Is Hollande discovering it IS easier to get in than out?

France’s beleaguered President Francois Hollande has had some good news.

He may have fallen out of the public’s affection faster than any previous French leader, but last Wednesday the United Nations gave Mr Hollande UNICEF’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny Prize for his contribution to peace and stability.

The award is recognition for France’s intervention in Mali earlier this year which staved off the advance of Islamist rebels, some with alleged links to al Qaeda, who threatened a take-over of the country.

Meanwhile in Mali – as the cliché goes – at the same time as the President was being honoured by UNICEF in Paris, news came that the Malian army had clashed with rebels in the north of country for the first time since the French entered the conflict back in January.

Mali may no longer feature much in the papers or on the news, but that doesn’t mean the conflict is over and the situation there is sorted out.  It also goes to illustrate what western countries must have learned about military intervention since the violent collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s – it is much easier to get in than it is to get out – to this day there are thousands of European troops in Kosovo and Bosnia.

To his credit, Mr Hollande seemed to recognise this could be a problem again in Mali quite quickly. When first announcing he was sending troops, he emphasised the emergency nature of the intervention with the Malian army in rapid retreat and a rebel victory looking imminent. He said France would stay until African troops and the UN could get organised to support Mali’s government, but within days French officials were saying the troops would stay “as long as necessary”.

In the event, the arrival of the French – and troops from neighbouring Chad – changed the course of the conflict. The rebels were pushed back quickly and the main towns in the sparsely populated north of the country were retaken, as, by and large, the rebels chose not to stand and fight and returned to insurgent tactics of ambush and bombings.

But in order to bring as quick an end to the intervention as possible, the French also attempted to split the rebels – which were made up of an alliance of various fractious groups. Some were Islamist, such as Ansar Dine, and some secular nationalists, such as the Natonal Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA,  fighting for more autonomy or independence for the Arab Tuareg people of northern Mali from the black African majority of the south.

Paris had some success in this strategy. As French troops advanced towards a key northern town called Kidal at the end of January, MNLA forces there turned on their Islamist allies and drove them out of the town. In exchange, it seems, the French promised the MNLA could run the town and the Malian army would not return.

At the time, the move helped accelerate the French advance, but it may have complicated the longer term aim of stabilising Mali and ensuring the withdrawal of all French troops.

Although the UN has agreed to send a new stabilisation mission to Mali, called MINUSMA, backed by a military force from neighbouring countries such as Nigeria and Chad, France still has about 2,000 troops there – half the number they had at the height of the fighting, but still a considerable deployment .

The recent clashes between the Malian army and the MNLA were near Kidal, which is still held by the rebel group. The stabilisation plan for Mali involves holding elections next month and the MNLA says it will not return the town to Malian government control before those elections. The army seems to be intent of taking it back before then.

So what will the French do?

The original intervention was justified on political and humanitarian grounds – to save Mali from collapse and the people from human rights abuses by the Islamist fighters. But six months on, the Malian army still seems incapable of defeating the rebels on its own, and human rights groups accuse government troops themselves of abusing civilians in the areas where it has managed to re-establish control.

So far Paris has not said much about the new outbreak of fighting, but if it escalates, it is likely the French will have to delay the withdrawal of the troops still in Mali.

So despite his awareness of the risks of getting sucked into a long term involvement, President Hollande, could still struggle to find the way out of his first foreign intervention.

Algeria, Mali and the West: Joining the Dots in the Sahara

Minarets, Burkina Faso

‘We need to be absolutely clear whose fault this is. It is the terrorists who are responsible for this attack and for the loss of life.’ (David Cameron, House of Commons, 18 January)

‘The responsibility for the tragic events of the last two days squarely rests with terrorists.’ (William Hague, Sky News, 18 January)

In the light of the weekend’s tragic events in Algeria, the British government has been firm in its condemnation of the terrorists who carried out the kidnappings. This reaction is understandable. The attacks were conducted by bad, deluded men taking murderous decisions in support of a bad, deluded ideology.

