompted him to consider returning to his native land. ‘No,’ he replied without hesitation. ‘Things are bad in Europe, but they are much worse in Africa. Unless you’re related to a government minister you can’t make a living there. People say Africa is improving, and there is a lot of money there, but only those in power see any of it. Everybody else is still poor.’

Bafflingly, the number of sub-Saharan Africans trying to breach Spain’s defences has mushroomed in the past few months. According to El País the number of migrants amassing at the border between Morocco and the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla has quadrupled this year from a rolling average of about 250 to 1,000. Only last week a group of 450 stormed the six-metre high fence that separates them from the country of their dreams; sixty made it through, and are now beginning the long struggle to find themselves a place in a rapidly shrinking economy.

Those who fail to make it over the fence either flee to the wooded hills overlooking the border or are arrested and taken in coaches to eastern Morocco, from where they begin again the gruelling slog towards Europe. Life in the border forests is hard. The Moroccan police, says El País, have stepped up their searches, rounding up hundreds of hopeful young migrants in recent weeks. Those who slip through the net, fearful of capture and the beatings that accompany every arrest, ‘no longer go down to the market in Beni Enzar at the end of the day to scavenge for scraps of food among the rubbish. Nor do they dare go to Farhana to beg for money and food, or to the springs for water…Survival has become very difficult.’

Spanish and Moroccan officials are perplexed by the sudden increase in numbers. Among the former are some who attribute it to deliberate laxity by the Moroccans, who they suspect of allowing more migrants to gather at the border in order to extract funds or some other political concessions from the Spanish government. Others ascribe the increase to the unrest in the Ivory Coast and Mali, and it appears that a large proportion of those camping out in the forests are from those two unstable nations and from impoverished Niger and Burkina Faso, which are struggling to deal with the fallout from their neighbours’ troubles.

Whatever the reasons, and despite the economic turmoil in Europe, the desperation of those who reach the border shows no signs of abating. ‘Even if it takes ten years and I have to live in this forest for those ten years,’ one Ivorian told El País, ‘I will make it into Melilla.’ A young Burkinabe, meanwhile, who has so far spent eight months sleeping under the trees and living on what he can find in rubbish bins, was equally vehement: ‘You say that Spain’s in crisis? That Europe’s in crisis? Africa’s worse than in crisis; it’s dead. My grandfather was poor. My father was poor. My mother was poor. I am poor. Whatever the crisis in Spain, I can’t imagine it can be any worse than what’s happening in my country.’

Why the UN won’t invade Texas: it would lose

AH-64 Apache

There has been much hilarity this week over comments by Tom Head, a Texan judge who predicts that President Obama is going to authorize a United Nations invasion of Texas in his second term.

Head vowed to personally stand “in front of [the UN's]  personnel carriers and say, ‘You’re not coming in here.’ And I’ve asked the sheriff. I said, ‘Are you going to back me on this?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to back you.’ Well, I don’t want a bunch of rookies back there who have no training and little equipment. I want seasoned veteran people who are trained that have got equipment. And even then, you know we may have two or three hundred deputies facing maybe a thousand UN troops. We may have to call out the militia.”

The UN says that this is “ridiculous”.  But I think there is a bigger question here: if the UN invaded Texas, could it win? To answer that, I turned to past editions of the Annual Review of Global Peace Operations to compare statistics on current UN missions with data on the forces that might rally to the defense of Texas.

Here are some working assumptions.  Texas is pretty big (nearly 270,000 square miles) so if the UN wanted to send in a force, it would probably be comparable to its current large-scale mission in Darfur, which involves over 20,000 soldiers and police officers.

So, going on data from Darfur from late 2012, I think that Judge Head and his fellow Texans are likely to face an invasion force consisting of about 17 infantry battalions with just over 600 combat vehicles and 5,000 support vehicles.  Note that “combat vehicles” typically means armored cars, not actual battle tanks.

Looking at Darfur and a couple of other recent UN ops, I estimate that the force would have an air component of just over 30-40 helicopters and 10-20 fixed-wing aircraft.  But again, note that fewer than 10 of the helicopters would be attack rather than transport aircraft, and the force would have no fighters, bombers or ground-attack aircraft.

Let’s compare that to what’s available in Texas.  The backbone of the defense would be the Texas Army National Guard and Texas Air National Guard – presumably supported by the volunteers of the Texas State Guard plus police, etc., across the state.  There are lots of regular US military forces in Texas too, but let’s assume that President Obama could compel them not to resist the UN.

