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. (more…)
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. (more…)