But it is also only a partially correct interpretation. Yes, the immediate event in question can be blamed on a small group of terrorists, but these terrorists did not emerge in a vacuum, and once the dust has settled it is to be hoped that the British and other Western governments will develop a more considered, more nuanced analysis.

You do not have to go too far back down the trail that led to the kidnappings to discover Western actions that made them more likely. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind behind the attacks, is probably a fanatic, definitely a murderer. But he rose to prominence in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s, which had been triggered by the annulling of an election won by Islamists. The French government supported the illegitimate Algerian leadership in that conflict, thereby helping to nurture the generation of violent radicals from which Belmokhtar and other Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leaders sprung.

Nor can Belmokhtar carry out attacks alone. He needs men and arms, and to acquire these he needs money. He and his AQIM cohorts have had two major funding sources. The first is drug trafficking across the Sahara, a trade which would not exist if Europe, instead of deflecting its law and order problems onto Africa, legalised drugs. The second is kidnapping – tens of millions of dollars have been paid to AQIM by European governments in return for the release of hostages. (A third revenue stream is human trafficking, whose extent is unknown but which is rendered possible by Europe’s restrictions on legal migration from Africa).

With the funds from these activities, Belmokhtar can buy arms, including those that scattered across the Sahara after the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. Gaddafi’s demise was hastened by Western military involvement in the conflict, yet Western forces failed to stop large quantities of weapons falling into the hands of AQIM and of the Tuareg fighters who instigated the troubles in Mali to which the Algeria attack was a response. Some of those arms, moreover, are likely to have been sold to Libya by the UK, France and other European powers.

Belmokhtar can also buy men. West Africa is full of unemployed, frustrated young men who see no prospect of achieving their goals through peaceful means. Their governments have been hollowed out, first by Western colonialism (a former British foreign secretary in 1943 likened the granting of independence to ‘giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account and a shotgun’), and more recently by corruption. Mali’s pre-coup government is itself widely thought to have been involved in the drug trade, and the corruption this engendered left it ill placed both to invest in the country’s youth and to fend off revolt (it was eventually toppled by a ragtag bunch of junior soldiers). In nearby Nigeria, whose own fundamentalist terror mutation Boko Haram has supplied fighters to the Mali rebels, corruption abetted by Western oil companies has exacerbated northern discontent and made it easier for young northerners to persuade themselves that violence is justified.

This hollowing out of governments leaves young people marooned in the face of greater challenges. The population boom has combined with climate change to render it ever more difficult for them to find work and set up families. Rainfall in the Sahel region has declined by one quarter since 1950, and it is not Africans who have caused the environment to heat up. The population boom was assisted by Western medical advances, but was not accompanied by efforts by the colonial powers to educate their people. Europe enjoyed the same medical and public health advances as West Africa, but the population boom in the former was much less dramatic, and one of the reasons for this is that European women were better educated and therefore better able and more inclined to keep fertility to manageable levels. When Guinea-Bissau gained independence from Portugal in 1975, only one in fifty Guineans could read and write – again, the roots of current events can be traced back to Western actions. West Africa’s burgeoning generation of young men, meanwhile, has become a fertile recruiting pool for Belmokhtar and other jihadis.

I could go on, to discuss how other events with which Western countries had been involved – the colonial powers’ division of the Tuareg homeland, the Mali government’s historic failure to help the Tuareg cope with the effects of climate change, this month’s French intervention in Mali, etc – were all directly or indirectly linked to the disaster in Algeria. But Western policy-makers should be getting the picture by now (if not, they can look to this excellent Observer editorial for an even broader view). Cameron and Hague’s response to the kidnappings is understandable, but in the long-term unhelpful. If the West is to help stop these events happening in the future, a more constructive approach, in a globalising world where repercussions quickly cross borders, would be to examine its own role in making their occurrence more likely.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Sponsored by Europe

Last month, not long after the release by the terror group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb of two Spanish hostages it had held in captivity for nine months, came the news that Acció Solidaria, the NGO that employs those hostages, plans to send another aid convoy to the same region in “homage” to the freed men.