So what have the Texans got?  Here is data culled from from various bits of Wikipedia:

So, in terms of numbers the UN and Texan National Guard would be fairly evenly matched, although this would be off-set by the large number of law enforcement officials and well-armed citizens who would fight for the Lone Star state.

But this numerical issue is quite irrelevant.  What matters is that the Texans would have immediate air superiority.  The F-16s could deal with the UN’s puny attack helicopter component on day one of the campaign.  The National Guard Apaches could then go after the UN ground forces at their leisure.

The UN invasion would almost certainly be hampered by the UN’s generally weak command and control systems – designed for day-to-day peacekeeping rather than war-fighting – patchy communications technology and very limited night-fighting capabilities.  If the Apaches and Texan ground forces could mount a counter-offensive under the cover of darkness, the UN would soon be in disarray.

My guess is that a UN invasion of Texas would collapse in 24-48 hours.  This doesn’t really tell us much about President Obama’s plans for the UN or Texas.  But it is worth asking why the Security Council thinks that forces with very limited military capabilities – and especially negligible air assets – can take on cases like Darfur.

Course on Fragile States in Washington, DC

I will be teaching a course this fall (780.718 Promoting Development in Fragile States) in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University:

Hindered by weak institutions, social divisions, and difficult historical legacies, fragile states face fundamentally different challenges than other countries. This course focuses on understanding the drivers of state fragility and what steps might counteract these. It encourages participants to think deeply about the nature of development, political incentives, the role of geography in governance, social identities, the nature of public authority, and a variety of other issues relevant to state building in difficult circumstances. It will be of interest to students working on African and Middle Eastern issues, conflict management, comparative politics, and economic/political development.

The syllabus for the course provides a good reading list for anyone wanting to understand the problems facing fragile states and what policies might deal with their unique problems.

If you want more information, contact me at seth@sethkaplan.org.

Reflections from a poacher, turned gamekeeper, turned poacher

In 2005 the development charities got the keys to Number 10 – but they still don’t understand why.

Before I was an adviser in Gordon Brown’s Downing Street I sat on the board of Make Poverty History and witnessed from both sides the disagreement among the campaign’s leaders about how they had come to occupy their privileged place in public life.  Their divisions would be of only passing historical interest were the competing analyses not informing NGO planning for Britain’s next G8 in 2013 – and hampering their ability to influence the Conservative-led government they face now.

Labour was responsive to public campaigning not, as some believe, because charity mobilisations ‘forced’ its ministers into doing anything, but because organisations which favoured redistributive spending on foreign aid were always assured of at least a hearing from a social democratic government, particularly one headed by two men with such long-standing interest in Africa.  Added to that was a strong overlap in personnel, with many Make Poverty History campaigners drawing on a background in Labour politics and many government aides being poached from the sector itself.

The extent to which both the issues and the leadership of the campaign enjoyed an open door infuriated some members of the coalition who argued that proximity meant ‘co-option’ – a process which would dilute our demands and derail our strategy. In reality the risk of that happening (and the benefit to the Government even if it had) was always overstated – and is in any event much less important than whether the strength of the relationship bred a complacency which stopped organisations auditing their underlying strategic strength in preparation for a change of government.

Precisely because the Labour leadership never challenged our mandate, the campaign didn’t come to a settled view about whether its power came from being ‘right’ (in both the moral and technical senses of the word) or from being popular. The charity coalition was split on that and while neither side conclusively won the toss, both need to be honest about the vulnerabilities in their argument.

The ‘purists’ who felt Make Poverty History should get its way because of the weight of its moral claims and its technical expertise need to acknowledge that they now have some first class competition.  The increasing stature of development economics inside the academy and the creation of a separate development ministry staffed with the brightest fast-streamers means NGOs no longer have the monopoly on knowing or caring about the poor. Ministers can’t be expected to believe charity campaign officers are automatically more ethical than the DFID civil servants who toil for less pay on the same issues – nor that their policy output is inherently superior to that of Oxford or the LSE.

Meanwhile, the ‘populists’ relied on accounts of public support which were always debatable, with the banner reading ‘You are G8, we are six billion’ and tabloid headline ‘5 billion people can’t be wrong’ among the more memorable examples. There is no doubt that Make Poverty History surpassed any other campaign mobilisation this century in terms of British popular support – but getting one organised subset of the public to wear a wrist band or send an email will not always trump the views of the millions of opponents who may not mount a campaign but whose presence will be powerfully felt during the rolling polling process which characterises modern democratic politics.