It will be sending this convoy in the knowledge that there is a serious risk of a second kidnapping. The French, British and American governments all strongly advise their citizens against travel through Mauritania, northern Mali and northern Niger, and the number of kidnappings of Westerners in this region has risen sharply in the past two years (five French citizens working in Niger, snatched two weeks ago, were the latest victims). Even the governments of the West African nations concerned have acknowledged the danger, and they are busy promoting other parts of their countries as safe havens for tourists.

Acció Solidaria knows that, although it calls itself a non-governmental organisation, if a second kidnapping takes place it will be able to count on the Spanish government to bail it out. That government gave seven million Euros to AQIM and its intermediaries to secure the release of those freed in August. In recent years, AQIM has also reportedly received large ransom payments from the Canadian, Italian, German, Swiss and French governments. As a further part of the Spanish deal, moreover, an AQIM militant was released from prison in Mauritania.

The leaders of AQIM are growing rich. The funds acquired will enable them to buy faster jeeps, more weapons and men, and the latest in GPS and communications technology. But kidnapping is unlikely to remain their sole raison d’être; the pressures on them are such that hostage-taking can only be a means, not an end. Even if AQIM’s leaders wanted to just take the money and spend it on a life of luxury, the patrimonial nature of relationships in West Africa would make this impossible. Those who have wealth here cannot enjoy it alone; just as they have been helped by others on their way up, so must they now repay that assistance and dispense largesse to their growing band of dependents. If they refuse, they will be ostracised. Their families and communities will cast them out. As word gets around that they have come into money, the number of supplicants will swell; they will have no choice but to continue to accumulate, to amass and dole out ever more wealth and ever more power. Continue reading

Desert Storm

Back in March of this year, I spent a couple of weeks in the far north of Burkina Faso. I slept under the stars on the edge of the Sahara, was offered a live goat at Dori’s spectacular weekly livestock market, and discussed the upcoming hunger season with nomadic Fulani herders. I also spent money (although not on the goat) and contributed a little to the local economy.

Today I could do none of these things. The whole northern half of this beautiful, welcoming country has been declared off limits by the British, American and French governments. Last month, the US evacuated dozens of its citizens from north-western Burkina. Last week, France withdrew twenty-five students from the city of Fada N’Gourma, near the Niger border, and sent them back to Europe. Across that border, in southern Niger, NGO workers helping to deal with that country’s hunger crisis (a crisis which my Fulani interlocutors had foreseen) have been recalled to the capital, Niamey, for unspecified ‘reasons of security.’

Were I to go back to northern Burkina and fall sick or have a traffic accident (statistically by far the greatest dangers to my person), my insurance would not cover the costs of recovery. Were I to be kidnapped by elements linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), which the European governments see as the greatest threat to my safety, nobody would pay my ransom and, like the tragic Briton Edwin Dyer last year, I might well be murdered.

My first reaction to this expansion of the already large map of forbidden West African territories was one of anger. So far, two of the dozens captured by Al Qaeda have died. Edwin Dyer was executed because his government refuses to negotiate with terrorists, and earlier this month the 78-year-old French humanitarian worker Michel Germaneau, whose own government normally has no such qualms, either met the same fate or died of natural causes (it is not yet clear). When I compare this figure to the annual number of deaths in car crashes on the M25, on which the Foreign Office is happy for me to drive, or stabbings in London, which I can freely visit, it seems a disproportionate response to tell all foreign visitors that they must avoid northern Burkina and most of Niger, thereby impeding the famine relief effort, hobbling the fledgling tourist industry, and deterring any foreigner thinking of doing business there.

But on reflection, I wondered whether I would be brave enough to revisit the region myself (as I plan to do next year). In March I did not feel in any danger, but if the intelligence the Europeans and Americans claim to have received is correct and AQIM is actively hunting for foreigners to kidnap, would it not be foolhardy to ignore the warnings? In my two weeks, after all, I did not see a single other white face: it would not have been difficult for a desperate local wanting to earn a fast buck to find me and sell me on to the extremists. Perhaps I was lucky not to be snatched myself, although it did not feel that way and no local people seemed concerned that there was any threat. Continue reading