None of this is to say, of course, that charity campaigns can never be morally inspiring, analytically rigorous or democratically potent – indeed, they should be aspiring to be all three – merely that they are not inherently any of these things simply by virtue of emerging from the third sector.

This Government has made its overture to service-delivery charities with the Big Society – if campaigning ones want their hearing they will need to do more than flash their civil society membership cards and relive past glories.

What about the deserving rich?

In 1988, the majority of Britons couldn’t name their MP – but a staggering 92% of the population knew the name of an ANC leader imprisoned 6000 miles away in Robben Island. Fast forward to 2005 and more people wore white Make Poverty History wrist-bands than voted for the government. There’s a deep internationalist tradition on these islands, but in 2012 the 99% have shut the door.

One reason for that is obvious; when our homes, jobs and savings are threatened instincts of self-preservation will tend to crowd out the generosity of spirit on which all solidarity actions depend. It is no accident that both the international anti-globalisation movement and the Jubilee and Global Call to Action Against Poverty movements which succeeded it all experienced their peaks during the long boom.

Across the Western world insecurity is breeding insularity – but also exposing that progressives have a different account of fairness from the public whose interests we claim to champion.

One report from Oxfam – A Safe and Just Space for Humanity – argues that we must learn to live above a social floor but below a planetary ceiling, in a state of ‘justice’ where nobody has so little their life cannot be tolerably sustained, but nobody consumes so much that we are all endangered. It is informed by earlier work by Alex Evans of New York University’s Centre for International Cooperation in which he argues that climate constraints mean we need an account of how to allocate ‘fair shares’ of the resources and wealth which currently exist instead of assuming a long-term consensus on growth.

These interventions are highly provocative, intelligent and timely, but we need to recognise that justice and fairness are not technical variables to be measured but political concepts to be struggled over. They are the most fiercely disputed terms in politics precisely because most public policy debate boils down to justice as fairness versus justice as desert – is ‘justice’ secured when everybody has an equitable share, or when people get out roughly what they put in?

This is the tension which animates public policy debates from welfare reform in Britain to immigration in South Africa  and given the political brutality with which the definition of ‘fairness’ is contested inside nations we can hardly hope to define it away when it comes to relationships between them.

That means the thinkers and activists of the global justice movement need an answer for the American car worker who believes he has ‘earned’ more carbon space than the Bangladeshi villager by virtue of making goods the rest of the world wants to buy. We won’t find an answer which will satisfy him until we accept it’s neither a philosophical abstraction nor a question capable of being settled by development ‘science’. Instead this is politics in the raw; the struggle about who has what, how they got it, whether they should keep it and with what legitimacy it can be taken away.  The fight to frame justice – not just the campaign to secure it – is the battle we need to win now.

What’s left for the UN in Syria?

The Security Council decided today to close down the UN observer mission in Syria, which I once predicted would be a “heroic failure”.  But this isn’t quite the end of the UN political presence on the ground, as the BBC reports:

Although the 101 remaining military observers will leave Damascus over the next eight days, a civilian liaison office is due to remain and a new special envoy is expected to be appointed.

What can such a political mission achieve?  Here’s a few historical analogies from a paper I wrote for USIP last year:

What happens if preventive diplomacy fails and decision makers choose to cross the Rubicon and unleash full-scale war? Counterintuitively, political missions may still have a role to play in this scenario, urging the parties to at least limit the level of violence and maintain some channels of communication during the fighting. As noted earlier in this report, UN missions currently play a role in trying to mitigate a number of ongoing conflicts, including those in Somalia and Afghanistan. The United Nations also has a long-standing presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which has continued to operate during crises such as Israel’s 2008–09 incursion into Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”). During that crisis, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with all sides—once Israel pulled back, UNSCO turned to facilitating the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. It is a conduit for communications with Hamas that other actors cannot undertake directly.

Political missions can thus play a useful functional role during active conflicts, although they are typically constrained by both security issues and a lack of political leverage.  . . .  A mission deployed during the early phase of a war can identify ways to mitigate the damage, but this ultimately depends on the combatants’ cooperation.

Syria’s combatants are unlikely to prove very cooperative.

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